Eagles, Titans among second-place teams set to push for first

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 their personnel, their opponents and their evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you 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 three weeks left in the regular season, two teams have secured division titles, with the New Orleans Saints (10-3) winning the NFC South and the Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) claiming the AFC West. The 11-2 Baltimore Ravens, meanwhile, have secured a playoff berth and are projected to win the AFC North in more than 99.9 percent of simulations, which means we can pretty much lock them in as the division champs, even if the Steelers still have a technical chance. That leaves five divisions (the NFC East, NFC North, NFC West, AFC East and AFC South) up for grabs.

This week, I took a deeper look at the remaining undecided races, evaluating each second-place team's chances of both overtaking the first-place teams and of reaching the playoffs as a wild-card team. Using the same 100,000-simulations-per-remaining-game methodology I explained last week, here's what netted out, with the second-place teams arranged according to their chances of climbing into first.

NOTE: All projected percentages beyond Week 15 will shift based on what happens in Week 15.

1) Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

Win NFC East: 50.2 percent. Make playoffs: 50.2 percent.

Current leader:Dallas Cowboys (6-7)
Win division: 49.8 percent. Make playoffs: 49.8 percent.

The only viable path to the playoffs for any team in the NFC East is to win the division (which is why the "win division" and "make playoffs" percentages are identical), and my model projects the Eagles (currently in second place due to their head-to-head loss to Dallas in Week 7) to edge out the Cowboys for the right to host a game on Wild Card Weekend. This one is pretty straightforward: In addition to favoring the Eagles to beat the Cowboysin Week 16, my model projects Philly as the favorites in the rest of their remaining games (at Washington, at New York Giants), while the Cowboys are only favored in one (vs. Washington; in addition to not being favored against the Eagles, Dallas is not favored against the Ramsin Week 15).

2) Tennessee Titans (8-5)

Win AFC South: 48.5 percent. Make playoffs: 69.1 percent.

Current leader:Houston Texans (8-5)
Win division: 51.5 percent. Make playoffs: 69.6 percent.

The Texans (who currently lead the South by virtue of their superior divisional record) and Titanssquare offtwice in the next three weeks, and while the outcome of those games could determine who wins the AFC South (and potentially shape the entire AFC playoff picture), the most likely scenario right now, percentage-wise, is that the Titans and Texans split the series. My model currently favors Houston to claim the division because the Texans are projected to beat Tampa Bay in Week 16, while Tennessee is projected to lose to New Orleans that week, which means if they split as projected, Houston is likely to end the season one game up on Tennessee. Still, the runner-up in this division currently projects as a slight favorite for the AFC's second wild-card spot (presuming the first goes to Buffalo); Tennessee and Houston both hold better playoff odds than the Steelers (64.4 percent), Colts (2.9 percent), Browns (1.9 percent), Raiders (0.1 percent) and Broncos (0.1 percent).

3) Seattle Seahawks (10-3)

Win NFC West: 34.9 percent. Make playoffs: 99.9 percent.

Current leader:San Francisco 49ers (11-2)
Win division: 65.1 percent. Make playoffs: 99.9 percent.

With the Rams (35.6 percent chance of making the playoffs) joining Seattle in the wild-card hunt, the NFC West could deliver three teams to the playoffs. The Seahawks have strong win percentages in Week 15 (at Carolina) and Week 16 (vs. Arizona), but even if they win both games to improve to 12-3, they'll likely need to upset the Niners in their Week 17 head-to-head matchup if they want to claim a first-round bye as a top seed in the NFC rather than going on the road on Wild Card Weekend. This is because, with San Francisco favored against the Falcons this week, the Niners are likely to enter that Week 17 showdown with at least 12 wins, whether or not they beat the Ramsin Week 16. Unfortunately for Seattle, San Francisco has a 61.8 percent chance to win in Week 17, while the Niners capture the NFC's No. 1 seed in 54.9 percent of simulations. Week 14 was pivotal to this race: With Seattle losing to Los Angeles and San Francisco upsetting New Orleans, the Seahawks' chances of winning the division dropped from 53.1 percent, while the Niners' chances rose from 46.7 percent.

4) Minnesota Vikings (9-4)

Win NFC North: 23.7 percent. Make playoffs: 64.2 percent.

Current leader:Green Bay Packers (10-3)
Win division: 76.2 percent. Make playoffs: 96.7 percent.

Down one game to the Packers, the most direct path for the Vikings to end up on top is for them to win out (which would include beating the Packers in Week 16 in Minnesota) and for the Bears to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field this weekend. While my model doesn't favor the Vikings in either their Week 16 showdown with Green Bay or at the Chargersin Week 15, both games are nearly coin flips (Minnesota has a win percentage of 49.5 this week and 47.9 next week). That said, Green Bay's remaining schedule (vs. Chicago, at Minnesota, at Detroit) gives the Packers higher odds of winning each remaining game; if the Packers win out, the Vikings will be thinking wild card or bust when they face the Bearsin Week 17. (Minnesota's chances of beating Chicago in that game are currently 55.4 percent.) And while either San Francisco or Seattle can be penciled into one wild-card slot, the Vikings have far better playoff odds than the wild-card contending Rams (35.6 percent) or Bears (3.7 percent).

5) Buffalo Bills (9-4)

Win AFC East: 4.5 percent. Make playoffs: 92.0 percent.

Current leader:New England Patriots (10-3)
Win division: 95.5 percent. Make playoffs: 99.9 percent.

The Pats' losses to the Ravensand Chiefs opened up a nearly 5 percent chance that the Bills will win the AFC East. Still, New England has a much more favorable overall remaining schedule (with wins forecasted at Cincinnati, vs. Buffalo and vs. Miami) than the Bills, who are projected to be in closer games and have higher odds of losing each. (Buffalo's current win percentages the rest of the way are as follows: 52.4 at Pittsburgh, 43.5 at New England and 57.2 vs. the Jets.) Bills fans: If Buffalo doesn't win in Pittsburgh this Sunday, the Bills' odds of winning the division fall under 0.1 percent. Regardless, they are a virtual postseason lock, possessing the best playoff odds by far of all the second-place teams in the conference.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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