NFL futures outlook: Take a shot in the wide open AFC

NFL futures outlook: Take a shot in the wide open AFC article feature image

Both conferences in the NFL this year are wide open, but for significantly different reasons. Every single division in the AFC has an overall negative +/- in 2017. As a result, I think there is potential value in finding a long shot that could win a game or two in January competing in a weak AFC field. To simulate some of the scenarios yourself, click on any team you are interested in here. That model only gives the Bills, the current six seed, a one percent better chance of making the playoffs than the Ravens; some models actually have Baltimore as the favorite. Don’t forget that two of the 12 playoff teams last year had a record of 4-5 or worse at this point in the season. Let’s take a deeper dive into the AFC race. (Check back in tomorrow for a look at the NFC.)

Current AFC Playoff Picture

  1. New England Patriots 7-2 (3/1 to win the Super Bowl)
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-2 (6/1)
  3. Kansas City Chiefs 6-3 (11/1)
  4. Tennessee Titans 6-3 (36/1)
  5. Jacksonville Jaguars 6-3 (24/1)
  6. Buffalo Bills 5-4 (155/1)

I am operating under the assumption that the first five teams above will all make the NFL playoffs. However, I simply don’t believe in the Buffalo Bills, who currently sit in the sixth spot in the AFC playoff race, especially after hearing that Nathan Peterman will get the nod under center this weekend. The timing of the announcement is peculiar, as the Bills begin a two-game road trip against the Chargers and Chiefs. I’m not sure why you would bench your mobile quarterback for a rookie the week you face one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the NFL on the road. Additionally, the Bills still play both the Patriots and Dolphins twice, which only leaves one “gimme” on their schedule – a home game against the Colts.  Even if you assume that the Bills split their other six remaining games (Patriots 2x, Dolphins 2x, at Chiefs, at Chargers), which I think is fairly generous, that gets them to 9-7 on the season. I actually project that they will finish 8-8, but either scenario would open the door for an AFC team that currently sits at 4-5 (or worse) to snag the last playoff spot. Let’s take a look at the possibilities in order to determine if a potential investment is warranted.

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

  • Denver Broncos 3-6 (255/1)
  • Houston Texans 3-6 (255/1)
  • Cincinnati Bengals 3-6 (310/1)
  • New York Jets 4-6 (525/1)
  • Indianapolis Colts 3-7 (1000/1)
  • Cleveland Browns 0-9 (9999/1)

Now, let’s examine the four other teams that I think at least have an outside chance of grabbing the final Wild Card.

Oakland Raiders 4-5 (51/1)

Remaining: Patriots (neutral), Broncos, Giants, at Chiefs, Cowboys, at Eagles, at Chargers

Pros: Offensive explosiveness/potential. Presumably get the Cowboys without Ezekiel Elliott, and could potentially play in Philadelphia against an Eagles team that has the No. 1 seed in the NFC wrapped up.

Cons:  Historically bad defense. Head-to-head losses to the Bills, Chargers and Ravens hurt potential tiebreakers. “Home” game against the Patriots this week is in Mexico.

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

Baltimore Ravens 4-5 (155/1)

Remaining: at Packers, Texans, Lions, at Steelers, at Browns, Colts, Bengals

Pros: Only AFC team outside of the top five in the playoff race that has a positive +/-. Top-three DVOA rated defense and special teams units heading into their bye. Conference record advantage. Head-to-head wins over Miami and Oakland. Extremely easy remaining schedule. Getting healthy, especially on offense at wide receiver and running back (Woodhead addition is massive).  Flacco’s late-season splits (49-27 with 107 TD, 60 INT after November 1).  Franchise experience/pedigree.

Cons: Major question marks on offense.

Projected Record:  9-7 (8-4 Conference)

Miami Dolphins 4-5 (330/1)

Remaining:  Bucs, at Patriots, Broncos, Patriots, at Bills, at Chiefs

Pros: Yes, they have pros on their team. That’s all I got.

