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Circling the Calendar: Your Guide to Cherry-Picking the Rest of the NFL Schedule

Whether they are trying to win or lose, every team in the league has at least one game left that’s more important than all the others.

The byes are finally over. Every NFL team has played 11 games, leaving five contests per team to go. That’s 80 more NFL games over the next five weeks, likely ending with a Detroit–Green Bay game deciding the NFC North in Week 17. While the regular season is nearly 69 percent finished, there’s still plenty of meaningful action to go. Football Outsiders’s playoff odds have just four teams with at least a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs and 12 with less than a 10 percent chance, leaving exactly half the league — 16 teams — with everything to play for over the next five weeks. And even those teams on either side of the playoff spectrum have seedings, both good and bad, to worry about.

Every game is important. (Well, the Giants-Washington game in Week 15 probably isn’t that important.) Today, I wanted to pick out the most important game remaining on each team’s docket. Just about everybody wants to win, but there’s one game left for many of these teams that is more meaningful than the rest. To add further insight, I’ve also used the Log5 methodology and each team’s Pythagorean expectation to estimate its chances of winning the game.

Arizona Cardinals

Key Game: Week 16, vs. Seattle, 51.0 percent chance of victory

The Cardinals are one of those four teams with a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs; they’re at 94.3 percent, having fallen from the league-high 97.1 percent rate when they lost to Seattle on Sunday. Any statistical Cardinals projection probably overstates Arizona’s chances by a bit, though, because it doesn’t include the knowledge that Carson Palmer is done for the season.

Even if you assume the Cardinals are going to regress some with Drew Stanton under center, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine them missing the playoffs. Losing to Seattle in this key game would give the Seahawks a huge advantage toward winning the division, given that they would hold the tiebreaker in the West after sweeping Arizona, but the Cardinals would still be favorites to earn a wild-card spot. They hold unshakable tiebreakers over the Cowboys, Eagles, and Lions, and if they beat the 49ers in Week 17, they’ll add San Francisco to that list. Unless Arizona loses out and finishes 9-7 or the rest of their opponents conspire to end up with a pair of 11-win teams, 10-6 should be enough to get them into the playoff race for a trip to, um, Arizona.

Atlanta Falcons

Key Game: Week 16, at New Orleans, 42.1 percent chance of victory

Amazingly, the Falcons managed to suffer a heartbreaking defeat to the Browns on Sunday and drop to 4-7 without also falling out of first place; New Orleans’s loss at home on Monday night pushed the Falcons back into pole position in the NFC South. Even that metaphor seems wrong. The division is a four-car pileup. Of pace cars.

Given its brutal schedule over the next few weeks — hosting Arizona, traveling to Green Bay, and then coming back to the Georgia Dome to host Pittsburgh — Atlanta’s most plausible scenario sees it entering Week 16 one game out of first place and needing a win to tie New Orleans, at which point they would hold the divisional tiebreaker, by virtue of what would be a season sweep of the Saints. They get the Panthers in Week 17, and if they can sweep their divisional rivals while somehow winning one of their next three games, it could be just enough to win the South. Or not lose the South.

Baltimore Ravens

Key Game: Week 14, at Miami, 51.7 percent chance of victory

The Ravens have the league’s fourth-best DVOA and third-best point differential, suggesting that Baltimore is one of the best teams in football, but their 2-3 record in the AFC North leaves the Ravens in a sticky situation. They were swept by the Bengals, who still have three divisional games to go and a half-game lead over the division’s three 7-4 teams at 7-3-1.

It might be more important for Baltimore to first ensure it has locked up a wild-card spot before thinking about winning the division. It can take a huge step in that direction by beating San Diego and Miami over the next two weeks. Baltimore is already installed as 5.5-point favorites at home against San Diego, but it’ll have a tougher time in Miami, where the Dolphins have already beaten the Patriots and Chargers and nearly beaten the Packers. If the Ravens can even split those games, they’ll get to 8-5 with games against the Jaguars and Texans to come. A win over Miami would make them overwhelming favorites to come away with at least 10 and likely 11 wins, the latter of which would all but guarantee a playoff berth.

Buffalo Bills

Key Game: Week 13, vs. Cleveland, 55.7 percent chance of victory

The Bills still have an 8.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, most of which comes from their wild-card chances, which are at 6.3 percent. They’re still a game behind five 7-4 teams, and they’re losing tiebreakers with the Chargers and Chiefs. Given that they still have games against the Broncos, Packers, and Patriots to come, they’re going to need a win in one of those contests.

