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NFL Playoff predictions using PFF data

By Sam Monson
Dec 6, 2017

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Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) greets Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) after the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 regular season is in the final stretch, with teams vying for playoff seeding, or simply to keep their seasons alive over the next few games. It’s time to turn to the PFF data and see what that tells us about which teams will make up the playoff field and who will miss out over the final games of the season, projecting win totals and the playoff standings.

These wins are rooted heavily in our data that produces the PFFELO rankings each week, and has proven to be a very strong indicator of win probability. So here is where we have every team projected by the end of the season.

THE PLAYOFF FIELD:

AFC:

No. 1 seed: New England Patriots – 12.9 wins

The big X-factor in the AFC seeding race is the game next week between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots that likely decides which team takes home field advantage and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. At the moment, the PFF data can barely separate the two, and only a rounding to three decimal points separates them in the win projections. The Patriots have the best QB in the game in Tom Brady, which will always go a long way, but their defense is vastly improved from early in the season, and the last two weeks has seen Stephon Gilmore playing elite level coverage.

No. 2 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers – 12.9 wins

The Steelers seem to be back on track and looking like the team we expected to see heading into the season. Antonio Brown has hit his stride and Le’Veon Bell is some way back to his best, with that pair appearing to elevate the play of QB Ben Roethlisberger who has at least stopped being a drag on the overall talent level of the offense. Like the Patriots, defense is the question mark for the Steelers, and while they at least have some impact players up front, the coverage is still largely being achieved through scheme, smoke and mirrors, and seems to be the most obvious weakness for them heading down the stretch and into the playoffs.

No. 3 seed: Tennessee Titans – 10.3 wins

The AFC South is a battle, and the Titans and Jaguars figure to go down to the wire. They are separated by tiebreakers right now, and that could be the case when they end the season, though they do have to play one more time before the end of the season. Tennessee’s secondary has been vastly improved from a season ago, and the play of their young defensive backs could propel them to lofty places going forward. On offense, their line has been less dominant than a year ago, but the duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry continues to produce yardage.

No. 4 seed: Kansas City Chiefs – 8.3 wins

Along with what seems to be most of the AFC, the AFC West is chaos at the moment, with three teams tied with the same record of 6-6. The Chiefs though, were the NFL’s last undefeated team, having started the season 5-0, before losing six of their next seven. Alex Smith’s play was a huge reason they won five games to open the year, and a huge reason they went on a losing run. This past week he rediscovered that early form, and even though the defense continues to have its struggles, if he can maintain that level of play they should just sneak over the line atop the division, though nothing right now separates them from the Chargers, whose season is working in reverse.

 

WILD CARDS

No. 5 seed: Jacksonville Jaguars – 10.3 wins

Jacksonville could easily force their way atop the AFC South with a win over Tennessee, and they have the best unit in the division with an elite defense that has been carrying the team. They have a formidable pass-rush and coverage on the back end, and the potential to be just as good against the run if they can be a little more disciplined. Their biggest concern is obviously on offense with Blake Bortles at quarterback, though he is coming off the best game of his season where he was narrowly edged out for a spot on PFF’s Team of the Week.

No. 6 seed: Baltimore Ravens – 9.3 wins

The Baltimore Ravens are the one spot that seems to be almost set in stone when compared to the rest of the AFC playoff picture. They have little to no chance of catching the Steelers at the top of the division, but they should win more than enough games down the stretch to secure a wild card spot, with the AFC West dragging each other down into the mire, likely only one team emerges from that division. Baltimore has blown hot and cold this season, but Joe Flacco for the first time all year looked like the Joe Flacco that got hot and took the team to a Super Bowl a few years back. If they can get that guy again consistently, the Ravens could make some noise.

 

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Los Angeles Chargers: 8.3 wins

The Chargers wound up on the wrong side of the fence in PFF’s projections, but in reality, there is nothing between them and the Chiefs, both with their current record and what the PFF data projects them to end up with. The Chargers are the hotter team right now, and have the league’s most potent pass-rush duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Behind them is CB Casey Hayward, who has been as good as any corner in football this season, shutting down a series of top receivers.

Buffalo Bills: 8.2 wins

The Buffalo Bills seem to have been overachieving all season and been unprepared for doing so. Injuries on defense have caused some players to land on IR lately, and the projections anticipate them splitting their remaining games and finishing with the same .500 record they have now. This is a side that has always been building for 2018 and beyond, but they have been threatening the playoff picture all season.

