After 17 weeks, all but seven teams have either been eliminated or clinched a playoff spot. This makes it a good time to look back at how teams earned their records, starting with those that benefitted the most from scheduling.
Note that this is not meant to discredit what these teams have accomplished. In fact, they deserve credit for finding ways to win these games. If they have clinched a playoff spot, they also deserve credit for that. It’s hard to go and win every week, and it’s hard to win a majority of your games. Plus, you can only beat the teams on your schedule.
But now as we look forward, how likely are these teams to do well in the playoffs, or how much do they have to do in the offseason to be good next year? This is a kind of tip of the iceberg indicator. If you win eight or nine games yet miss the playoffs, you don’t want to be a team that foolishly overestimates how close you are to making the postseason due to a favorable schedule. In terms of playoff teams, there’s a reasonable chance that this analysis will become predictive and that these won’t be the teams that last the longest in the playoffs.
Eagles Capitalized to Make Playoffs
The Eagles’ had the easiest strength of schedule in the NFC with their opponents having a .447 winning percentage. They’ve played three backup QBs—Trevor Siemian, Mike Glennon, and Garrett Gilbert—which is the single factor that most dramatically changes the potential outcome of games. They also played Carolina without Christian McCaffrey. Philly is also playing in the weakest division in the NFL with four games that should be “gimmes” and two against Dallas. Putting all of this together, you should win at least 8 games or you’re a really bad team.
Out of the Eagles’ 9 wins, only one has come against a team that still has a chance to make the playoffs—they beat New Orleans 40-29 in Week 11. People in Philly are obsessed with the fact that the Saints had the top rated defense against the run at that time. Eagles fans like to say that because the Eagles were basically only running and beat the Saints, it proves they can beat good teams with their system.
Yet, the Eagles took a large lead against New Orleans prior to accumulating rushing yards. This was due to a few big passes and two impactful INT that led to touchdowns. Siemian was first picked off by Edwards on the Saints second drive of the game, leading to an Eagles TD.
At the end of the first half, Siemian was intercepted again. This time it was a pick-six by Darius Slay:
While the Saints have a pretty good defense, Philly happened to play them when Winston and Hill were both out. New Orleans was behind the eight ball early because of these turnovers, and they were playing a third-string QB while trying to win from behind, which is never going to happen.
Overall, the Eagles’ biggest weakness is their pass defense. If they play any team in the playoffs that naturally throws the ball a lot such as the Rams or Buccaneers, they are at risk of getting outscored. If they play a team that likes to run the ball, they could keep it close and perhaps even pull one out. The Eagles defense is very good against the run, and because they run the ball a lot themselves, shortening the game will serve their interests. As usual, however, most of the teams in the playoffs are pass-oriented.
Miami’s Strong Run Fell Short
Miami has had the easiest strength of schedule in the AFC. During their 7 game win streak, they beat five backup QBs in Tyrod Taylor, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Mike Glennon, and Ian Book. It’s obvious that the Dolphins are playing with a terrible offensive line that has allowed the highest pressure rate in the league (37.6%). I also wouldn’t bet my future on their QB, Tua Tagovailoa.
On the defensive side, they have a strong secondary, and they believe they can scheme up pressure despite a weak defensive line. This strategy could suffice if their goal is to be in the mix every year. But the best QBs will rip them to shreds when they’re forced to send extra defenders constantly. Here’s an example of Brady doing so against Miami in week 5 (they are playing cover 1 and sending 5 pass rushers):
The Dolphins will never beat teams with elite QBs if they have to scheme up pressure. They have to improve the defensive line and must be able to generate pressure without sending extra rushers. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t blitz—the Ravens are an example of a team with a very good defensive line that is consistently among the top teams in the league in blitz rate. It just means that they will limit their potential without addressing this need, and it will only be exacerbated if they play a less favorable schedule.
How far will the Bills go?
If the Bills beat the Jets this week, they will win the AFC East for the second consecutive season. But they have only beat 3 teams that either will make the playoffs or still could: New England (1-1 against), Kansas City (beat earlier in the season), and New Orleans. They have also had the benefit of playing five backup level QBs in Jacoby Brissett, Davis Mills, Mike White, Trevor Siemian, and Cam Newton. At this moment, I’m rattled by how poorly Josh Allen’s been playing; he is contributing as a runner, but he’s a negative right now as a passer. Either his poor play or the Bills lack of quality wins could prove to be too much to overcome in the playoffs.