Their best bet is to hope the Patriots clinch the top seed by Week 16 and have nothing to play for in Week 17, which could leave the Bills with a relatively easy matchup against what appears to be an elite opponent. (Then again, I don’t need to remind Bills fans about the last time they were in that sort of game.) If Buffalo can get to 9-7, it might be able to sneak in on a tiebreaker as the sixth seed. Beating the Browns this week would give them one of the few tiebreaker-clinching opportunities they have left.

Carolina Panthers

Key Game: Week 14, at New Orleans, 27.5 percent chance of victory

The Panthers are coming off their best week since beating the Lions in Week 2, and they didn’t even play. Atlanta and New Orleans both lost as home favorites, breathing life into Carolina’s still-slim playoff hopes.

Having won just one of their last nine games, it seems dangerous to suggest the Panthers could suddenly go on a winning streak, but they still have three games to go against the NFC South. If they could somehow sweep those three contests, including road games at Atlanta and New Orleans, they would be 6-7-1 and in a dominant position to claim the division. Hey, everybody else beats the NFC South …

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago BearsDavid Banks/Getty Images

Chicago Bears

Key Game: Week 13, at Detroit, 30.3 percent chance of victory

The Bears basically need to win out to have any hope of claiming a playoff berth. The good news is that they’re already on a winning streak, having followed their gruesome 55-14 loss to the Packers with a pair of 21-13 home wins over the lowly Vikings and Buccaneers. Three of their final five games are at home, leaving this road trip to Detroit as the most important game left on their schedule. If they can beat the Lions in Detroit and follow that with a victory at home against the Cowboys, we’ll have to talk.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Game: Week 14, vs. Pittsburgh, 50.9 percent chance of victory

With three AFC North games left, the Bengals still have a lot to do to lock up the division. That includes a home-and-home with the Steelers, who travel to Cincinnati in Week 14 before hosting the Bengals during the final week of the season. If the Bengals can win at home and then beat the Browns in Cleveland in Week 15, it could put them in a dominant enough spot that their final two games won’t be quite as meaningful. That would help, since they finish up by hosting Denver before that season-ending trip to Pittsburgh. Given that schedule, a loss at home to the Steelers would leave the Bengals in real trouble.

Cleveland Browns

Key Game: Week 15, vs. Cincinnati, 56.3 percent chance of victory

Mike Smith’s horrific clock management did a lot to keep the Browns in the playoff hunt. At 6-5, the Browns would have been in real trouble on both playoff fronts, given that they play the league’s seventh-toughest schedule the rest of the way. Their 7-4 record keeps up with the Joneses.

Three of their final five games are on the road, including the season-ending trip to Baltimore in what could be a division-deciding matchup if the cards break right, but it’s a home game that stands out as their key matchup. If they play well enough to make it to Week 17 at 10-5, they’ll stand a good shot at making the playoffs through either one of their routes. Given that they’ll be underdogs this week at Buffalo and at home against Indianapolis, they’ll need to win one of those two and come up with a key division win against the Bengals in Week 15 to try to push ahead of Cincy in the playoff hunt.

Dallas Cowboys

Key Game: Week 13, vs. Philadelphia, 52.1 percent chance of victory

No surprise here. Dallas’s home-and-home against Philadelphia will likely decide the NFC East, so it’s critical for Dallas to take the early edge by beating the Eagles in Texas on Thanksgiving. If the Eagles win on Thursday, they would move ahead of the Cowboys by one game and hold a 3-0 divisional record while leaving the Cowboys at 2-2 in the NFC East. That would make it extremely difficult for Dallas to win a tiebreaker with Philly, given that it would be depending on the Giants or Washington to beat the Eagles.

Denver Broncos

Key Game: Week 13, at Kansas City, 43.9 percent chance of victory

Vegas doesn’t agree with Log5 here, and I can’t say I blame the oddsmakers; the Broncos are two-point favorites for their trip to Kansas City, and it’s a matchup they need to win. Treat the tiebreaker as a half-win and the Broncos are already 1.5 games out of the top spot in the AFC with five games to play. Even if the Packers beat New England this weekend in Lambeau, a loss here would make it close to impossible for the Broncos to catch up in that race.

