This post, which draws its data from the results of Mike Beuoy's Monte Carlo simulation presented at fivethirtyeight.com, is somewhat out of date, as Mike's OP has not been updated (as of this writing) since Thursday. While Thursday's game had no impact on the playoff picture, Saturday's two upsets did, in opposite ways: the Chargers' defeat of the 49ers increased the uncertainty around the 6th seed in the AFC, while the Eagles' loss to the Redskins increased the certainty around which teams will make the playoffs in the NFC. Additionally, the betting lines that these posts are based on have moved in some cases since Thursday, sometimes significantly. I will update the numbers of this post when and if I am able to.
Nonetheless, for the most part, the rankings given here are still accurate (per the assumptions that they depend on, of course, such as the accuracy of the betting market in ranking teams). In particular, the Game of the Week continues to be game of the week by an enormous margin.
Notable Games This Week:
Games of Week 16, Ranked by Influence on Super Bowl Picture1
Games of the Week
MOST IMPORTANT/MATTERS MOST TO BOTH TEAMS/MATTERS MOST TO ANY ONE TEAM/TITLE MATCH
The NFL’s newly emphasized policy of back-loading the schedule with division games, combined with the interesting distribution of good teams in the NFC this year, is paying off in a big way as we head to the end of the season. There is not the shadow of a doubt that in terms of importance, Seattle vs. Arizona is the Game of the Week—and the game of the year so far, as well.
If making the playoffs were the only thing that mattered, this game would not be nearly so important—Arizona has already clinched a playoff spot, and Seattle is all but certain to make the playoffs as well—but seeding in the playoffs, and the byes and home-field advantage that go along with them, matter a good deal. The ramifications of this game extend to all of the NFC contenders as well (always excepting the NFC South, which is in a league of its own, this year, as it were), but to none more than the teams playing it, the winner of which will probably (if it’s Arizona, certainly) be the top seed in the NFC, while the loser enters the playoffs as a wild card. In fact, given the importance of the top seed, it’s no overstatement to say that the winner of this game will be arguably be the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. As such, it seems fitting that it’s also a title game.
The Teams and the Title
The NFL Title Belt (which, while unofficial, is not nearly as arbitrary as you might think at first glance) tells the story of these two teams this season. The Seattle Seahawks
Seattle began the season with the Lombardi trophy, the Title Belt, the core of their team returning, and all the hype in the world. Two games into the season they lost the Belt to the perennially hot-and-cold San Diego Chargers in one of their hot stages, and the first questioning notes about the Seahawks began to be sounded. After two more losses, to the Cowboys and the Rams, it was beginning to look unclear that they would make the playoffs at all.
After two less-than-convincing victories against bad teams, the Seahawks finally had a strong performance against the New York Giants, but it was not until week 11 that they played another game against a team with a winning record. Once again, this game was for the Title Match, and once again the Seahawks were slapped down by the NFL Champion, now the Kansas City Chiefs, who had taken the belt from the Chargers in Week 7. By now the Seahawks were slumping down the rankings.
But that proved to be the nadir of their season. The next week, their defense regained its terrifying form and they proceeded to reel off 4 straight victories against some of the best teams in the NFC at the time (Cardinals, Eagles, and 49ers twice). As we head into the season’s close, the Seahawks find themselves exactly where they began it: on top of the NFL. #1 or #2 in most rankings, they’re once again the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year, and lo and behold!—they have the chance to win back the Title for a second time this season! They say opportunity comes to the deserving: does this mean that the Seahawks deserve to be crowned NFL Champions? Certainly Vegas thinks so: they’re currently the 7.5-point favorites to win this game. But they face perhaps the most enigmatic and expectation-defying team in the NFL this year:
The Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ story this season has followed an arc opposite to the Seahawks’. They’ve held the best record in the NFL ever since the season began, yet they’ve been the underdogs in their games more often than not. Going into Week 16, with a playoff spot already clinched, they are ranked only 19th in the ranking behind this simulation (based on Vegas odds through the season)! It seems absurd.
