Playoff crashers: Ranking outsiders who can still get in the party

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In this year of nearly unmatched parity, it would be foolish to assume we can already identify the playoff teams of 2016. ESPN's Football Power Index gives just three teams -- the Cowboys, Patriots and Seahawks -- what amounts to "lock" status, with a better than 98 percent chance of making it to the postseason. Nobody else even makes it to 84 percent.

There's still a lot more football to go, and because there are so many teams lurking around .500, there certainly is potential for a team to come out of nowhere and break through for a stunning run into the postseason. I wrote about this exact topic after Week 10 last year and found two teams who crashed the playoffs despite having playoff odds below 25 percent: Houston (22.9 percent) and Washington (14.2 percent), who were both 4-5 after Week 10 and proceeded to go 5-2 the rest of the way to win their respective divisions.

It's not hard to imagine the same sort of thing happening this year. There are six teams -- the Rams, Jaguars, Jets, Bears, Browns and 49ers -- with playoff odds below 1 percent. But there are 13 teams, ranging from the Patriots to the Lions, who have at least a 33.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. (If your team isn't included below, they're in this group, and their playoff chances are actually better than any of the teams being written up below. Don't get angry.)

So here's what's left: 13 teams who all have playoff odds between 1 percent and 33.3 percent. These are our long shots. FPI has its opinion, and I'll have mine here, as I rank them in terms of my expectations of how likely they are to make the postseason, and what it might take for them to get there. Let's begin with what might be among the better teams of the bunch, even if it has the worst odds ...

13. San Diego Chargers (4-6)

Playoff odds: 3.7 percent

The poor Chargers mostly did this to themselves, but a catastrophic run of injuries has helped. The Chargers have had just nine players start all 10 games this season, and that will fall to eight when Brandon Mebane watches the rest of the season while on injured reserve. They'll likely be missing eight players who would have been starters if the entire lineup was healthy in Week 12 against the Texans, and those numbers don't include impressive rookie Jatavis Brown.

San Diego has outplayed its 4-6 record. The Chargers have outscored the opposition by 14 points, haven't lost a game by more than eight points, and have been favorites to win at one or more points in the fourth quarter, per, in five of their six losses. They've been disastrously sloppy in the fourth, turning over the ball 10 times, a number that includes four interceptions from Philip Rivers in a Week 10 loss to the Dolphins.

FPI has the Chargers 16th, basically a league-average team. Unfortunately, it's too late for them to field a serious run; they're 1-3 in the AFC West, a division that features three seven-win teams. There's a very reasonable chance the AFC West sends three teams to the postseason this year, given that the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders all have a higher than 40 percent shot at winning a wild-card berth. It's just not likely to be the Chargers.

12. Cincinnati Bengals (3-6-1)

Playoff odds: 12.0 percent

We know something FPI doesn't, of course: The Bengals are shedding parts like a damaged spaceship crashing to Earth. They lost two critical offensive weapons Sunday, with Giovani Bernard tearing his ACL and A.J. Green suffering a hamstring injury that may end his season. Their offense kept up appearances shortly after Green's departure, producing two long drives, before sputtering out in the second half, where they produced a single first down in their first five drives.

Last year's Bengals might have been able to overcome these injuries. They were deeper at wide receiver with Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Rookie Tyler Boyd has flashed some promise, but Brandon LaFell hasn't been productive and did little to occupy Stephon Gilmore on an ugly Andy Dalton interception that set up a Buffalo field goal Sunday.

More disconcertingly, after running out one of the league's best offensive lines last year, Cincinnati's line has been a mess in 2016. Last year, Dalton was pressured on just 21.0 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-lowest rate in the league, despite the fact that he was blitzed on 35.8 percent of those dropbacks, which was the sixth-highest rate in football. This year, teams are blitzing Dalton less frequently (26.7 percent) and getting pressure without it, as Dalton's pressure rate is in the middle of the pack at 25.7 percent. The biggest problem has been at right tackle, where 2015 first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi has been a major disappointment in his first year as a starter.

It's difficult to imagine the Bengals generating enough offense to run the table, which is what they will likely need to do to win the AFC North. They do have four games left within the division, which helps, but their pair of narrow losses and a tie over the past three games have likely clinched their fate. The same Bengals team that was 7-2-1 in games decided by one score or less last year is 1-2-1 in those same contests this year.

11. Tennessee Titans (5-6)

Playoff odds: 10.8 percent

Mike Mularkey's team really needed a win over the Colts on Sunday. There was a25.5 percent swing in Tennessee's playoff chances between where they were heading into Week 11 and where they would have been with a victory. The Titans deserve credit for battling back after going down 21-0, but some questionable timeout usage and a stuff from the Colts on a fourth-and-1 try by DeMarco Murray cost the Titans a shot at a victory.