More likely, the Broncos are playing for the AFC West title and the second seed in the AFC. That leaves their game with the Chiefs as a meaningful encounter. If the Broncos were to lose, they would retain first place in the AFC West, but it would totally eliminate their margin for error and knock them out of the second spot if the Bengals beat the Buccaneers this weekend. Denver still gets to travel to Cincinnati in Week 16, but it doesn’t want to be playing catch-up and require a road win in Ohio to get that first-round bye back.

Detroit Lions v Arizona CardinalsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

Detroit Lions

Key Game: Week 17, at Green Bay, 28.1 percent chance of victory

The Lions are fading fast. It seemed like they were basically a playoff lock at 7-2, but comfortable losses to the Cardinals and Patriots hurt their record while suggesting that their true talent level might not be what it seemed before the mini–losing streak. The Lions have now outscored their opposition by a total of just seven points all season. Plug in Detroit’s Pythagorean expectation from two weeks ago and their chances of winning at Green Bay shoot up to 40.8 percent.

Football Outsiders suggests that Detroit’s chances of winning the division (27.5 percent) are virtually identical to their shot at claiming a wild-card berth (28.0 percent). As things stand, if Detroit can match Green Bay’s record over the next four weeks, it would win the NFC North by beating the Packers in Week 17. If the Lions slip any further — or if the Packers continue on their hot streak — they will be toast. Detroit might not actually be a part of their second-most-important game; it could be the Patriots-Packers game this weekend.

Green Bay Packers

Key Game: Week 17, vs. Detroit, 71.9 percent chance of victory

Meanwhile, even if the Packers were to lose this weekend, they would still have a reasonable shot at winning the NFC North by beating the Lions in Week 17, assuming they can match Detroit over the three subsequent weeks.

Houston Texans

Key Game: Week 15, at Indianapolis, 35.3 percent chance of victory

Houston’s slim playoff chances basically disappeared last week after it lost at home to Cincinnati. With just a 0.9 percent chance of claiming a wild-card spot, J.J. Watt and his assorted hangers-on are essentially down to winning the AFC South to make it to the playoffs, and that would require an unfathomable collapse from the Colts, who have a two-game lead in addition to the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Naturally, a win over the Colts in Indy would go a long way toward making up that gap. Even if the Texans win there, the Colts would (before considering any other results) be 4-1 in the division, well ahead of Houston at 2-1. The Texans would need to win out in the AFC South and hope the Colts also lose on the road at Tennessee in Week 17 to win on the divisional-record tiebreaker.

Indianapolis Colts

Key Game: Week 15, vs. Houston, 64.7 percent chance of victory

Andrew Luck can put this division to sleep with a win over the Texans in Week 15. Having lost to the Patriots and Broncos earlier this season, the Colts would need to win out and probably get a bit of help to claim a first-round bye; Football Outsiders has them with an 85 percent chance of finishing as either the third or fourth seed. They’ll be rooting for the Ravens to win the AFC North, as the Colts beat Baltimore in Week 5, which would give them a tiebreaker in terms of seeding. They also beat the Bengals, but would not likely require a tiebreaker because Cincinnati has a tie on its record after the Panthers game. The Colts also lost to the Steelers and still have to play the Browns.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Game: Week 16, vs. Tennessee, 40.8 percent chance of victory

The Jaguars should have two goals for the remainder of the season: keeping Blake Bortles safe and losing as frequently as possible. Those two have more of a middle ground than you might think. With little reason to be competitive, the Jaguars should be hoping to procure the first overall pick in next year’s draft; even if they don’t want Marcus Mariota, they could reap a trade windfall by dealing the pick to somebody who does.

