The NFL Buddy System: How One Team Helps Another Make the Playoffs

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The final two weeks of the NFL season make for strange bedfellows. We’re at the point at which every team that still has competitive football to play has a pretty clear path to either improving its playoff stock or ensuring that it gets to January. And no squad has its seed totally locked up. Five teams can come away with the top spot in the NFC. Four of those teams can still miss the playoffs altogether. The Cardinals, the lone team in the conference to clinch, will start third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback on Sunday. It’s a wacky year.

Some of those teams have obvious interests. The Eagles want the Cowboys to lose. You already know that. Today, though, I wanted to take things a step further and look at the teams whose interests are more subtly aligned. For each of the 19 remaining playoff contenders, I went through the different permutations and tiebreakers to figure out the supporting team(s) that could best aid a contender’s playoff chances with a victory or two.

In each case, I wanted to assume the best possible outcome for the contender in question. So I assumed (unless written otherwise) that it would win both of its remaining games,1 and then reached for the stars: If a team has a chance at winning the no. 1 seed, I tried to find the other teams that would help them win the 1-seed. If a team has a shot at winning the division but is more likely to settle in as a wild card, I looked at its path to finishing atop the division. I also pulled the odds of each team actually making the playoffs from the live feed at Advanced Football Analytics, whose playoff odds I’ll include in the headers below.

Let’s start with the glamorous world of Lindley …

Arizona Cardinals v St Louis Ramsilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

NFC Playoff Contenders

Arizona Cardinals
Playoff Odds: 100 percent (32 percent NFC West, 68 percent wild card)

Although they currently occupy the catbird seat in the NFC, the Cardinals are admittedly underdogs to finish with the top spot and retain potential home-field advantage on their way to — and through — the Super Bowl. Arizona’s chances of becoming the first Super Bowl team to play at home in league history were further dashed when Drew Stanton suffered a knee injury during Thursday night’s win over the Rams, leaving the Cardinals to choose between Lindley and raw rookie Logan Thomas for Sunday’s critical game against the Seahawks.

Arizona can clinch the top seed by winning out, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting Cardinals section. So I made an exception here and assumed, for a moment, that the Cardinals lose to the Seahawks this weekend and fall one game behind in the race for the NFC’s top spot. How could they regain their place in Week 17? That naturally starts with a win over the 49ers, but the Cardinals would also need the Rams to come up with a victory over the Seahawks in Seattle, a tall order for a St. Louis team that is playing out the string.

A Rams win would restore Arizona’s one-game lead in the West, but the Cardinals would then likely need to win a tiebreaker against at least one other division champ to finish with the no. 1 seed. Arizona would be happy to see Dallas and Detroit in tiebreaker scenarios at 12-4, as the Cardinals would win the deadlock because of wins over both teams. The Lions would finish second in that scenario.

The team Arizona doesn’t want to see have the same record? That’s Green Bay, which could win out and claim the top seed even after losing to the Bills on Sunday. If the Packers finished tied with the Cardinals at 12-4, they would win the tiebreaker by virtue of their superior record against common opponents. The Cardinals would then finish second, retaining a first-round bye in the process.

Detroit Lions
Playoff Odds: 88 percent (30 percent NFC North, 58 percent wild card)

The Lions won’t be favored in Green Bay, but if they pull off a Week 17 win at Lambeau, they’ll take the NFC North, regardless of what happens in Week 16. If they can add a win over the Bears this Sunday, they’ll finish no lower than second in the NFC, ensuring that they’ll get a first-round bye.

Detroit doesn’t fare well in tiebreakers with the teams from the NFC West; they lost outright to the Cardinals, and the Seahawks would win the tiebreaker by virtue of Seattle’s superior record in common games. That leaves the Lions as another team in debt to the Rams, as Detroit would like to see the Seahawks lose in Week 17. The Lions will also need the Cardinals to lose out, which will require a 49ers win over Bruce Arians & Co. during the final week of the year.