As the Packers did a week ago, Indy abused Titans cornerback Perrish Cox, who has to be one of the worst regulars in the NFL at the moment. Tennessee didn't get much help from fellow corner Valentino Blake, who pointed the wrong way after a fumble recovery last week and this weekrushed in with a furious attempt to down a punt at the 2-yard line, which would have been helpful if it weren't for the fact that his team was on offense at the time. Blake nearly gave the Colts an easy touchdown (had he failed to grasp the football) and promptly lashed out at skeptical fans for not understanding football afterward.

The Titans have shown plenty of promise this season, and Mularkey deserves credit for installing an offensive scheme that has rebuilt the career of DeMarco Murray while continuing to develop Marcus Mariota. But Tennessee is now 5-6 with a 1-3 record in the mediocre AFC South. After playing the Bears, they get a Week 13 bye before facing the Broncos and Chiefs. If they can pull upsets on those AFC West opponents, they have a shot at the division crown.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5)

Playoff odds: 10.1 percent

The Bucs pulled off a brave upset in beating the Chiefs in Kansas City, a feat given that the Chiefs were 16-4 at home over the past three seasons heading into Sunday. As NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal noted, they "out-Chiefed the Chiefs". Tampa Bay won the turnover battle 2-1, including a critical Chris Conte pick of Alex Smith in the end zone, went 11-for-16 on third down, and set up its kicker for easy field goals, with Roberto Aguayo going 4-for-4 on kicks that went an average distance of 32.5 yards.

The problem is that the Bucs simply have a high degree of difficulty to crash the postseason. They don't have many easy games left: They still face the Seahawks and Cowboys, have two games against the Saints, and a trip to San Diego. Their easiest matchup might actually be their opponents in Week 17 ...

9. Carolina Panthers (4-6)

Playoff odds: 5.5 percent

... the Panthers, whom the Bucs beat in Week 5. Carolina's schedule isn't much easier. The Panthers still face the Raiders, Seahawks, Chargers, Washington and the Falcons before squaring off against Tampa in the season finale. Carolina's hold-on-for-dear-life victory over the Saints on Thursday night was also its first win within the division, pushing it to 1-3 and still leaving it unlikely to win many tiebreakers in the South. FPI also gives the Panthers just a 2.6 percent chance of winning a wild-card berth, meaning that Carolina probably needs an Atlanta collapse to have a serious chance at the playoffs.

Carolina is ahead of Tampa because the Panthers have looked significantly better since their bye week, but like Cincinnati, FPI can't account for an injury to a critical contributor. Sean McDermott has begun to use Luke Kuechly more frequently as a blitzer, and it has helped kick-start a moribund Panthers defense. If Kuechly's concussion keeps him out for an extended period of time, it's hard to see how the Panthers will deal with opposing offenses.

8. Arizona Cardinals (4-5-1)

Playoff odds: 13.9 percent

Arguably 2016's most disappointing team, the Cardinals simply can't protect Carson Palmer as injuries have hit the offensive line. The 36-year-old QB was knocked down a staggering 15 times on 42 dropbacks by the Vikings on Sunday, and Palmer seems to be on a different page from his receivers at times, as was the case when John Brown never seemed to come off his break on what ended up as a 100-yard pick-12 by Xavier Rhodes late in the second quarter. (A pick-12, as you can probably guess, is when a quarterback turns a situation in which his team is likely to score a touchdown and instead throws a pick-six, which amounts to a 12-point swing.)

Bruce Arians' bunch is 1-3 in one-score games after going 13-5 over the previous three seasons, and they still have to travel to Atlanta and Seattle in the next month. They don't really have any impressive wins on their ledger, either: They've mostly won big when they have prevailed, but those wins have come against the Buccaneers, Jets and the 49ers twice. Four of their final six games are also on the road.

7. Baltimore Ravens (5-5)

Playoff odds: 25.2 percent

It's all about strength of schedule. Heading into this week, the Ravens had faced what Football Outsiders deemed to be the league's easiest schedule. Starting with Sunday's game against the Cowboys, they were set to face the league's toughest slate the rest of the way. The opposite was true for the Steelers, who were fittingly facing the Browns at the same time.

Baltimore put up a fight against the league's only 9-1 team before going down, but things won't be easy for them the rest of the way. They'll benefit from playing a Bengals team almost surely to be without Green next week, and the jury is still out on Miami, but the Ravens still have to face the Patriots in New England and the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Joe Flacco & Co. also have to host the Eagles, who are considered to be wildly underrated by just about every advanced metric I can find.

