Predicting The Playoffs: Vikings Take a Big Step Forward, Jets Take a Step Back

Every Tuesday we look at how the playoff race is shaping up with a focus on the tiebreakers and the team's remaining schedules. Here are previous Predicting The Playoffs.

Four weeks to go in the season, and we're starting to see some parts of the playoff race clear up, while some division races are actually muddier than they were last week.

Unless some absolutely unexpected upsets happen, there are five teams that are already in. The Titans (11-1), Colts (8-4), Broncos (7-5), Giants (11-1) and Cardinals (7-5) would all have to fall apart to miss the playoffs. The Steelers' (9-3) big win over the Patriots also puts them in very good shape, but their remaining schedule (Cowboys, Ravens, Titans and Browns) means it's not possible to pencil them in yet.

But thanks to the Jets' loss to the Broncos, and the Falcons', Panthers' and Bucs' wins, the AFC East and NFC South races are tighter than ever. And while the general consensus for months has been that the NFC East could put three teams into the playoffs, it now looks like the NFC South is a better bet to snag both wild card spots.

If you are interested in who gets in and who stays home, there are a couple of things to pay close attention to as the final month wraps up. There is one key tiebreaker that gets overlooked. At this point everyone seems to know that division records are important, and conference records are vital to breaking ties for wild card spots. But one tiebreaker that gets overlooked is the one that state that, to break ties between teams in the same division, the third tiebreaker (after head-to-head records and division records) is common records, not conference records. So while the Jets have a better AFC record than the Dolphins or Patriots, in the case of a tie, their inferior record in common games would play a part first.

And it's also worth remembering that if there is a three-way tie for a wild card spot and two teams are in one division, the NFL rules require that they break the tie within the division first.

AFC East


San Diego2127.438
New York Jets1929.396
New England1830.375

New York Giants3722.627
New Orleans2424.500
Tampa Bay3030.500
Green Bay2335.397

New York Jets (8-4, .396 remaining schedule strength)
Miami (7-5, .417)
New England (7-5, .375)

If the Jets had beaten the Broncos, they would have the division close to locked up with a two-game lead, four games to go and games against the 49ers and Seahawks still on the schedule. But by losing to Denver, the Jets have ensured that the division race will stay interesting for a while longer.

Now the Jets aren't even guaranteed to have a spot in the playoffs locked up. As mentioned above, the Jets are in bad shape when it comes to the common opponent tiebreaker (they're 3-3 while the Dolphins are 5-1 and the Patriots are 3-1).

Now the Jets can obviously avoid any of that trouble by staying a game ahead of the Dolphins and Patriots, and with the 49ers, Bills and Seahawks on the schedule before a season finale against the Dolphins, that is possible. But if Miami beats the Bills, 49ers and Chiefs (three very winnable games), they could still win the division by beating the Jets in the finale, no matter what the Patriots or Jets do -- if that happened, the three teams could all end up at 11-5 with the Dolphins winning the division based on their superior common opponents record to the Jets and topping the Patriots based on their superior conference record (since the common records between the Patriots and Dolphins would be even).

The Patriots have an easy remaining schedule (Seattle, Oakland, Arizona and Buffalo), but the easy schedule for the Jets and Dolphins works against them. The Patriots split with the Dolphins and the Jets, so head-to-head tiebreakers are out the window. And it's unlikely that division record would play a part either, unless someone slips up and loses to the Bills.

The Patriots would be better served by the Dolphins beating the Jets then vice versa in the final week of the season. But for now, the Patriots can hope that by winning out, they can slide into the division title with just a little bit of help.

AFC North

Pittsburgh (9-3, .646)
Baltimore (8-4, .596)

The Steelers are in good shape after beating the Patriots, but with the Cowboys, Ravens and Titans in the next three weeks, they still have a lot of work to do, especially with the Ravens still only a game behind.

The Steelers do have some tiebreaker advantages that could come in handy. If they beat the Ravens, they'd have the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage, which means they could go 1-2 in the other three games and still win the division, even if the Ravens go 3-0 otherwise, which would be tough to do with games left against the Redskins, Cowboys and Jaguars.

And if the Steelers beat the Browns and lose to the Ravens, they would hold the conference record tiebreaker advantage, if it got to that point. At this point, the two teams are tied for the common record tiebreaker, although Steelers loses to the Titans or Cowboys or Ravens losses to the Redskins, Cowboys or Jags could change that.

The Ravens are in a bad spot when it comes to the division race, but when it comes to a wild card spot, the Ravens' outstanding conference record (7-3) would trump the Patriots, Jets or Dolphins in a battle for a wild card spot.

AFC South

Tennessee (11-1, .532)
Indianapolis (8-4, .348)

Obviously the Titans have the division title locked up, but the Colts are just as likely to land a wild card spot. As we've been saying for a couple of weeks, with the Bengals and Lions coming up over the next two weeks, Indianapolis will cruise to a wild card spot, barring an upset of horrendous proportions. The Colts do finish up by playing the Jaguars (1-4 in their last five games) and the Titans, but by then the Titans may have nothing to play for.

The Colts' 7-2 conference record will also ensure that they win most tiebreakers for a wild card spot.

AFC West

Denver (7-5, .438)
San Diego (4-8, .438)

It's hard to believe that it would be possible for a 4-8 Chargers team could end up in the playoffs, but it's still not completely impossible, it just would require a complete Broncos collapse along with San Diego winning out, which seems pretty unlikely.

