NFL futures outlook: Finding the value in a stacked NFC field

NFL futures outlook: Finding the value in a stacked NFC field article feature image

Both conferences in the NFL this year are wide open, but for significantly different reasons. I previously covered the AFC landscape from a futures perspective and recommended a long shot that I thought held value. Unlike the AFC, no NFC team will have a chance to sneak into this year’s playoffs with a 9-7 record, as 10 teams in the conference currently sport a .500 or better record. Let’s take a deeper dive into the NFC race.

Current NFC Playoff Picture

  1. Philadelphia Eagles 9-1 (5/1 SB odds)
  2. Minnesota Vikings 8-2 (12/1)
  3. New Orleans Saints 8-2 (10/1)
  4. Los Angeles Rams 7-3 (19/1)
  5. Carolina Panthers 7-3 (25/1)
  6. Atlanta Falcons 6-4 (15/1)

The Philadelphia Eagles are the only team that I think is safely in the playoffs at this point. Given the competitive nature of the conference and how often the teams in contention will play each other down the stretch, I don’t even think the Saints and Vikings are completely safe yet. To simulate some of the scenarios yourself, check out the latest 2017 NFL Playoff Simulator on ESPN. Let’s take a look at the possibilities to determine if a potential investment is warranted.

I immediately eliminated the following eight NFC teams at the start of this exercise, since I do not believe any has a realistic shot of playing in the postseason:

  • Dallas Cowboys 5-5 (70/1)
  • Green Bay Packers 5-5 (150/1)
  • Washington Redskins 4-6 (300/1)
  • Arizona Cardinals 4-6 (500/1)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4-6 (500/1)
  • Chicago Bears 3-7 (2500/1)
  • New York Giants 2-8 (2500/1)
  • San Francisco 49ers 1-9 (9999/1)

I can already hear the fans in Dallas and Green Bay objecting to the above list, since the Cowboys and Packers are one game back of the final playoff spot. However, don’t forget the team that currently sits in the sixth spot, Atlanta, owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over each; therefore, the Packers and Cowboys are essentially two games back with six remaining without key contributors on offense.

To illustrate the differences in class between the AFC and NFC this year, just look at the 4-6 teams in both conferences. In the AFC, you still have hope. In the NFC, you are pretty much dead. For example, if the Redskins run the table to finish 10-6, they will still only make the playoffs in about 55 percent of possible scenarios, according to this NY Times simulator.

Let’s now examine the three 6-4 teams in the conference that are currently competing for the final Wild Card to see if any value in the futures market exists.

Atlanta Falcons 6-4 (15/1)

Remaining: Buccaneers, Vikings, Saints, at Buccaneers, at Saints, Panthers

Pros: Current six seed. Experience from last season. Getting healthier on defense. Two games with the Bucs remaining. Four of final six games are played at home. Head-to-head wins over all four teams behind them (Seahawks, Lions, Cowboys and Packers), which means those teams would have to jump them in the standings. Since three of their four losses have come against AFC teams, they are in good shape for any potential conference record tiebreaker as well.

Cons: 28-3 lasting effects. Playing four of the final six games against current NFC playoff teams provides opportunities, but also translates to a difficult remaining schedule.

Projected Record:  10-6 (9-3 Conference)

Seattle Seahawks 6-4 (25/1)

Remaining: at 49ers, Eagles, at Jaguars, Rams, at Cowboys, Cardinals

Pros: Russell Wilson. Road win at Los Angeles, which means they could sweep the season series with a home win over the Rams to potentially win the division if the teams finish with identical records.

Cons: Loss to the Falcons. Difficult remaining schedule. Will play the Cowboys in Dallas when Ezekiel Elliott returns. Significant injuries on defense. Offensive line play. No running game. Blair Walsh.

Projected Record:  9-7 (7-5 Conference)

Detroit Lions 6-4 (40/1)

Remaining: Vikings, at Ravens, at Buccaneers, Bears, at Bengals, Packers

Pros: Taylor Decker back on the offensive line. Strong special teams. Road win at Minnesota, which means they can sweep the season series on Thanksgiving. Favorable schedule. Their game in Baltimore will come with extra prep (Thursday game) against the Ravens on short rest (Monday night game). After the Vikings’ game this week, zero of their final five opponents are currently over .500.

Cons: Losses to the Falcons and Panthers could hurt potential tiebreakers. Pass rush. Running game. They’re still the Lions.

Projected Record:  10-6 (8-4 Conference)

NFC Futures Recap

I don’t see any reason why one would even begin to consider the Seattle Seahawks at 25/1 to win the Super Bowl, especially after the recent season-ending injuries to Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. They have offensive line issues, no running game to speak of, a kicker who can’t be relied on, and a difficult schedule down the stretch. Russell Wilson will keep them in games with his wizardry, but there is simply no value with the Seahawks. Hard pass.

The Atlanta Falcons have significant head-to-head advantages in the race for the final Wild Card, but they don’t have an easy remaining schedule, and they still appear to be mentally fragile. Atlanta waits for bad things to happen once they get a lead, which I think is directly attributable to last year’s Super Bowl collapse. They do possess the talent and experience to make a run, but I  just don’t trust them, especially at only 15/1.

Everybody is starting to praise the 8-2 Minnesota Vikings, as they should. However,  don’t forget that the Detroit Lions defeated the Vikings in Minnesota earlier in the season. The Lions are just a few yards away from an 8-2 record, as they really should have defeated both the Falcons and Steelers. They lost both of those games due to extreme struggles in the red zone, but the return of Taylor Decker at left tackle has helped resolve some of those issues. They have also had issues generating pressure and defending the run, but the return of a healthy Ezekiel Ansah should help address some of the issues up front with setting the edge.  Additionally, don’t underestimate the signing of Dwight Freeney, who was very productive with the Seahawks; Seattle was forced to cut him for cap relief.

Detroit has the easiest remaining schedule of the three 6-4 NFC teams, as they do not play a team that is currently over .500 after this Thursday. As a result, I think they have the best shot of the three teams at finishing 5-1.

Consider this simple scenario over the next two weeks:

  • Lions beat the Vikings on Thursday
  • Lions beat the Ravens next Sunday
  • Vikings lose in Atlanta next Sunday

If those three results occur, the Lions will sit in first place in the division 10 days from now with a trip to Tampa Bay on deck, while the Vikings travel to Carolina for their third straight road game. If the Lions can win for the fifth straight year on Thanksgiving, do not count them out of the NFC North race.

Even if the Lions lose their next two games against the Vikings and Ravens, they would still make the postseason in over 80 percent of scenarios if they finish the year with four straight wins over the Bucs, Bengals, Bears and Packers.

There is a good chance that coming up 1 yard short against the Falcons will cost the Lions the Wild Card due to a head-to-head tiebreaker, which sounds about right for the tortured franchise. However, there is simply too much value to pass up on the Lions at 40/1, especially once you consider that a home win on Thursday would realistically put a division title within reach.


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