We’re almost halfway done with the regular season, and despite significant uncertainty moving forward, there has been some clarity emerging during the last few weeks. In this article, we look at the probability that each elite team in the NFC and the AFC earns a first-round bye, using our simulations powered by AWS. Getting a first-round bye has been important in recent years, as the last team to even earn a Super Bowl berth without one was the Joe Flacco-led Baltimore Ravens in 2012. Enjoy!
New Orleans Saints: 78.0%
If you tune into just about any talk show, you will hear people go on and on about the 49ers and Packers. Perhaps it's fatigue from talking about the Saints last season, or that no one really gave them a shot at going undefeated with Teddy Bridgewater as a starter. The rest of the NFC South also turned out to be a complete dumpster fire, which means the Saints face only two legit opponents down the stretch in the 49ers and Colts, both of which will be played down in New Orleans. As well as Aaron Rodgers has played of late, the Saints have the best quarterback-receiver-coach trio, which gives them an overwhelming chance at securing a first-round bye.
San Francisco 49ers: 56.6%
San Francisco’s defense has been otherworldly so far this season; opposing quarterbacks have a 13.6 passer rating when throwing under pressure against them, which would be the second-lowest in a season all-time. But defense is notoriously unpredictable — past defensive performance predicts future performance worse than prior offensive performance, and the Niners have faced the fourth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses to date (fifth-easiest overall) and have the second-hardest remaining offensive schedule (ninth-hardest overall). This schedule includes both games against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, a date with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, which will test Bob Saleh and crew. The tough schedule and relative weakness in the passing game mean the ‘Niners have a far worse chance at securing a bye than the other undefeated team over in Foxboro, and a slightly worse chance than the Saints.
Green Bay Packers: 37.9%
Green Bay’s chances of earning a bye are not indicative of how strong they are compared to the Saints and Niners (though our ELO rankings do put them behind each of those two). The Pack doesn’t have too challenging of a remaining schedule, but they have by far the hardest division out of this NFC group of three. The Minnesota Vikings have just two losses and Kirk Cousins has played every bit as well as any quarterback over the last four weeks, the Lions came within a few horrific calls from winning in Lambeau and the Bears are pretty solid for being the worst team in a division.
New England Patriots: 97.6%
New England had the league’s easiest schedule through the season’s first eight weeks. While things certainly get tougher, starting this week in Baltimore, it’s not like they are facing worldbeaters moving forward, facing just the 22nd-toughest schedule from Week 9 on. Defense is difficult to hang your hat on, but the Patriots are pushing the envelope in this regard in 2019. It will be interesting to see if this holds through Week 17.
Baltimore Ravens: 30.2%
The Ravens have a road loss in Kansas City under their belt, and home dates with New England and Houston the next three weeks. With John Harbaugh and company guiding things, there is reason to be optimistic despite the harsh conditions moving forward, but losses to Kansas City, New England and Houston would make earning a first-round bye extremely difficult, even in a weak AFC North.
Indianapolis Colts: 22.5%
The Colts are one of the most impressive teams in the NFL, but they are currently the only division leader with less than a 50% chance of coming away with the division title. Their second-place schedule is an advantage versus the rest of the field here, but they will need improved play from quarterback Jacoby Brissett (who is generating the same rate of big-time throws as he is turnover-worthy plays) to be a true contender in an AFC with legitimate star power at the position at the other four spots.
Houston Texans: 18.8%
Like Indianapolis, the Texans have a win in Arrowhead against the Chiefs to their credit. Like Baltimore, Houston also has a date with the Patriots upcoming. Deshaun Watson is one of the league’s most impressive players and should be a candidate for MVP through eight weeks, generating a positively graded throw on almost 29% of his dropbacks so far this season, despite injuries to both his offensive line and receiving corps.
Kansas City Chiefs: 17.7%
After earning the one seed in 2018, and starting 4-0 in 2019, the Chiefs have lost three consecutive home games and now are on the outside looking in for the AFC’s second seed, hoping for a New England win this week in Baltimore to properly leverage their Week 3 win against the Ravens. Matt Moore looked awesome on Sunday night against the Packers but will likely have to play equally well this Sunday against a Vikings team riding a four-game winning streak into Arrowhead. The Chiefs schedule is one of the league’s toughest moving forward, so getting back to a first-round bye for the third time in four years will take some work (and likely some luck).