Their three closest contenders are Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee, and the 2-9 Titans pay a visit to Jacksonville for what will surely be the least-watched Thursday Night Football game of all time in Week 16. The Jaguars have a bad track record with losing when they need to; they beat the Colts in Week 17 of the 2011 season to ensure Indy would end up with the first overall pick (and Andrew Luck), and their home win over Houston in Week 15 last season helped push the Texans into the draft’s top slot. They can complete the AFC South trifecta with a win over Tennessee later this year.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key Game: Week 16, at Pittsburgh, 58.3 percent chance of victory

I don’t have high hopes for the Chiefs against Peyton Manning & Co. this weekend. Assuming Kansas City loses Sunday, its most important game immediately becomes clear. It’s not its divisional rival in San Diego in Week 17, for reasons I’ll get to in the Chargers section. The other wild-card rival it will play after the Broncos game is Pittsburgh, and while I think Log5 is a little optimistic to make Kansas City comfortable favorites, that game would basically be a toss-up. It could very well decide the sixth seed in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins

Key Game: Week 14, vs. Baltimore, 48.3 percent chance of victory

The Dolphins could pull off a rare sweep of the Patriots by winning in New England one week after this, but even after beating Tom Brady & Co. in Week 1, they’re already down 2.5 games with five to go. It’s far more plausible to see the Dolphins go after a wild-card spot, but even that will be tough. Sunday’s narrow loss to Denver leaves Miami at 6-5, and while the Dolphins still have a home-and-home with the dreadful Jets to come, they’ve also got to somehow make it to 10 wins with games against the Patriots and Ravens still on the schedule. Pencil in a loss against the Patriots and this game becomes an absolute must-win for Miami’s playoff chances.

Minnesota Vikings

Key Game: Week 14, vs. New York Jets, 72.9 percent chance of victory

With little to play for, it’s in Minnesota’s best interests to tank over the final five weeks. Beating the Jets at home might feel good, but it won’t be the best thing for the franchise down the road.

Cincinnati Bengals  v New Orleans SaintsStacy Revere/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints

Key Game: Week 16, vs. Atlanta, 57.9 percent chance of victory

As mentioned earlier in the Falcons section, this is probably the most important game remaining in terms of handing out a playoff spot to the winner. The Saints could theoretically lose to the Falcons and still qualify — they play the league’s third-easiest remaining schedule, while Atlanta plays a roughly average slate — but it’s hard to imagine either of these teams losing in New Orleans and winning the division anyway.

New England Patriots

Key Game: Week 13, vs. Green Bay, 51.9 percent chance of victory

This weekend’s marquee game in Wisconsin is naturally the biggest test the Patriots have left. They currently, per FO, have a 46.4 percent chance of claiming the top seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. If they get past the Packers, all that’s waiting are the Chargers and three games against the AFC East. Even if they lose to Green Bay, the worst-case scenario heading into Week 14 is that they’ll be tied with Denver atop the conference and hold the tiebreaker. Only the Colts have a better shot at making the playoffs than Bill Belichick & Co. do right now.

New York Giants

Key Game: Week 13, at Jacksonville, 69.0 percent chance of victory

At 3-8 and with a zero percent chance in FO’s simulations of making the playoffs, the Giants are toast. If you’re going to be football toast, you should be pitch-black toast. Losing to the Jaguars would be like taking the burnt toast out of the toaster, microwaving it, and then sticking the toast back into the oven.

New York Jets

Key Game: Week 15, at Tennessee, 39.9 percent chance of victory

As the Jets continue to try to not give an iota for Mariota, they face the same problems the Jaguars are going up against. They need to keep losing, but they’re up against a Titans team that just lost two starting offensive linemen in Taylor Lewan and Brian Schwenke. Given that they finish with the Patriots and Dolphins, this is probably Rex Ryan’s last chance for a victory as a Jets head coach. Jets fans should hope he doesn’t take it.

Oakland Raiders

Key Game: Week 13, at St. Louis, 36.6 percent chance of victory

Continuing a theme, the Raiders want to draft as early and as frequently as possible in 2015. Losing to the Rams — and cutting off the circulation early on any momentum or winning streak — would go a long way toward keeping the Raiders in the running for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key Game: Week 13, at Dallas, 47.9 percent chance of victory

In another game I’ve already discussed, the Eagles could really put a stranglehold on the NFC East with a win over Dallas on Thanksgiving. The Eagles can’t completely lose the division by falling in Big D on Thursday, but they would go a long way toward winning it by pulling the (ever-so-slight) upset.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Game: Week 14, at Cincinnati, 49.1 percent chance of victory

The coin flip in Cincinnati comes up yet again, as the Steelers will want to take the early advantage in their absolutely critical head-to-head matchup with the Bengals. Pittsburgh has a very interesting late-season schedule; it doesn’t play any truly great teams, but it also doesn’t get to line up against any teams that have switched off and lack playoff hopes. Each team the Steelers play (Atlanta, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Cincinnati twice) has at least a 28.6 percent chance of making the playoffs right now.

