Predicting The Playoffs: Colts Have Easy Road, Patriots Need to Win This Week

With six weeks left in the season, there are still 21 teams who still have at least a slim chance of a playoff spot. It's way too early to pick which six teams will make it from both conferences (and if I knew for sure, it would make sense to hightail it to Vegas), but if you look at the remaining schedules for each of the playoff contenders, it quickly becomes clear which teams should make it and which team's fans have reasons to be upset, even if they don't know it yet.

So every week, we'll take a look at how the playoffs are shaping up. You'll see a lot of places list remaining strength of schedules as a percentage, and you'll see them here too, but that's only part of the story. A team that has the Titans (10-0), 49ers (3-7) and Raiders (2-8) on the schedule will rank as having an equally tough schedule when compared to facing the Vikings (5-5), Packers (5-5) and Bears (5-5). But given a choice, I'd much rather my team face the first schedule with two games that are likely wins. So we'll also look at how many games each team has left against winning teams and losing teams.

For a mid-November prediction, the Titans and the Giants are both on pace for the No. 1 seeds in the playoffs, but you probably already knew that. What jumps out looking at everything this week is how important the Dolphins-Patriots game this weekend is to New England's playoff chances. If the Patriots lose this week, it will be a lot tougher to make the playoffs than any other loss they could suffer the rest of the season. It also seems clear that the Colts are in great shape for a playoff spot no matter how badly they played early in the year--their schedule will help ease the way.

With each team, we list their record, as well as the winning percentage for their remaining schedule. But in the text we'll look at who they have left to play, which is just as important. When it comes down to tiebreakers (we'll be dealing with them much more in upcoming weeks), all tiebreakers start with head-to-head record.

Print The Playoff Tickets

Tennessee (10-0, .450)

Not only does Tennessee have the best record in football, but they also have a relatively cupcake schedule to end the season. The Titans do have three tough games left: the Jets, Steelers and Colts, but they also have games left against the Lions, Texans and Browns. A 13-3 finish seems to be the worst-case scenario, which would almost assuredly wrap up homefield throughout the AFC playoffs--no other AFC team has less than three losses right now.

NFC Strength of Schedule
New York Giants3722.627
New Orleans3129.517
Tampa Bay2535.417
Green Bay2535.417
New York Giants (9-1, .627)

The Giants have a brutal schedule to finish off the season, but thanks to an outstanding first 10 games, New York has plenty of cushion to go with an outstanding running game. The easiest game left on New York's schedule is a season finale against Minnesota (5-5). Every other team left on the slate has a winning record, and the Giants still have to play NFC West leader Arizona and NFC South leader Carolina in addition to three more games against their division.

Arizona Cardinals (7-3, .492)

Congratulations to the Cardinals for playing in the NFC West. With a four-game lead over the rest of the division, the Cardinals should be able to go 2-4 the rest of the way (a possibility with the Giants, Vikings, Eagles and Giants left on the schedule) and still easily win the West.

Looking Good

Carolina Panthers (8-2, .633)
The Panthers 8-2 record isn't as spectacular as it looks--they have wins over the Lions, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers, but by getting out to a very good start, the Panthers have plenty of cushion for a difficult six-game stretch. Everyone left on the Panthers schedule is sitting at .500 or better, but if the Panthers can split their final six games they are assuredly in, and even a 2-4 finish will likely get them to the playoffs, especially if two of those wins can come from three games to go against the Saints, Falcons and Bucs. But for a team sitting at 8-2, there is a more difficult road to the playoffs than you would expect.

AFC Strength of Schedule
New York Jets3228.533
New England2931.483
San Diego2832.467

Pittsburgh (7-3, .559)
The Steelers get to face the woeful Bengals this week and the Browns in the season finale. The other four games are all against teams with winning records, including a Week 16 matchup against the Titans, but a 6-1 conference record puts the Steelers in very good shape if they did fall into the wild card scrum, while their early season win against the Ravens means that the Steelers effectively have a 1 1/2 game lead in the division race.