They simply needed to have more wins banked by now. They were lucky to start the year 3-0 while outscoring the opposition by just 13 points, and they were subsequently unlucky to go on a four-game losing streak while being outscored by only 18 points. It's a shame, because the Ravens do have a genuinely great defense, especially against the run, in which they were No. 1 in DVOA going into Sunday, and then held Ezekiel Elliott to 97 rushing yards on 25 carries, which is impressive given Elliott's recent standards of ridiculousness.

6. Miami Dolphins (6-4)

Playoff odds: 29.4 percent

Out of nowhere, the Dolphins have sprinted into the AFC playoff picture. After a 1-4 start capped by an embarrassing performance against the Bengals on national television, Adam Gase finally settled on a running back in Jay Ajayi and managed to right the ship. Ajayi's emergence as a workhorse back has shut off the turnover spigot for the Dolphins, who had 11 giveaways in four contests before their game against the Steelers on Oct. 16. Since then, Ryan Tannehill's offense has given up the ball twice in five games, while the defense has forced nine takeaways.

The downside: Their five-game winning streak doesn't hold up well under scrutiny. They beat the Steelers 30-15 in a game in whichBen Roethlisberger was injured and mostly useless in the second half. Miami beat the Bills by three in a game in which they were really up by more until a meaningless late Buffalo touchdown, but their next three games have basically been coin flips: They won on a late kick-return touchdown against the Jets and a pick-six with 1:13 left against the Chargers as San Diego was approaching field goal range, and needed two late touchdown drives to prevail over a mostly useless Jared Goff in his first NFL start on Sunday. They've benefited from wildly important-but-unsustainable plays in key moments and an ugly slate of opposing quarterbacks.

A ground game is there, and the defense has woken up, and they may have locked up enough wins at 6-4 to sneak in as an average football team because the remaining schedule isn't tough: They still have the 49ers, Ravens, Cardinals, Jets and Bills to play before a Week 17 tilt against the Patriots, who might not have anything to play for and would presumably sit the likes of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. FPI may very well be underestimating their chances at this point.

5. Buffalo Bills (5-5)

Playoff odds: 30.2 percent

The unlucky Bills finally caught a break: After going 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season, they did enough on offense and took advantage of the injuries to Green and Bernard to beat the Bengals 16-12. (It didn't help the Bills, to be fair, when they lost Shady McCoy to a thumb injury, although Mike Gillislee was effective in McCoy's absence.) It wasn't pretty, but the Bills did enough to win in Cincy.

The Bills also will be favored this upcoming week, when they face the Jaguars at home in Buffalo, but it's tough to see that turning into a winning streak, as they travel to Oakland in Week 13. The good news: Four of their final six games are at home, including tilts against the Jags and Browns, and the other road trip is to face the lowly Jets in Week 17. The problem is they don't hold up well in tiebreakers. The Bills already have lost to wild-card contenders such as the Ravens and Dolphins, and they're 2-4 in AFC contests so far this year. The Raiders, Steelers and Dolphins tilts will be critical as the Bills try to sneak in with a 9-7 or 10-6 record.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)

Playoff odds: 27.8 percent

One of the best teams in football, the Eagles would be the class of a division like the AFC South this season. Instead, they're trapped in the suddenly scary NFC East, where Philly may have fallen too far behind. The 9-1 Cowboys are likely out of reach, but the Eagles are now two games behind the Giants and 1.5 games behind Washington, both of whom hold the tiebreaker over Philadelphia. At just 3-5 in the NFC, the Eagles have to hope for a head-to-head wild-card quandary against the Vikings and Falcons. Philly beat both of those teams, but they're also huge favorites to each win their respective divisions, leaving them immune to a challenge by Doug Pederson's team.

It's a shame, because the Eagles have been football's most underrated team this year, even given the hype from their 3-0 start. They were No. 1 in DVOA heading into this week and won't fall far even after losing to the second-ranked Seahawks. Sunday was their first loss of the season by more than a touchdown, while each of their five victories have been by more than one score, including comfortable wins over the Steelers, Vikings and Falcons.

There are no easy victories the rest of the way for Philadelphia. They get desperate teams in the Packers and Bengals over the next two weeks, and then mix in a game against the Ravens amid a series of three showdowns with their NFC East brethren. Four of those six games are at home, which helps. Their game against Green Bay next Monday looms as absolutely critical; if they lose at home to the Packers, the Eagles probably will need to run the table to have any hope of winning a wild-card berth given their dismal tiebreaker situation.

