It was 4 a.m., the whiskey was gone, and Steve Kornacki was looking like he’d need to be forcibly removed from the touch screen. While hitting refresh on Twitter for the 263rd time, my trembling cursor flashed across a little piece of news that I’d somehow missed. Chris Mortensen was reporting that the NFL competition committee was considering a contingency plan that would expand the NFL playoff field to 16 teams.
Upon hearing the news of this literal moving of the goalposts, my first thought was, “Great! More football!” My second thought was, “Where the heck are they going to find 16 playoff-worthy teams?”
Having spent the previous 12 hours watching the Kornackis and Nate Silvers of the world ply their data-driven craft, I knew what needed to be done. So I imported the remaining NFL schedule into a spreadsheet, and set about building a simulation of the rest of the season. I did it in as scientific a manner as I could muster given the late hour and the political/chemical circumstances. I went game-by-game, looked at the two teams playing, and put a W next to the one that I thought would win and an L next to the one I thought would lose. After running this simulation, I summed up all of the W’s and the L’s, and added them up to get a 16-game record.
After a few more scientific adjustments that corrected for the Steelers finishing 16-0 (seriously, though, look at their schedule), I was left with the startling realization that there is a very real scenario in which the Eagles enter Week 15 with nothing left to play for. What do you get when you cross a presidential election with an Eagles bye week? Insights like this:
I have the Giants finishing in second place in the NFC East with a 4-12 record, and I have the winners of the NFC’s other three divisions finishing with 13 wins (Tampa Bay, Seattle, Green Bay). That would mean the Eagles could win the division with a 5-10-1 record, which would require them to win just two of their final eight games. Let’s say they beat the Giants (4-4-1) and the Browns (5-4-1) in their next two games. Then, let’s say they lose to the Seahawks (5-5-1), Packers (5-6-1), and Saints (5-7-1). That would leave them finishing no worse than 5-10-1, and no better than 8-7-1 with three games to play.
In such a scenario, they will have clinched the division if:
1) The Giants (1-7) beat Washington on Sunday (2-7) and then lose their next four to the Eagles (2-8), Bengals (2-9), Seahawks (2-10) and Cardinals (2-11).
2) Washington loses to the Giants (2-6), Lions (2-7), Bengals (2-8), Cowboys (2-9), Steelers (2-10), and 49ers (2-11).
3) The Cowboys lose to the Steelers (2-7), Vikings (2-8), Ravens (3-9), Bengals (3-10), and 49ers (3-11).
And this is assuming the Eagles lose three of the next five games.
Not only would the Eagles have clinched the division, it is well within the realm of possibility that they’d be unable to improve their playoff position in the last three games of the season. All it would take is for a team in each of the other three divisions to enter Week 15 with at least nine wins. The Seahawks and Bucs already have six, and the Packers, Bears, Saints, Cardinals, and Rams all have five. In that event, the Eagles would be able to finish no higher than the fourth seed with a maximum record of 8-7-1. That would leave them with one of the least-deserved three-week breaks in NFL history. For the record, I have the Giants beating the Cardinals at home in Week 13 to ruin it.
The only thing that would make the above scenario juicier is if they spent the final three weeks of the season watching Nick Foles guide the Bears to the No. 5 seed and a first-round matchup against Carson Wentz. Sadly, at least for those of us who enjoy watching the world burn, our algorithm does not like the chances of that happening. The Bears would need to finish with the best Wild Card record in order to face the Eagles in the first round. They still have road games remaining against the Titans, Packers, Vikings and Jaguars, plus home games against the Vikings, Lions, Texans and Packers. I have them at 9-7, but even 10-6 will be tough to beat out the Saints and Rams, who have both beaten the Bears already (I have them both finishing at 11-5). It will be virtually impossible for the top Wild Card team to finish with less than 10 wins, which would mean the Bears could lose no more than three of their remaining games.
In our hypothetical world, the NFC seedings go 1. Seattle, 2. Green Bay, 3. Tampa Bay, 4. Eagles, 5. Saints, 6. Rams, 7. Bears, 8. Cardinals. Thus, a Foles-Wentz matchup in the postseason would require the Eagles to beat the Saints, the Bears to beat the Packers, and the Cardinals to upset the Seahawks in the first round. If the Bucs won their first-round game against the Rams, they would face the eighth-seeded Cardinals in the Divisional round, while the Eagles would host the Bears in the tilt to end all tilts.