The reason, of course, is their quarterback situation. The Cardinals began the year with Carson Palmer, a serviceable QB, but not one who is ever brought up in discussions of “elite”. Just as people were beginning to accept that the Palmer-led Cardinals might actually be a good team, Palmer’s season ended to an ACL injury, and the Cardinals had to prove themselves all over again with back-up quarterback Drew Stanton. Just as they were beginning to do that, Stanton was injured in turn, and they now look to face the most formidable team in the NFC with third-stringer Ryan Lindley (Ryan who?). Purely on paper, the outlook isn’t brilliant for the Cardinals today.
But the Cardinals have been shredding paper predictions since the season began. They still have the best record in the NFL (tied with the Patriots and Broncos)—oh, and by the way, the NFL championship belt, too. They scooped that one up from the Rams after it briefly fell to the bottom of the league when Oakland raided it from the Chiefs. Can they defend its legitimacy and their own by pulling off yet another surprising victory? Vegas says no, but Arizona’s been giving the birds to Vegas all season. This time it’s more important than ever.
MOST IMPORTANT TO PLAYOFF FIELD
Two of this week’s games are particularly important to determining the teams to make the playoffs this season. Atlanta vs. New Orleans is the latest round in the battle for the NFC South; its winner will have the inside track to the 4th seed in the NFC. If this were a closer match-up, it would be this week’s most critical game to the playoff field, but its importance is lessened by the fact that the Saints are heavily favored here: a Falcons win would be an upset. Then again, while they haven’t fared well against most teams they’ve played this year, the Falcons have not yet lost a game against their division-mates this season. Maybe they can extend that winning streak to five.
Howsobeit, the most important game of the week to the playoff field once you take Vegas’ expectations into account is also the highest-level game of the week: Kansas City vs. Pittsburgh, a crucial battle between two very good, but occasionally erratic teams. Both these teams have played like the best team in the league at times this year. Both have also dropped games to teams they had no business losing to—the Chiefs to the Raiders and the Steelers to the Jets—but if there were ever a time to bring their A games, this is it. A win for Pittsburgh would just about cement its chances at making the playoffs, probably as division winner, while a loss would drop it into the middle of the playoff race again, with no guarantee of even a wild card. Meanwhile, Kansas City has no choice in the matter: it needs to win this game to have any realistic hope of a wild card. Vegas favors Pittsburgh by 3 points, which amounts to not much more than home field advantage. This game is one to watch.
GAME WITH MOST TEAMS INTERESTED
As usual, the game with the most teams interested is an interconference game between contenders: Indianapolis vs. Dallas. While this particular game is relatively unimportant on the AFC side—Indy has already locked up its division on the one hand, and is very unlikely to beat NE or Denver for a bye on the other (both teams lead it by a game and the first tie-breaker with only two games to go), while there’s not much difference between the #3 and #4 seeds—on the NFC side, it’s very important, indeed, as Dallas is still in the running for every possible outcome from #1 seed to missing the playoffs altogether.
Along with the closeness of this match-up, that makes this the second-most-important game of the week by a sizeable margin.
MOST INTERESTED TEAMS
CARES MOST ABOUT ANY SINGLE GAME
As mentioned above, Seattle vs. Arizona is an incredibly important game for both teams and means more to either of them than any other game this week does to any single team. However, Arizona is less confident of winning its next game if it loses this one. As such, this game means a bit more to Arizona than it does to Seattle.
HAS AN INTEREST IN MOST GAMES
Due to the stratification of the NFC this year, with the NFC South playing on a different level from the rest of the division, no one NFC team cares about more than 5 of the week’s games. On the other hand, the Cincinnati Bengals, like their NFC counterparts, the Dallas Cowboys, are still in the running for every outcome from top seed to missing the playoffs (though those two extremes are fairly unlikely). Additionally, they face one of the toughest schedules in the league for the final two games, so a little help from other teams will not come amiss to them. As such, they have an interest in 7 of the 8 remaining AFC games this week (viz., every game but the nearly-irrelevant Minnesota vs. Miami.