The team the Lions want to match up against in a tiebreaker scenario, again, is the Cowboys. Even if Dallas wins its final two games of the year to finish 12-4, Detroit would claim the top seed, with its superior record within the NFC. And if the Cowboys do lose one of their final two games, Detroit’s path to the conference title is even that much easier.

Dallas Cowboys
Playoff Odds: 68 percent (59 percent NFC East, 9 percent wild card)

Dallas has a weird path toward claiming the no. 1 seed in the NFC. The Cowboys will struggle to win any deadlocks that involve three or more teams, because they don’t match up well on tiebreakers. Arizona beat Dallas outright and will likely have a better strength of victory. Detroit will have a better record in conference games. And Green Bay would likely have a better conference record and a stronger strength of victory if the two are tied there.

The one team the Cowboys want to see in a tiebreaker is the Seahawks, but only if the two of them are heads-up. In a tie among three or more teams, Dallas’s victory over Seattle earlier this season isn’t used as the primary tiebreaker, and the Cowboys would actually lose those stalemates to the Seahawks because Seattle will have a better record in conference games. If the Seahawks and Cowboys end up one-on-one, though, Dallas’s head-to-head win matters, and Dallas would claim the no. 1 seed.

Seattle Seahawks
Playoff Odds: 98 percent (68 percent NFC West, 30 percent wild card)

Seattle is a 7.5-point favorite on the road in Arizona this week, and if the Seahawks’ suffocating defense can keep Lindley contained, the team should be able to claim first place in the NFC West.

If the Seahawks do win out and finish at 12-4, they should be in great shape. As mentioned earlier, they actually beat the Cowboys in three-way tiebreakers. They also prevail over the Packers, both heads-up (after beating Green Bay in Week 1) and in a multi-way tie (because of what would be an unassailable 10-2 record in the NFC). If the Lions come away with the NFC North, that’s fine, too, as the Seahawks’ record is superior to Detroit’s against common opponents.

The tiebreaker Seattle wants to avoid is the heads-up game against the Cowboys, and the easiest way for that to happen is to prevent Dallas from making it to 12 wins. That duty will fall to the Colts, who might face a DeMarco Murray–less Cowboys team this Sunday in Arlington. If the Seahawks and Colts win this weekend, Seattle is in great shape to gain home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Green Bay Packers
Playoff Odds: 99 percent (70 percent NFC North, 29 percent wild card)

The Packers will win the NFC North and secure a first-round bye if they win out, but they were thrown off the no. 1 seed’s trail when they lost to the Bills on Sunday. Green Bay loses any tiebreaker at 12-4 to Seattle, and Arizona can stay ahead of the Packers by winning out.

So, ideally, the Packers want to see the Seahawks beat the Cardinals and the Rams prevail over Seattle in Week 17. If the Packers get those two results and win out, they’ll finish with the top seed. They would beat the Cowboys in a tiebreaker by virtue of their superior record in conference games, and if the Cardinals make it to 12-4, Green Bay will pip them to the top spot because of a better record against common opponents.

Philadelphia Eagles
Playoff Odds: 47 percent (41 percent NFC East, 6 percent wild card)

Philadelphia would have been a virtual lock to win the NFC East if it had won at home against Dallas on Sunday night, but the Eagles’ 38-27 loss leaves them in a vulnerable position. It’s very difficult for them to win a wild-card spot because of their record in conference games, currently at 5-5, with games against the Giants and Washington to come. They lose a ton of tiebreakers to the Cardinals, Lions, Packers, and Seahawks — the teams they’re likely to compete with in the wild-card race.

Instead, the Eagles’ most obvious path into the playoffs involves reclaiming the NFC East. The Eagles need to finish with only the same record as the Cowboys to win the division title — Philadelphia will have a better division record than Dallas will if the two end up tied — but they’re going to need Dallas to slip up. While the Cowboys could do that with a heartbreaking loss in Washington in Week 17, the more plausible scenario would see Dallas lose to the Colts on Sunday, with the Eagles winning out to claim the East on a tiebreaker.

