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2021 NFL playoffs: Five contenders with the most difficult paths to the postseason

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

With all but two of the 14 playoff spots up for grabs through 15 weeks of the 2021 NFL season, I decided to take a deeper dive into the remaining schedules of the teams that still have realistic playoff hopes -- at least a 20% chance of clinching a spot -- to find the five most difficult paths to the playoffs. I've also identified those teams' playoff probabilities, which are based on 300,000 simulations of each game left in the season entering Week 16.

NOTE: The odds for each team to win its division cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 12:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Dec. 23.

Cleveland Browns
ML: N/A · 7-7-0

Remaining schedule:

With matchups at Lambeau and Heinz Field before their season finale at home vs. the Bengals, the Browns, who essentially must win out and get a lot of help from others to earn a spot, have the steepest road remaining. In my models, the Ravens fall to the Bengals this Sunday in 53.6% of simulations, an outcome Browns fans should be cheering for. If that happens, and the Browns are able to upset the Packers, Cleveland more than doubles its playoff chances (to 45.1%).

One way the Browns could surprise on Christmas Day is by bringing the heat. Aaron Rodgers has a 75.2-point drop in passer rating when under pressure vs. when he's not, which is the largest differential in the NFL this season, per Next Gen Stats. Just look at the numbers:

  • Under Pressure: 25 of 72, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 47.5 passer rating
  • No pressure: 274 of 369, 28 TDs, 2 INTs, 122.7 passer rating

Now, Rodgers hasn't faced much pressure over the course of the season, with his 21.2% rate being the fifth-lowest in the league. And the Browns as a whole only bring pressure at a 27% rate, which ranks 17th. So it'll be up to DPOY-candidate Myles Garrett, who has generated 56 pressures on the year (fifth-most overall), to keep Rodgers uncomfortable all game long.

Minnesota Vikings
ML: N/A · 7-7-0

Remaining schedule:

Isolating each one of these schedules isn’t perfectly fair, given that we’ve seen lots of upsets and low-probability outcomes this season, but one of the most dramatic swings left for a team’s odds happens in this week’s tilt with the Rams: The Vikings' playoff chances can increase to more than 40% with a win or drop below 6% with a loss. Then, next week’s matchup with the Packers, who will be looking to secure the NFC's first-round bye, makes it two games in a row in which the Vikings' win probability is less than 46.7%. Should Minnesota complete both upsets, which will be that much harder to accomplish with Dalvin Cook missing at least the Rams game (reserve/COVID-19 list), the Vikings will then have a prime opportunity to reach double-digit wins in Week 18 against the Bears (Minnesota is favored in 55.5% of simulations).

If the Vikings are going to make the playoffs, they’ll have to improve upon their 25.8% defensive pressure rate (which ranks 24th in the NFL, per NGS) and keep Justin Jefferson in the best situations to remain efficient. Jefferson leads the NFL with 48 receptions and 1,045 yards on passes of 10-plus air yards.

Baltimore Ravens
ML: -105 · 8-6

Remaining schedule:


The Ravens' closest projection is currently against the Steelers in the season finale ... where they win in just 51.1% of simulations. It’s worth noting that if Lamar Jackson or several other players (like Marlon Humphrey, who is on IR) were healthy and back in the lineup, that projection would be higher. The Ravens win Sunday's matchup in Cincinnati in just 45% of simulations, and that number is even lower next week against the Rams. To stay alive in the fiercely competitive AFC playoff race, which would include recapturing the AFC North lead, Baltimore essentially has to win this weekend.

So how can the Ravens do that? By connecting on big plays. Jackson completed 56.3% of his passes of 10-plus air yards from Weeks 1-7, generating seven TDs against three INTs as the Ravens sprinted out to a 5-2 start. However, in the five games Lamar's started since the team's Week 8 bye, his percentage has fallen to 38.3, while his TD-to-INT ratio has worsened to 5:4. Baltimore won just two of those matchups.

Cincinnati Bengals
ML: -115 · 8-6

Remaining schedule:

As mentioned above, this week’s Ravens tilt is very likely to determine the king of the AFC North. Currently, my models project Cincinnati to be that winner, with the Bengals' probability to claim the division at 39.1% -- the highest among any of the four North teams. In fact, despite the Bengals' challenging road ahead, my models project them to finish 10-7, with their lone remaining loss coming against the Chiefs in two weeks. Two reasons to believe in the Bengals: Joe Burrow, who's thrown more deep TD passes (10) than any other QB this season, and Trey Hendrickson, who leads the NFL in defensive pressures (67).

San Francisco 49ers

UPDATE: The 49ers lost to the Titans, 20-17, on Thursday night. As a result, the Niners' playoff probability dropped from 79.9% to 72.3%.

Remaining schedule:

The Niners have two tight games remaining: this week against the Titans, where they only win in 52% of simulations, and Week 18 against the Rams, where they win in only 47.2% of simulations. They are heavy favorites in Week 17 against Houston in my models. After overcoming early-season injuries, the Niners have essentially put themselves in the driver’s seat to the postseason.

The 49ers exemplify how and why slot receivers are such a big deal. George Kittle and Deebo Samuel both rank in the top five in yards per target, yards per reception and yards after the catch over expected from the slot alignment. Samuel also leads the NFL with +269 yards after the catch -- 71 more than second-ranked Ja'Marr Chase. The productivity in the ground game, a stout defensive front and excellent slot play have combined to shift the 49ers' odds up dramatically.

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