With four weeks left in the regular season, only one team has officially punched a ticket to the postseason: the Rams, who already clinched the NFC West title. But realistically, the Saints, Chiefs and Patriots -- who all reach the playoffs in over 99.9 percent of my model's simulations -- should also be planning on playing in January.
As for the remaining eight playoff bids, I applied my vetted model to the rest of this regular season's games to find out which teams were most likely to make it -- and which games mattered most. I ran 640,000 simulations (10,000 for each remaining game) using the most predictive metrics from the past 15 seasons, factoring in current team personnel, trends, play-calling and matchups. Then I "played out" a four-week model another 640,000 times. These are sequential simulations, meaning I'm not just adding the 10,000 game simulations for each team together each week, but rather looking at four-game stretches and reflecting patterns similar teams, personnel and matchups have followed in the past. (Think: number of road vs. home games, playing in the cold or wind for a dome team, weeks since bye, playing several high-pressure defenses in a row vs. spacing them out, etc.) My model assigns a confidence percentage to each team in each game. The sequential model also has a confidence level for the four-game stretch.
This season, when my model projects a win confidence of 70 percent or greater, it has been correct 81 percent of the time. There is always a chance, in any given week, that a heavily favored team loses, or a major injury significantly changes a team -- all of which could and would shift the playoff outlooks.
However, given the best predictive information available right now, my model shows that the following eight games -- which all (except one: Ravens-Chargers) project the winner by 60 percent or less -- matter most in determining who will be playing in the postseason and what the seeding will be:
Carolina Panthers at Cleveland Browns: The Browns have a chance to basically eliminate the Panthers from the postseason this week. Carolina faces the Saints twice in the final three weeks of the season, so dropping to 6-7 with a fifth straight loss would pretty much be the death knell. With Greg Olsen now done for the season and a defense that has ranked 20th or lower in pressures, sacks and touchdowns allowed, my model currently has the Browns slightly favored at home, winning in 50.9 percent of the simulations.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: My model only has one team from the NFC East making the playoffs in 77 percent of the outcomes. With the Cowboys fresh off a big victory over the Saints where Dallas' defense held New Orleans' explosive offense to just 176 yards and 10 points -- thanks, in part, to a 27.3 percent conversation rate on third down and a 0 percent touchdown rate in the red zone -- my model favors the Cowboys (60.2 percent) in Week 14. The Eagles control their fate, but considering that Philly faces the Rams in Los Angles in Week 15 and hosts the red-hot Texans in Week 16, beating the Cowboys in Dallas is basically a must-win situation.
Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks (Monday): As recently as three weeks ago, my model had Carolina edging out the loser of this game for a wild-card spot. However, with road losses to the Lionsand Bucs sandwiched around a home loss to the Seahawks, the Panthers have cleared the way for both the Vikings and Seahawks to make it to the postseason tourney. My model has the Seahawks winning in 57.9 percent of the outcomes this week and making it to the playoffs in 70.2 percent of simulations.
Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs (Thursday): At this moment, my model gives the Chiefs a 60.4 percent win projection at home. But I can tell you right now that injuries will be a factor, and since we haven't had the first Week 14 injury report, I am going off the best intel I have from who played in the games in Week 13. This could be the AFC West title game -- and it might determine who gets a bye. Both teams have experienced recent changes in the backfield, and early-down efficiency (rushes and short passes to backs) will likely be a big factor here -- even though that feels weird to write about offenses that are as sexy as both of these.
Dallas Cowboys at Indianapolis Colts: The most likely scenario here is that the Cowboys enter the game at 8-5 (and atop the NFC East) and the Colts at 6-7 (they are not favored by my model in their Week 14 game at Houston). Currently, my projections give the Cowboys a 59.6 percent win rate in this game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Talented young linebackers on both sides stand out in this one: Darius Leonard for Indianapolis; Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith for Dallas. The Colts' offensive third-down efficiency (despite an uncharacteristically poor game against the Jags on Sunday) gives them the slight edge over the Ravens for the No. 6 seed. The Cowboys could help the Ravens -- or even the Broncos or Titans -- with a win. Should the Colts beat the Texans in Week 14, this is less of a key game.
New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers: The Pats are likely to be 10-3 and the Steelers 8-4-1 entering this game -- both are projected to earn Week 14 wins in my model. The Pats do hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Houston (thanks to a win all the way back in Week 1), but they likely need this win to ensure home-field advantage. Currently, my model gives the Patriots a slight edge, with them winning in 55.7 percent of the simulations.
Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers (Saturday): Here is the Ravens' remaining schedule: at KC, vs. TB, at LAC, vs. CLE. I have them entering this game at 8-6, after a projected loss to the Chiefs and a win over the Bucs. The Chargers will likely be 10-4 after besting the Bengals and falling to the Chiefs at Arrowhead. This is the one somewhat-lopsided game that I noted in the intro, as I currently have the Chargers winning in 68 percent of the simulations. But if the Ravens upset the Bolts, it projects to be Baltimore's ticket to the playoffs and helps ensure the Chiefs host a playoff game.
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: It's very likely that the path to Atlanta on the NFC side won't include any locations with much potential for inclement weather. I have Los Angeles and New Orleans most likely to earn byes before hosting games, and Dallas representing the NFC East. The only potential bad-weather venue: Chicago, if the Bears take the NFC North. It's no guarantee that this Week 17 bout will serve as a division title game, though -- that's only the case in 38 percent of the sequential simulations. While I currently have this game projected at 52.4 percent Bears, the return of Mitchell Trubisky will likely shift that number.