Indianapolis (6-4, .390)
They can't catch the Titans for the AFC South crown, but for a team that's sitting at 6-4, it's hard to have a clearer path to the playoffs than the Colts. If Indianapolis doesn't make the playoffs, it will be a pretty massive choke job, as they still have games against the Bengals and Lions to go with easier-than-expected matchups against the Chargers, Jaguars and Browns. The season finale against the Titans is the only game left against a team with a winning record. Indianapolis could easily finish the season 11-5, and 10-6 would still probably be enough, as their 5-2 conference record puts them in good shape for tiebreakers.

New York Jets (7-3, .533)
Sorry for originally leaving this paragraph out. The Jets have a relatively difficult schedule to finish it out, but by beating the Patriots they have bought themselves a little bit of a cushion. Games against the Seahawks and 49ers should help them get to 10 wins, but the Jets will really put themselves in great shape if they can beat the Bills and Dolphins in their two remaining division games. If they could do that, they would top the Patriots in any potential tiebreaker.

Miami (6-4, .400)

This weekend's Dolphins-Patriots game is much more important than hardly anyone realizes. If the Dolphins can knock off the Patriots, they can go a long way toward picking up a playoff spot, while putting the Patriots in a very difficult situation. The Dolphins still have games with the Rams, 49ers and Chiefs, so a win this weekend would give the Dolphins an easy path to 10 wins, and the other two games (Jets and Bills) are winnable. One thing to remember: in the case of wild-card tiebreakers, you settle all ties within a division first, so if the Dolphins can beat the Patriots on Sunday, they would likely knock the Patriots out of any wild card scenario because of head-to-head record if they ended up tied at the end of the season.

Tampa Bay (7-3, .417)

The Bucs are already leading in the NFC wild card race and they are only one game behind the Panthers in the NFC South with a win over the Panthers in their back pocket. But the Bucs big assest are games against the Lions and Raiders on the remaining schedule. Tampa Bay still has a very good shot at winning the division, but with only two games left against teams with winning records, the Bucs also have a very good fallback position for a wild card spot.

Denver (6-4, .450)

The collapse of the Chargers has done the Broncos a big favor, but Denver helped itself with a big road win against the Falcons last Sunday. Denver has a 2 1/2-game cushion on the Chargers thanks to Ed Hochilu's gaffe, and still plays the Chiefs and Raiders while the Chargers have four games left against teams with six or more wins. Unless the Chargers start playing like its 2007, Denver just needs to avoid a collapse to win the AFC West. The path to a wild card spot would actually be much tougher thanks to the Broncos' 3-4 conference record.

Washington (6-4, .448)
The loss to the Cowboys kept the Redskins from creeping into "Print Playoff Tickets" land, but the Redskins still have a very clear path to the playoffs thanks to the remaining games against the Seahawks, Bengals and 49ers. Even if the Redskins get trounced by the Giants, they still can ease their way into the playoffs by winning three seemingly easy games plus splitting winnable games against the Ravens and Eagles. Beating the Eagles would go a long ways to helping because it would help knock out the Eagles while also improving the Redskins division record.

Some Work To Do

New England (6-4, .483)
It's hard to imagine the AFC playoffs without the Patriots, but this isn't as easy a path to the playoffs as you would think. The Dolphins game this weekend is huge for New England's chances. Win, and the Patriots could still very easily win the division, but lose this weekend and New England faces a must-win the next week against the Steelers. The schedule gets easier after that with with Seahawks and Raiders still on the docket, but New England's 2-2 division record and 4-4 conference record aren't going to do them any favors when it comes to tiebreakers. It's hard to emphasize how big this weekend's game against the Dolphins is. With a loss, New England would have to avoid a tie with the Dolphins for a wild card spot at all costs, as the Dolphins' 2-0 head-to-head record would knock them out.

Baltimore (6-4, .500)
There's been some question about how much of the Ravens' hot start was a function of their great defense and Joe Flacco's emergence and how much of it was due to a schedule of marshmallows. The Ravens are 1-4 against teams with winning records, and four of their last six games are against teams with winning records. The Ravens do have some things working for them--their 6-3 conference record is the best of any of the prospective wild card teams, but it's a difficult road from here to January.