Cons: Jay Cutler. Fourth-worst point differential in the NFL. Losses to Baltimore and Oakland hurt their tiebreaker chances. Their remaining schedule includes two games with the Patriots, and they close the season with two road games at Buffalo and at Kansas City. Looking at their schedule above, do you really trust them to win any other games outside of Tampa and Denver at home?

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

Los Angeles Chargers 3-6 ( 155/1)

Remaining: Bills, at Cowboys, Browns, Redskins, at Chiefs, at Jets, Raiders

Pros: With Denzel Perryman back at linebacker, the Chargers feature one of the best defenses in the NFL that should keep them in every game. Win at Oakland over the Raiders. Will have chances to make up ground with the Raiders and Bills on their schedule. Presumably will play Dallas without Ezekiel Elliott, and could be a major mismatch up front if the Cowboys don’t figure out their situation at left tackle.

Cons: 3-6. 2-5 Conference record. Loss to Dolphins. No home-field advantage. They just find ways to lose close games.

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

AFC Futures Recap

Miami’s 4-5 record is really the only reason I included them with the contenders, as I don’t really see a path to the playoffs given their roster, form and schedule. I simply can’t find four more wins to even get the Dolphins to 8-8.

I think I would have invested in the Chargers had they pulled out that overtime game in Jacksonville last week. They can still get within one game of the final spot this week with a home victory over the Bills, and then would only need to get within one game of the Raiders, whom they beat earlier in the season, going into the final week to jump Oakland with a home win. However, I just don’t see how they can overcome a 3-6 record to pass the entire field with their remaining schedule, especially with a current 2-5 conference record that will really hurt their chances in potential tiebreakers. Feels like an 8-8 finish.

As a result of an inconsistent offense and a defense that ranks 32nd in defensive pass efficiency, the Raiders have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL this year. However, they still do have a shot to turn their season around in a down year for the AFC. I think it will ultimately come down to this weekend in Mexico against the Patriots. If they can find a way to win that game, they would then be staring at two home games against the Broncos and Giants to improve to 7-5 on the year with all of the momentum you would want in December. However, I just can’t trust their historically bad passing defense; they are the first team in NFL history with zero interceptions through the first nine games of a season, and they’re on pace to go down as one of the three worst passing defenses in the history of the league. There is just no value at 51/1, considering they will essentially need to finish one game ahead of the Ravens, who they lost to earlier this season; Oakland has a much tougher schedule, and are priced at over 100/1 lower.  Hard pass.

According to the model linked above, the Ravens have a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs if they finish 9-7. I think they get there. Since John Harbaugh became the head coach in 2008, the Ravens have finished 6-2 at home in all but one season. The Ravens can continue that trend by simply winning their four remaining winnable home games  against the Texans, Lions, Colts, and Bengals. If they do that and also win at Cleveland, they will finish the year at 9-7 with a better conference record than any other potential Wild Card team. That 9-7 also assumes they will lose this week after their bye as a favorite at Green Bay, but keep in mind John Harbaugh is 8-2 after a bye week, and one of those losses came on a blown call in Jacksonville that the NFL apologized for. That 9-7 mark also assumes a loss in Pittsburgh, but don’t sleep on the Ravens in that revenge spot in a rivalry that the Steelers haven’t swept in a season since 2008. There is simply too much value to pass up on a Baltimore team that has the easiest path to the playoffs at anything better than 80/1. You never know once you get in, but I obviously don’t think this team has enough talent to win it all. However, they do have the pieces to win a game or two in a wide-open AFC, which would provide a nice hedge opportunity. Jimmy Smith, the No. 1 ranked corner in 2017 by PFF, leads an elite pass defense, and a healthy Brandon Williams has helped fix the run defense issues. Justin Tucker leads  one of the best special teams units in the NFL. It basically comes down to the offense, which I think is now healthy enough to get on a roll against a cake schedule. If you have any doubts, just ask Patriots’ fans to name the one team out of this group of flawed teams that they wouldn’t want to see in the second weekend in Foxborough.


Be part of the Action

Download the Sports Action app at the [App Store] or [Google Play]