Oakland Raiders: 7.7 wins

The Raiders are the one team in the AFC West that the PFF numbers suggest will fall away from that three-way tie at the top. Oakland has clawed their way back into contention, but they have still yet to see the play that Derek Carr is capable of at quarterback, and there are too many problems on defense for them to win games relying on that side of the ball. They will need to exceed their baseline of play down the stretch if they are to upset the odds and force their way into the playoffs.

NFC

No. 1 seed: Minnesota Vikings – 12.6 wins

With the Eagles losing this week in Seattle, the Vikings claimed the No. 1 seed as things stand, and the PFF data predicts that is the way things will end up, with both teams doing about the same down the stretch. The Vikings have one of the best defenses in football, but the real surprise for this team has been the offense, which has remained productive all season despite being led by a backup quarterback and running back. They are helped by the incredible play of WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but this team likely goes as far as the Case Keenum wagon can continue to roll without the wheels falling off. So far that has yet to happen.

No. 2 seed: Philadelphia Eagles – 12.5 wins

All is not lost for the Eagles despite falling to the Seahawks this past week in the Pacific Northwest. They still have the best defensive front in the game, and have a secondary that is only getting better with the return of CB Ronald Darby. Carson Wentz is playing excellent football, but what caused them problems against Seattle was the play of the left side of their offensive line, which collapsed against the Seahawks and surrendered 21 total pressures between just two players. With no Jason Peters, they need to ensure that doesn’t become their Achilles heel.

No. 3 seed: New Orleans Saints – 11.5 wins

The Saints are the team that most dramatically outperformed their win projection from the last time we ran the numbers. They have improved across the board, and now have the hottest back in football in the shape of Alvin Kamara, who leads the league in broken tackles since Week 5 by 11 from the next best mark, despite still being used sparingly as a change of pace or complement to Mark Ingram. Their defense is a vastly improved unit, but it relies heavily on rookie corner Marshon Lattimore, and if he misses time, it exposes a potential weak point for them.

No. 4 seed: Los Angeles Rams – 11.3 wins

The Rams are a game ahead of the Seahawks as things stand and the data suggests they will keep hold of that over the remainder of the year. Their offense under new head coach Sean McVay has been a dramatically different and vastly improved group from a season ago, and with Jared Goff playing better and Todd Gurley looking like the weapon they expected him to be when they drafted him, the Rams can put up points in a hurry. On defense, there are some holes, but in Aaron Donald they boast one of the best defenders in the game and a player that will impact any game.

 

WILD CARDS

No. 5 seed: Seattle Seahawks – 10.3 wins

Seattle proved this week that they are still a dangerous team capable of beating any team in the league on their day. For them, home field matters more than it does for most sides, so their best bet to progress in the playoffs is to overcome the deficit they currently sit at compared to the Rams, and take the division. Russell Wilson at his best is as good as any quarterback in the game, and the offensive line has dramatically improved with the arrival of Duane Brown in a trade with Houston. Since Brown has got there, the Seattle offensive line has allowed pressure at the 10th-best rate in the league, having been 30th before he was brought in.

No. 6 seed: Carolina Panthers – 10.0 wins

The NFC South is still wide open, with all of the teams playing each other over the final weeks of the season. The Panthers aren’t out of the division race, but neither are they safe from the Falcons overhauling them for a wild card spot and leaving them on the outside of the playoffs and watching the postseason from their couch in January. Cam Newton is key to everything they do, and he has been either been excellent or terrible this season, with very little in between. They need to figure out how to get good-Cam to show up when they need him.

 

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Atlanta Falcons: 9.3 wins

Atlanta’s playoff hopes took a blow this past week when they were knocked off by the Minnesota Vikings in their home stadium. What will encourage them though, is that they were able to hang with arguably the best team in the conference and could easily have won. Matt Ryan started the season slowly but is now up to being the No. 2 ranked quarterback at PFF with an overall grade of 89.5, and with him throwing to Julio Jones, they always have the potential to put up points in a hurry. Their key games now are all within the division.

Green Bay Packers: 8.0 wins

The X-factor here is the return of Aaron Rodgers, who has now been cleared to play following his collarbone injury. Rodgers won’t play this week, but could return the following week, and the Packers with him at the helm could easily be at least a game better off than their projected .500 record. The Green Bay running game has actually been dramatically better this season than in the past, and Rodgers could find himself at the helm of a better offense than the one he left if they are still in touch.

Detroit Lions: 7.0 wins

The Detroit Lions have been unfavored by the PFF metrics all season long, and it looks like that might finally be starting to tell, as they are now on the back of a two-game losing streak against teams that will expect to make the postseason. The Lions aren’t out of it by any means, but they will again need to outperform their baseline to prove the numbers wrong.

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