Dallas (6-4, .542)
Tony Romo's back, the Cowboys have beaten the Redskins and everything's great again in Big D, right? Over the next two weeks, it will sure look that way, as Dallas has very winnable games against the 49ers and Seahawks, but the Cowboys finish the season by playing at Pittsburgh, home against the Giants, home against the Ravens and on the road against the Eagles. If the Cowboys are on top of their game, all of those games are winnable, but if the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs, they most definitely will earn it.

Green Bay (5-5, .417)
Chicago (5-5, .400)
Minnesota (5-5, .517)

One of these three will walk into the playoffs with the NFC North title, the other two will most likely be sitting at home. There's not a whole lot to separate them right now. The Packers and Bears are 3-1 in the division, while Minnesota is 2-2, but that's partly because the Vikings are the one team who still have a game left against the Lions. This division will be largely settled by who wins the head-to-head matchups. The Bears could ensure a tiebreaker advantage over the Vikings with a win on Nov. 30, while the Dec. 22 Soldier Field Packers-Bears game will help settle the division race--the Packers beat the Bears in the first game. Chicago has the easiest schedule for the rest of the season, with no games against teams with a winning record. Minnesota has the toughest road, with games left against the Cardinals, Falcons and Giants.

Still Have A Faint Pulse

Philadelphia (5-4, .633)

Tying the Bengals is a pretty massive embarrassment, but it is better than a loss. The Eagles don't have to worry about tiebreakers any more, but with five games left against teams with winning records, Philadelphia will have to play their best football of the season over the final six weeks, and even that may not be enough, especially as the Eagles are sitting behind three teams in their own division.

Atlanta (6-4, .517)

Roddy White's late drop against the Broncos could prove very costly to Atlanta's hopes for a shocking playoff spot. The Falcons still have their fate in their own hands, but to earn a playoff spot, they have to pull a surprise with games still left against division rivals Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay as well as Minnesota. The Bucs game is especially imporant as Atlanta is battling them for a potential wild card spot and the Bucs won their first matchup. A 4-3 conference record does help, so it will also be important to win the right games--losses to AFC teams is much easier to survive than an NFC loss.

Start Planning For Next Year

New Orleans (5-5, .517)
The Saints sit in last place in the NFC South, but it's their 2-4 conference record that really dooms them to missing the playoffs. With only one gimme (the Lions) left on the schedule and five other games against teams that are at .500 or better, the Saints need a miracle and some additional help to make it to January.

San Diego (4-6, .467)

The Chargers are one of the most puzzling teams in the league this year. LaDainian Tomlinson isn't himself and the Chargers pass rush disappeared with Shawne Merriman's injury. But it's likely too late for the Chargers to turn it around. San Diego would likely need to run the table against a schedule that still includes the Colts, Falcons, Bucs and Broncos. And even if they did all that, there is no guarantee that it would be enough, as the Chargers have head-to-head losses to the Dolphins and Steelers that could be costly if a wild card spot comes down to tiebreakers.

Cleveland Browns (4-6, .552)
The comeback win against the Bills last night was nice, but with two teams ahead of them in the AFC North who are 3-0 against the Browns, and games left against the Colts, Steelers and Eagles, it's almost assuredly too little too late.

Buffalo Bills (5-5, .483)
The last-minute loss to the Browns likely sealed the Bills chances. Buffalo is sitting at last in a better-than-expected AFC East, and has lost four straight. Their 0-3 division record makes it nearly impossible to win any tiebreakers as well. The next two weeks should spark a little resurgence, as they have the Chiefs and 49ers coming up, but they have to face everyone in the AFC East again plus Denver to finish out the season. Considering the tiebreaker situation, they need to go 5-1 at least to have a chance, and that doesn't look likely.

Predicting The Playoffs: Colts Have Easy Road, Patriots Need to Win This Week originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 18 Nov 2008 15:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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