St Louis Rams v San Diego ChargersStephen Dunn/Getty Images

San Diego Chargers

Key Game: Week 15, vs. Denver, 39.7 percent chance of victory

While the Chargers have a 7-4 record and currently hold a wild-card spot in the AFC, it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to retain that over the next five weeks. Football Outsiders gives them just a 15.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, and there’s one obvious culprit for those nasty odds: strength of schedule. The Chargers play the toughest slate in football per DVOA from here on out, with games against five teams that are a combined 38-17, the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Chiefs. A home win over the Broncos or Patriots is critical to San Diego’s chances of claiming a playoff spot.

Seattle Seahawks

Key Game: Week 13, at San Francisco, 60.1 percent chance of victory

Even if the Cardinals do decline, the Seahawks would be better off locking up a wild-card berth before they realistically make a run at the NFC West. Beating Arizona on Sunday only upped Seattle’s shot of winning the West to 20.3 percent. Their upcoming two games with the 49ers are critical toward determining a likely wild-card suitor, and if the Seahawks can win on the road on Thanksgiving, it would leave them with a massive opportunity to finish the 49ers off in Seattle in Week 15.

San Francisco 49ers

Key Game: Week 13, vs. Seattle, 39.9 percent chance of victory

The 49ers can’t afford to get swept by Seattle, and their most likely win in the series would be at home on Thursday. A Seattle sweep, without considering any other results, would leave the Seahawks two games ahead of San Francisco plus the tiebreaker with three other games to go, basically ending the season. The 49ers could pull off a similar coup by winning both Seattle games, but that will be tough. One advantage: While the Seahawks have to travel to Philadelphia in between their tilts with the 49ers, San Francisco has a much shorter road trip in store. It travels all the way to Oakland in Week 14.

St. Louis Rams

Key Game: Week 13, vs. Oakland, 63.4 percent chance of victory

Losing to the Chargers on the goal line last week took what was already a pretty dim light and basically snuffed it out. The Rams technically have a 0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs from the results of Football Outsiders’s simulation. More realistically, they’re far better off trying to pick up the highest draft pick they can in the hopes of finding a star quarterback in 2015 and beyond. Losing to the Raiders at home would turn St. Louis’s most winnable game all year into a step toward a better draft pick. That isn’t going to make Rams fans who are sick of losing very happy, but if they’re not going to make the playoffs, 4-12 is the best possible record for St. Louis’s chances of actually making it into January in the years to come.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Game: Week 15, at Carolina, 44.4 percent chance of victory

As tempting as it is to suggest that the Buccaneers should try to contend for the NFC South title, their subpar level of play and total lack of tiebreaker help leaves them with just a 0.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Buccaneers are in their very own race toward the bottom, and like the Steelers, they play five games against teams that are technically still in playoff contention, suiting up against the Bengals, Lions, Panthers, Packers, and Saints in the weeks to come. Log5 gives Tampa Bay a 16.2 percent shot of going 0-5 and finishing 2-14, which would leave it in a prime spot for drafting a quarterback.

Tennessee Titans

Key Game: Week 16, at Jacksonville, 59.2 percent chance of victory

Seriously, that’s on a Thursday night. I have to watch it because it’s my job. You don’t have that problem. Save yourself. Do anything else.

Tennessee has the second-easiest schedule in football over the final five weeks, as it plays one team — the Colts — with any semblance of playoff hopes, and Indy might already be locked into a seed by the time the two play in Week 17. Otherwise, the Titans get the Texans, Giants, Jets, and Jaguars over the next four weeks. If the Titans finish 2-14, they’ll have earned it the hard way.

Washington

Key Game: Week 14, vs. St. Louis, 58.1 percent chance of victory

Finally, we know that Washington is in the market for a quarterback after benching RG3 for Colt McCoy late Tuesday night. I detailed possible trade partners for Griffin yesterday, but we should also probably be thinking about Washington’s likely options in a post-Griffin world. If Jay Gruden sticks around, would Washington try to trade for a veteran like Andy Dalton or Jay Cutler? Will it draft a young quarterback? Will it go without any sort of quarterback and play the single wing? What’s old is new!

Again, for a bad team, the most important job is losing its most winnable contest. That’s Washington’s home game against St. Louis in two weeks.