But San Diego has a superior division record to the Broncos (2-1 compared to 2-2), so if the Chargers could win their next three, beating the Raiders, Chiefs and Bucs), and then beat the Broncos in the final game of the season, they would win the tiebreaker with the Broncos if Denver went 1-2 over the next three weeks (against the Chiefs, Panthers and Bills).

It's still not likely, but that's not outside the realm of possibility for two teams that are completely unpredictable.

NFC East

New York Giants (11-1, .627)
Dallas Cowboys (8-4, .723)
Washington Redskins (7-5, .517)

The Giants are arguably the best team in football, and they have a division title all but locked up, especially as they are a perfect 4-0 in a division where no one else is better than 2-2. It's hard to figure out a way they'd end up losing the division even with a rough finish, which doesn't seem likely.

The Cowboys would be in better shape if it wasn't for their brutal schedule. With the Steelers, Giants and Ravens in the next three weeks, 8-4 could turn into 9-6 or 8-7 really quickly. And even the finale against the Eagles isn't a walkover.

That's not the Cowboys' only problem. Dallas has a worse conference record than the Panthers and Falcons, both of whom are currently battling with Dallas for the two wild card spots. Dallas can still likely earn a wild card spot by finishing strong, but there are a lot issues still working against them.

The Redskins are arguably in a better situation than the Cowboys. Washington has a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way -- the Ravens, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers. They will still need plenty of help -- they are fourth in a race with only two winners, but if the Redskins can finish 3-1, they still have an outside shot at a playoff spot -- especially since the Falcons and Panthers still have to play the Bucs, and the Cowboys have such a difficult finishing schedule.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings (7-5, .542)
Chicago Bears (6-6, .413)
Green Bay Packers (5-7, .397)

In a division that no one seems to want to win, the Vikings took over the lead by beating the Bears on Sunday night. The Vikings should hold that lead for at least one more week with the Lions coming up next, but after that, the Vikings have the Cardinals, Falcons and Giants -- three straight games where they will likely be the underdog. But if the Vikings can just end up in a tie with the Bears or Packers, they have a somewhat commanding advantage.

The Bears have an easier remaining schedule with games left with the Jaguars, Saints, Packers and Texans, while the Packers, who need a lot of help, have the Panthers, Texans, Bears and Lions left to play. The Bears-Packers game will likely eliminate the loser, especially if the Packers can beat the Bears -- they beat the Bears earlier this season and would have the head-to-head tiebreaker.

As far as more involved tiebreakers, the Vikings have a two-game lead on the Packers, but they would lose a division record tiebreaker against the Packers if Green Bay could beat the Bears and catch the Vikings. At 4-3, the Vikings currently hold a common opponent tiebreaker advantage against the Packers (1-4) and Bears (1-4), which means that the Vikings could wrap up that tiebreaker by beating the Falcons, or win it if the Bears or Packers lose one more game beyond the Packers-Bears game.

So if you're a Vikings fan, root for the Bears to beat the Packers in three weeks.

NFC South

Tampa Bay (9-3, .500)
Carolina (9-3, .688)
Atlanta (8-4, .500)

Who would have thought that the NFC South would end up being football's best division? The division's records may be a little inflated by playing all the teams in the AFC West and NFC North, but what the Bucs, Panthers and Falcons have done is impressive nonetheless.

Because the Bucs will play both the Panthers and the Falcons in the final four weeks, this division is a long ways from being settled. Tampa Bay beat Carolina and Atlanta the first time they met, so the Bucs are definitely in the driver's seat. If they can beat them both again, they will hold head-to-head tiebreaker advantages. Even if the Bucs don't pull off a sweep, they are still likely to win the division if they can win at least one of those two games, because they face the Chargers and Raiders in their other two games, which are two very winnable games.

While the Saints are out of the playoff race because of their 6-6 record and their 1-3 division record, they still hold a lot of power in the division. They have remaining games against the Bucs, Falcons and Panthers, so if they can pull off an upset or two thanks to Drew Brees' arm, they will play a large part in determining who wins the division.

The Panthers have the toughest road, as they have games against the Giants and Broncos in addition to the Saints and the Bucs. The Falcons have the Saints, Bucs, Vikings and Rams to go. It's a tougher schedule than the Bucs, but not as tough as the Panthers.

As far as wild card seeding, the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons all have superior conference records than the Cowboys. The Bucs lost to the Cowboys head-to-head, so Cowboys fans should root for the Bucs to falter, but if they don't slip up, the Panthers and Falcons are likely to edge the Cowboys in the tiebreaker.

NFC West

Arizona (7-5, .375)

The Cardinals may have gotten blown out by the Eagles last Thursday, but that will just delay their clinching of a playoff spot. The 49ers may be sitting the same distance behind the Cardinals that the Chargers are behind the Broncos, but with the Rams and the Seahawks left to play, it's very hard to imagine that the Cardinals won't win at least one, and most likely both, of those games. Winning either one of those games would be enough to clinch the division regardless of what the 49ers do because the Cardinals won the head-to-head matchup with San Francisco.

Predicting The Playoffs: Vikings Take a Big Step Forward, Jets Take a Step Back originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 02 Dec 2008 14:30:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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