3. New Orleans Saints (4-6)

Playoff odds: 15.3 percent

This could have been so much easier for the Saints if they had just managed to come up with some late-game heroics. They lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Broncos two weeks ago on a blocked extra point that would have given them the lead with 1:22 left, then saw a frantic comeback come up three points short against the Panthers on Thursday. With a little luck earlier in the season, the Saints could easily be 6-4 or better right now and be primed to compete with the teams in the NFC East for the wild card.

It'll be tougher now, but the Saints have a shot. Their schedule the rest of the way is not exactly scary: They host the Rams and Lions over the next two weeks, play a home-and-home with the Bucs, and travel to Arizona before a season-ending trip to Atlanta. The Falcons currently hold the tiebreaker over the Saints, but they're only ahead by two games with six to play. The Saints need a little help from the Panthers in Week 16 to prevent the Falcons from creating a tiebreaker firewall, but it's hardly out of the question that the Saints could travel to Atlanta in Week 17 with a shot at winning the division. That hasn't gone well for the Falcons in the past.

2. Green Bay Packers (4-6)

Playoff odds: 11.4 percent

It's dangerous to put the Packers this high. They're on a four-game losing streak, of course, and it has felt more traumatic than even that might indicate. The Packers have allowed 153 points over their past four games, including 30 points in each of those contests, the first time they've done that in 63 years. Concerns about the offense have given way to brutally terrifying performances from an anonymous, vanilla defense.

The blame for the defense goes everywhere. Injuries have sapped the secondary of top corner Sam Shields, out since the opener with a concussion. Clay Matthews has missed three games with a hamstring problem and came back in only limited duty this week. Ted Thompson chose not to re-sign Casey Hayward in free agency and let him leave for San Diego, where he has been above average, choosing instead to rely upon 2015 first- and second-round picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins to play bigger roles. Rollins has struggled and Randall is another injury casualty.

With Matthews absent, the pass rush has disappeared, which has been a disaster. When Dom Capers hasn't blitzed, the Packers' defense ranks 30th in QBR allowed at 77.0. (For reference, during his MVP campaign in 2014, Aaron Rodgers posted a QBR of 81.3.) Teams have used the extra time to destroy the Packers downfield. They're allowing a 99.5 QBR on throws 16 or more yards downfield, worst in the league, while the 123.0 passer rating they're giving up on those passes is fifth in the league. The four teams behind them are the Browns, Bucs, Jags and 49ers, a combined 8-33. Opposing receivers aren't afraid of the Green Bay secondary, either, as it has dropped a league-low 1.8 percent of passes.

The best hope for the Packers to return to adequacy is Matthews, who should get healthier as the weeks go on. It helps that he'll have an extra day of rest before next Monday's critical game against Philadelphia. The Packers then face the Texans and Seahawks at home before touring the rest of the NFC North to end their season, with road games against the Bears and Lions sandwiching a home tilt against the Vikings. They're 2-1 in the North, which helps, and currently would hold a tiebreaker over the Lions. Their journey to the playoffs is basically to hold serve by beating the Eagles and Texans, sweep those three North games, and hope that the Vikings slip to sneak into the playoffs as division champs at 9-7. It's not implausible, but it certainly feels like the Packers are closer to falling apart than any of their competitors in the North right now.

1. Indianapolis Colts (5-5)

Playoff odds: 24.5 percent

I'll take the Colts as the top potential playoff crasher, because the Texans aren't exactly in great shape. Houston is a six-point underdog against the Raiders in Mexico City on Monday night, and if they lose, they'll be just one game ahead of the Colts with the tiebreaker and six games to play. Houston would still be favored to make the playoffs in that scenario, but they're just a bad football team; the Texans were 30th in DVOA heading into this week, trapped between the 49ers and Jets among the absolute worst teams in football on a play-by-play basis. The Colts weren't much better, at 27th, but Houston was closer to Cleveland (dead last) than they were to Indy.

Houston and Indy both have three home games left after Week 11, including one against the Jaguars. The Colts have to travel to face the Raiders (in Oakland as opposed to Mexico City) and Vikings, but their other road trip is to play the Jets. The Texans travel to face the Titans and Packers in addition to, quite crucially, the Colts. The clear advantage for the Texans is that they host the Chargers, while the Colts have to face the Steelers in Indy on Thanksgiving night. The other problem for the Colts is that the Texans are currently 3-0 in the division, while Indy is 2-2.

The Titans could still run interference here, but the Colts have a win in hand, and if the Texans collapse over the second half -- and teams who go 5-0 in one-score games through nine contests don't exactly have a great track record in keeping that sort of stuff up -- the Colts are well-positioned to take advantage and regain the AFC South.

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