Our First Look At The Playoff Hunt
We like to wait for the first half of the season to come to its end before beginning our playoff projections, as it is virtually useless to start it earlier than the halfway point. With bye weeks, this is sort of the 7 1/2 game point and not the exact midway point, but then next week will be past halfway.
The playoff race is still wide open for most of the teams. In the AFC, Cleveland is the only team with zero chance to make the playoffs. In the NFC, San Francisco is the only team with virtually no chance. That means 30 teams are still alive.
At the other end of the perspective, New England is basically the only team that is close to 100% assured to make the playoffs. This creates a wide open second half race for 11 of the 12 spots among 29 teams.
Let’s start with the old proverbial “If the season ended today” look.
East: New England #1 Seed
North: Pittsburgh #4 Seed
South: Houston #3 Seed
West: Oakland #2 Seed
Wildcard: Kansas City #5 Seed
Wildcard: Denver #6 Seed
East: Dallas #1 Seed
North: Minnesota #2 Seed
South: Atlanta #4 Seed
West: Seattle #3 Seed
Wildcard: Green Bay #5 Seed
Wildcard: New York #6 Seed
In the AFC, the wildcard teams have just two losses, and no other competitor is within a game, as the 7th and 8th seeds this week are Tennessee and Buffalo, both at 4-4. The NFC is much closer, as the 4-3 Packers and Giants hold a precarious place on their wildcard spots. There are two other three-loss teams in Philadelphia and Washington, and there are four additional four-loss teams just one game back.
Here is our look at each division at this point in the year.
New England has this division wrapped up even if Tom Brady were to become injured. The Patriots are up three games, and they would have to go 2-6 in the second half to surrender this division to any division rival. Rex Ryan fired his offensive coordinator after a Monday Night game in which the Bills’ defense was embarrassed. The Bills’ defense keeps stubbing its toes week after week, and the offense cannot score enough points to win consistently. This has the look of an 8-8 team that will miss the playoffs. The Dolphins and Jets don’t have the talent to get to 9-7, and it will probably take a 10-6 or better record to become a wildcard this year.
Pittsburgh is a very weak 4-3 team with Ben Roethlisberger out. If he miraculously recovers from his knee surgery and plays in the next week or two, his already weak scrambling skills will be that much worse, and the Steelers don’t have an offensive line capable of sustaining the pass rush long enough for Big Ben to survey the field like he tends to do. Thus, we believe that 3-4-1 Cincinnati and 3-4 Baltimore are still very much in this race. This could be the year where it only takes eight wins to earn the division title, whether it be Pittsburgh or Baltimore at 8-8 or Cincinnati at 8-7-1.
Can Houston’s defense overcome its inconsistent offense and hang on to the division lead? Tennessee started 1-3 and is now 4-4, but the Titans need another wide receiver to become potent enough to storm past the Texans. Indianapolis and Jacksonville have not shown any tendency to play consecutive games like they deserve to make the playoffs, so for now, we believe Houston will be a weak 9-7 division winner.
We cannot find anything to fault the three top teams in this division. Oakland has the easiest schedule of the trio, but they also have the weakest defense of the three. We forecast that Denver will go 12-4, Kansas City will go 11-5, and Oakand will go 10-6, all three making the playoffs.
Dallas has the overall best record in the conference, so could Jason Garrett (Jerry Jones) be foolish enough to bring Tony Romo back to the starting quarterback job when he is healthy enough to play again? Actually, there is precedent, and one quarterback from the past can be used as an example.
Earl Morrall was the backup quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in 1968, when legendary great Johnny Unitas could not get healthy enough to play. Morrall earned the NFL MVP Award and guided the Colts to the NFL’s best record at 13-1 for Coach Don Shula, and then he led the team to back-to-back playoff wins to win the 1968 NFL Championship by beating the Vikings and Browns.
In the Super Bowl, Unitas was healthy enough to play again, but Shula went with the arm that got him there. Morrall performed poorly against the New York Jets’ quick defense, and by the time Shula inserted Unitas into the game, it was too late for Johnny U to bring the Colts back.
Four years later, Shula was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. His start quarterback Bob Griese went down to injury early in the season and was done until January. Once again, Shula turned to the backup, which just so happened to be Morrall again. Morrall repeated the 1968 performance, winning the league MVP award as he guided Miami to a perfect 14-0 record. By the time the playoffs started, Griese was healthy enough to play again. Using his past experience with the Colts, Shula placed Griese back in the starting slot, and Griese guided the Dolphins to the Super Bowl title.
There is a big difference between that Dolphins’ team and this Dallas team. Miami only needed a signal caller that was competent at carrying out ball fakes while handing the ball to the league’s best fullback in Larry Csonka and one of the top halfbacks in Mercury Morris. Miami won by passing the ball about a dozen times per game, letting its league best defense carry the team. Dallas cannot get to the Super Bowl by riding its defense and handing the ball to Ezekiel Elliott 30 times a game. They need a pass rush, and Elliott needs a QB that is a threat to fake to him and run the ball in the opposite direction, which is not Romo.
The rest of the division can all come back and beat out Dallas if the Cowboys falter in the second half, or if Romo becomes the starter again. All four teams are good enough to win any of the other NFC divisions this year, but they will beat up on each other and be lucky to provide one wildcard member much less two. Washington looks to us to be the best of the other three, but the Redskins have a tough second half schedule. Philadelphia has the rookie quarterback, and the Giants have a defense that hasn’t gelled this year, but their offense can score enough points to get to 10-6 with a little luck.
There’s a twin personality in the Twin Cities, as Minnesota has seen the best of times for five weeks and the worst of times during the last two weeks. The Vikings’ offense looks easy to defend without Adrian Peterson, and Sam Bradford has shown he is closer to Marcia Brady than Tom Brady the last two weeks. Even if the Vikings go 9-7, they could still win the division, because Green Bay is uber-wounded, Detroit is mediocre on both sides of the ball, and Chicago is Chicago.
This division looked like Atlanta’s in a runaway a couple weeks ago, but the Saints and Panthers may not be dead just yet. With Drew Brees guiding New Orleans to 30 point games, the Saints can recover to a 10-6 record in the second half. Carolina is still a mystery team, but the Panthers looked like the 2015 NFC Champions last week and could easily go on a long winning streak. Tampa Bay is not yet there and needs another year at the minimum.
Seattle will win this by default. Arizona might fall to third place in this division, and the Rams match the personality of Mr. 8 and 8, Jeff Fisher. The 49ers could be pressed to win another game this year, as Chip Kelly does not have the pieces in place to run his system. Whereas just a couple players kneel before the game, the entire team finds itself on the ground for the next 60 minutes of action.
This Week’s PiRate Ratings
|A F C|
|N. Y. Jets||98.6||97.1||99.3||98.3||58||40|
|N F C|
This Week’s Games
|November 3-7, 2016|
|Miami||New York Jets||1.2||2.9||0.4||40|
|New York Giants||Philadelphia||-3.4||-1.5||-3.1||50|
|San Francisco||New Orleans||-5.4||-5.6||-6.0||48|