New Orleans Saints
Playoff Odds: 71 percent (71 percent NFC South)

New Orleans got its playoff run back on track with a big win in Chicago on Monday night, dominating the Bears from start to finish en route to a 31-15 whooping. It leaves the Saints in a dominant position in the South, as they can clinch the division next week with a win over Atlanta if the Panthers lose at home against the Browns.

Carolina Panthers
Playoff Odds: 10 percent (10 percent NFC South)

As Brian Burke noted on Twitter, the Panthers were the team whose chances were really hurt by New Orleans’s victory on Monday. They could have controlled their own destiny with a Saints loss; now, they’ll need the Saints to slip up against the Falcons or Buccaneers to have any shot at regaining the division lead in the South.

Atlanta Falcons
Playoff Odds: 19 percent (19 percent NFC South)

Because they finish with games against the Saints and Panthers, the Falcons are on their own. If they win their final two games, they’ll be NFC South champions, winning any tiebreaker because of two wins over the Saints. If they lose once, they’re cooked.

New England Patriots v Indianapolis ColtsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

AFC Playoff Contenders

New England Patriots
Playoff Odds: 100 percent (100 percent AFC East)

Having locked up the East with Sunday’s win over the Dolphins, the Patriots are now left with the task of securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Unless they lose to the Jets and Bills while the Colts win two straight, their only competition for the top spot comes from the Broncos. Peyton Manning & Co. have the same record as the Patriots, but lose the head-to-head tiebreaker.

If the Patriots win out or match Denver’s record over the final two weeks, they’re golden. The only way things can get easier is if they manage to get some help from the Bengals. If the Patriots beat the Jets this weekend and Cincinnati prevails over Denver on Monday night, the Patriots would be guaranteed the top seed in the AFC. That would allow Bill Belichick to rest his team of veterans against the Bills in Week 17.

Denver Broncos
Playoff Odds: 100 percent (100 percent AFC West)

Likewise, the Broncos locked up first place in their division with their win over the Chargers on Sunday. They need to win one of their remaining two games to clinch a first-round bye, and if the Patriots slip up, the Broncos could avoid a trip to New England and spend the AFC playoffs in Denver by winning out. That will require help from the Jets or Bills, who will get the final two cracks at the Patriots.

Indianapolis Colts
Playoff Odds: 100 percent (100 percent AFC South)

Indianapolis laid out two Houston quarterbacks in clinching the AFC South on Sunday, but the Colts’ work isn’t yet done. They could still theoretically finish as the top seed in the AFC, although it would take a run of incredible luck, as they would need to win twice and see both the Broncos and Patriots lose each of their remaining games. If you were merely willing to settle for the Broncos to lose out, the Colts could advance to the second seed and pick up a first-round bye.

Instead, the Colts are far more likely to be playing in an attempt to solidify their third seed in the AFC bracket. They would need to finish ahead of the AFC North champion, so this is an exercise in figuring out which team the Colts would rather see win the North.

Very clearly, that team is the Ravens. Indy lost to Pittsburgh, and so would lose that tiebreaker. The Colts did come away with wins against the Bengals and Ravens, but Cincinnati is just a half-game back by virtue of its tie with Carolina, while the Ravens are a full game back with two to play. Indianapolis could lose one of its remaining two games and still finish with the 3-seed if Baltimore wins the North.

Cincinnati Bengals
Playoff Odds: 79 percent (30 percent AFC North, 49 percent wild card)

The Bengals are in a fun spot, as they can technically still finish as the top seed in the AFC or miss the playoffs altogether. Ascending to no. 1 is basically a fantasy; they would need the Broncos and Patriots to lose out and the Colts to lose once.

