Contenders and pretenders: Packers on track, Browns vulnerable

Through four weeks of the 2019 NFL season, the identity of each team is starting to come into focus ... kinda. It's always fair to ask how important the standings are after just four games, but this season, we've already seen 40 different quarterbacks start. That's tied for the most through four weeks since 1950. This crucial position, and the cascade of complicating factors, both positive and negative, related to quarterback production, has caused more uncertainty in my playoff projections than in any prior season in my 10-year model.

Which of the division leaders at the quarter mark of the season are bound for playoff glory? And which will fall by the wayside? Relying on situational data with a proven relationship with past success, I've used my model's predictive lens to help separate the Week 4 division leaders into contenders (those currently projected to make the playoffs) and pretenders (those currently projected to miss the playoffs).


AFC East: New England Patriots (4-0)

There are two teams in the NFL that already have a playoff percentage over 84, and the Pats are one of them. In fact, theirs is the highest in the league; New England reaches the playoffs in 85 percent of simulations. This is the only team in the NFL that has a win against all three division opponents already, and it ended up being the last undefeated team in 67 percent of the 1.3 million regular-season simulations I conducted. The Patriots have been the No. 1 seed in the AFC seven times under head coach Bill Belichick, and they reached the Super Bowl in all but one of those seasons (in 2010). All of this sets up a doozy of a Week 14 matchup against the other AFC team with an over-84 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Who will New England be playing? Hint: Check out the next contender.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

Reaching the playoffs in 84.4 percent of 1.3 million regular-season simulations, the Chiefs have joined the Patriots in really distancing themselves from the rest of the AFC. I know this will likely change by the time they play, but as of right now, Kansas City's remaining schedule includes just three games against teams that currently have winning records: against Green Bay in Week 8, against Chicago in Week 16 and that key week 14 trip to New England. The showdown with the Patriots could easily determine home-field advantage for the AFC Championship Game. One interesting note from Next Gen Stats: In Week 4 against the Lions, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes failed to complete a deep pass (20-plus air yards) for the first time in his NFL career. Even so, he has twice as many deep touchdown passes as anyone else so far this season, with six. (Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford both have three, placing them in a tie for second on that list.)

NFC South: New Orleans Saints (3-1)

My model picked the Saints to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl ahead of the season, before Drew Brees injured the thumb on his throwing hand -- and New Orleans is still projected to win the NFC South, even if Brees doesn't return until after their Week 9 bye. Part of the reason for this is that, aside from the Saints' Week 5 matchup with the Bucs, the bulk of their games against divisional foes will come after Brees is potentially back (they have five between Weeks 10 and 17: the Falcons in Week 10, the Bucs in Week 11, the Panthers in Week 12, the Falcons in Week 13 and the Panthers in Week 17). One less-talked-about attribute of this team is efficient special teams play. My model looks at field goals, extra points, average starting field position and average allowed starting position, along with special teams scores, turnovers and penalties. New Orleans has the highest win share off special teams so far this season. An interesting trend to monitor is backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's strategic passing. Next Gen Stats shows that he's averaging only 5.5 air yards per attempt, the lowest in the NFL this season among players with 50-plus attempts. He's 0-for-3 with an interception on the deep passes he's attempted (20-plus air yards), and he's completed only one pass of 15-plus air yards (thus far, he's 1-for-7 for 16 yards with a pick and a 0.0 passer rating at that depth).

NFC North: Green Bay Packers (3-1)

Since the start of the 2018 season, Aaron Rodgers has only thrown three interceptions -- the pick to end the Packers' Week 4 loss to the Eagles was his first this season. Of any quarterback with at least 100 attempts since last season began, his 0.4 percent interception rate is the lowest. Currently, the Packers hold the tiebreaker over the 3-1 Bears, due to their Week 1 head-to-head win over Chicago. Green Bay and the next team on this list are the contenders closest to pretender status, and neither squad is projected to win their divisions; rather, they are forecast to earn a wild-card slot. Even though the Packers are 2-0 against division rivals thus far, the strength of all four NFC North teams prevents the model from making Green Bay the clear favorite at this point, with the Bears currently forecast to finish with more wins.

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (3-1)

Like the Packers above, the Cowboys are currently projected to earn playoff a berth as a wild card despite being 2-0 in their respective divisions. (In Dallas' case, the Eagles are currently projected to finish with more wins in the NFC East.) For the upcoming Week 5 matchup against Green Bay, the model flags the potential absence of Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith (dealing with an ankle injury) as a big factor. The Packers' defense has been able to get within five feet of opposing quarterbacks and disrupt their passes at the fourth highest rate in the league so far this season. The Cowboys' offensive line, meanwhile, ranks No. 4 in win share as a unit. Next Gen Stats shows that Dallas QB Dak Prescott leads the NFL with a 132.1 passer rating on quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds to throw), though, so my model will learn a lot from the play-calling and production for both teams this week.


AFC North: Cleveland Browns (2-2)

The Browns currently hold the tiebreaker over the 2-2 Ravens in the AFC North, due to Week 4's head-to-head-win. My model rates the Browns' O-line No. 25 so far, and their 41 penalties are the second most in the NFL. Eight of those penalties came on special teams (tied for the most in special teams penalties), and the lack of discipline in that phase of the game only exacerbates the impact of a leaky O-line. Next Gen Stats shows that quarterback Baker Mayfield has had more success with quick passes. When throwing less than 2.5 seconds after the snap, Mayfield has completed 74.1 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 99.1 passer rating. That is significantly different from throws he's attempted at least 2.5 seconds after the snap (48.8 percent completion rate, one touchdown, four interceptions and a 62.3 passer rating). O-line play is a big factor in my model, so the Browns' ability to dial up and execute plays that keep them on schedule is a big key to their season.

AFC South: Houston Texans (2-2)

Every team in the AFC South is 2-2, and there's this really complicated formula for determining who is the leader right now. Just know that heading into Week 5, the Texans are technically in the top spot. This is rare -- in fact, this is the first time since the 1970 merger that an entire division is 2-2 after four weeks. One key to the season will be the Texans' ability to keep pressure away from QB Deshaun Watson, via their O-line and their scheme. Since the beginning of 2018, Watson has thrown 28 touchdowns against three interceptions when not under pressure, and his 116.8 passer rating in that scenario ranks fourth best over that span (in front of him are Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees).

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers (3-0)

The NFC West is the second-toughest division currently (the NFC North is first, as measured by total win projections for the remaining schedule), and the Niners, who had a bye in Week 4, have yet to face a divisional opponent. It's a strong testament to their defense that they are 3-0 despite their offense committing eight total giveaways in three games (their 2.7 per game average is the highest in the NFL). Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has committed five total turnovers, with at least one coming in each game. It's very likely that the Niners' playoff hopes will rely on lower-probability wins from Thanksgiving to the end of the regular season (from Weeks 12 to 17, San Francisco is home against Green Bay, at Baltimore, at New Orleans, home against Atlanta, home against the Rams and at Seattle.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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