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Coal in the Rough: Each NFC East Team’s Playoff Push

Bad Teams Can Get Playoff Spots

What’s the difference between coal and diamonds? Diamonds are more valuable, rarer, and much more appealing even after undergoing intense pressure. Otherwise, both things are generally just carbon. Just as the output of carbon can change drastically, so too can NFL teams abiding by similar formats and governances. The diamond teams sparkle through January and February but sometimes coal teams hang in our stockings long past Christmas too.

The NFC East is bad. No one will dispute that. It’s a division that has won fewer than one-third of it’s total games played. It’s a division that, aside from divisional matchups, is 4-19-1. It’s a division that’s net points differential is -185. It’s a division that has three of the bottom ten scoring offense (Dallas is 13th from the bottom). It’s also a division that is guaranteed a seat at the NFC Playoff table.


Andy Dalton has a chance to revitalize his career if he can lead the Dallas Cowboys to a playoff appearance. (Dave Campbell/NBC Dallas)

As it stands, the Philadelphia Eagles lead the way with a 3-6-1 record while every other team is 3-7. Current tiebreakers put the New York Giants ahead of the Dallas Cowboys ahead of the Washington Football Team. With all teams having played 10 games, it seems likely that the division winner will have a .500 record or worse.

Predicting the Future

Two different kinds of forecasting both reveal a similar truth: the division is entirely up for grabs. William Hill, a London bookmaker, gives bettors the opportunity to wager on who will win the NFC East. The implied probability given the current odds also puts the Eagles at the top with 40%. Dallas has an implied probability of 28.6% while New York and Washington lag with 23.5% and 22.2%, respectively.

FiveThirtyEight uses their Elo model to evaluate teams on an even plane and project future results. As of Week 11’s results, Philadelphia leads the pack with a 34% chance to win the division. The Giants and Cowboys are neck and neck behind with 25% and 23%, respectively. At the bottom is Washington with an 18% chance of winning the division.

Each upcoming game also has win probability assigned through FiveThirtyEights’ Elo. A 33% win probability in a head-to-head matchup means the opponent is twice as expected to win the matchup. The Eagles and Football Team bot have three games where they don’t clear that threshold. New York has two such games and Dallas only one. Dallas, New York and Philadelphia all have two games remaining with a win probability over 50% whereas Washington has none.

Fortunately for NFL fans, it seems unlikely that a “deserving” team would miss the playoffs. Right now there are six NFC teams above .500 and the seventh spot reserved for an NFC East team. However, that brings us to…..

Doomsday Situations

Never before has an NFL team made the playoffs with fewer than seven wins. This year, it is possible and even likely that the NFC East champ has fewer than seven wins. A team would have to win four of six remaining to hit that number.

The absolute worst it gets is if NFC East teams lose to every non-division opponent and tie each other. This very specific path would yield an Eagles playoff team at 3-10-3. Much more possible is if NFC East teams lose to every non-division opponent in which Philly can still win the division at 4-11-1. If the Giants and Cowboys a win over Cincinnati (the only non-division opponent with a lower record), Dallas gets a boosted chance to win the division at 6-10 or 7-9.

The Eagles are in the driver’s seat of the division but the Giants have a winning divisional record (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

In fact, there still exist paths (highly unlikely and very specific ones) that gift football fans with three NFC East playoff teams. There even is a universe where Washington wins the division at 9-7 and the Giants and Cowboys get the sixth and seventh seeds with 8-8 records.

Back to the larger point, the NFL is due for a playoff team with a non-winning record for the fifth time since division realignment in 2002. With that in mind, history can help us see the future.

Santayana Goodbye

“Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The four teams who made the playoffs with a record of 8-8 or worse all have two glaring things in common: their regular season record and their playoff run.

2008 8-8 San Diego Chargers

Division Title: Yes (Tiebreaker over Denver)
Point Differential: 92 (1st in division)
Wild Card Opponent and Result: 12-4 Indianapolis Colts; 28-24 win.
Divisional Opponent and Result: 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers; 35-24 loss.
NFL Ranks
Total Offense: 11th
Scoring Offense: 2nd
Total Defense: 25th
Scoring Defense: 15th

2010 7-9 Seattle Seahawks

Division Title: Yes (Tiebreaker over St. Louis)
Point Differential: -97 (3rd in division)
Wild Card Opponent and Result: 11-5 New Orleans Saints; 41-36 win.
Divisional Opponent and Result: 11-5 Chicago Bears; 35-24 loss.
NFL Ranks
Total Offense: 28th
Scoring Offense: 23rd
Total Defense: 27th
Scoring Defense: 25th

Marshawn Lynch‘s Beast Quake run has forever given hope to playoff teams with losing records. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
2011 8-8 Denver Broncos

Division Title: Yes (Tiebreaker over San Diego and Oakland)
Point Differential: -81 (3rd in division)
Wild Card Opponent and Result: 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers; 29-23 OT win.
Divisional Opponent and Result: 13-3 New England Patriots 45-10 loss.
NFL Ranks
Total Offense: 23rd
Scoring Offense: 25th
Total Defense: 20th
Scoring Defense: 24th

2014 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers

Division Title: Yes (Half game lead over New Orleans)
Point Differential: -35 (2nd in division)
Wild Card Opponent and Result: 11-5 Arizona Cardinals; 27-16 win.
Divisional Opponent and Result: 12-4 Seattle Seahawks; 31-17 loss.
NFL Ranks
Total Offense: 16th
Scoring Offense: 19th
Total Defense: 10th
Scoring Defense: 21st

The four teams who qualified for the playoffs with .500 records or worse all won their first round matchup and lost by double digits in the divisional round. This season, the home-field advantage that wild card teams usually posses may be gone with a lack of fans in the stands.

With the variance in the profiles of the four teams above, there isn’t much to show which NFC East team seems most similar. Whichever NFC East team does make the playoffs will hope to follow in the footsteps of a positive trend on Wild Card Weekend. Though, with the divisional round being a traditional stopping point, the team that may sweat the most entering the playoffs is the eventual NFC fifth seed.

Featured Image courtesy of Patrick McDermott / Getty Images

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