More realistically, the Bengals do have a shot at moving up and becoming the third seed in the AFC. That’s a simpler plan. As they’re a half-game back, they would need to win one game more than the Colts over these final two weeks. It’s a big ask, given that Cincinnati plays the Broncos on Monday night, but the Bengals could get some help if the Cowboys manage to beat the Colts next week. The Titans could also technically pull off the upset in Week 17, but if that happens, we should be more concerned about grabbing the pairs of animals.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Playoff Odds: 88 percent (48 percent AFC North, 40 percent wild card)

The Steelers have solidified their playoff hopes with victories over the Bengals and Falcons during the past two weeks, and they’re now exceedingly likely to come away with a playoff berth. They’re a half-game behind the Bengals, but the Steelers remain the favorites to win the AFC North because they have an easier slate; Pittsburgh faces the Chiefs in Week 16, while Cincinnati has to play the Broncos. The Steelers then host the Bengals in Week 17, enjoying the added benefit of home-field advantage.

Like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh is surely hoping to move up in the playoff seeding picture and finish with the third seed in the AFC. And as with the Bengals, Pittsburgh’s unlikely friends reside in Dallas, where the Cowboys can do their old Super Bowl rivals a huge favor by knocking off the Colts.

Baltimore Ravens
Playoff Odds: 82 percent (21 percent AFC North, 61 percent wild card)

Most advanced metrics suggest that the Ravens are actually the best team in the AFC North, but their 2-3 record in the division leaves them unlikely to come away with the division crown. To win the division for the third time under John Harbaugh, Baltimore will need to win out and hope that neither the Steelers nor Bengals do the same. That makes the Chiefs and Broncos both possible playoff rivals and teams that can give the Ravens a hand.

If that fails to happen, the Ravens can clinch a wild-card spot by winning their remaining games against the Texans and Browns.

Kansas City Chiefs
Playoff Odds: 27 percent (27 percent wild card)

While the Chiefs don’t technically need to win out to finish as one of the conference’s two wild cards, it’s close to impossible for them otherwise. But they need to plan on going 2-0, and with games against the Steelers and Chargers, it won’t be easy. If they pull that feat off, they’ll come away with at least the sixth seed in the conference.

To move up to the fifth spot, they’ll need some help. The Bengals need to lose twice, so the Broncos are now, strangely, Kansas City’s friends.

San Diego Chargers
Playoff Odds: 13 percent (13 percent wild card)

The Chargers need to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 17 to have a shot at the postseason, and can sneak in if the loser of the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 17 also lost the previous week. That logic requires some level of time travel, but that might be more likely than Case Keenum or Thad Lewis winning this weekend.

It’s tough to imagine the Chargers making it, but stranger things have happened! Remember that San Diego snuck into January when four Week 17 games went the Chargers’ way, after they entered the day with just a 15.5 percent chance of making into the postseason.

Buffalo Bills
Playoff Odds: 5 percent (5 percent wild card)

The Bills kept their slim playoff hopes alive Sunday with a comprehensive victory over the Packers, but it’s going to take a far bigger miracle to get Buffalo into the playoffs. The Bills are playing well enough to justify a trip to the postseason, but they have an awful conference record (4-6) and have lost games to the Texans, Chiefs, and Chargers, who would be their rivals in the wild-card race.

What does a Buffalo playoff berth look like? Obviously, it includes winning out, including a victory over the Patriots in Week 17. It can go a number of different and unlikely ways from there, but the Bills can even make it all the way up to the 5-seed if they’re the only team in the wild-card pool with 10 wins, which requires the Ravens losing twice.

Houston Texans
Playoff Odds: 6 percent (6 percent wild card)

The Texans can actually finish with the no. 5 seed by winning an eight-way tiebreaker at 9-7 with the Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Chargers, Chiefs, Bills, and Dolphins.2 But … no. I spent 15 minutes looking all of this up, and then I remembered that the Texans are stuck choosing between quarterbacks who weren’t even on their roster one month ago. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there.

As always, if you want to play along, you can run your favorite permutation of the final two weeks of the season through the NFL Playoff Machine.

Filed Under: NFL, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell