2021 NFL playoffs: One reason to hope for each of the 10 remaining fringe teams

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

This week we're going to spread a little holiday cheer. Just eight teams have been eliminated from postseason contention, which means 10 still have hope but are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. So for those fringe teams, I highlighted an area advanced data flags as a strength that could help sneak them into one of the eight remaining postseason spots. I also included their playoff chances heading into Week 17, per my model.

In my opinion there's always room for hope! And if you're not the glass-half-full-type, you can also view these positive traits as a foundation to build on for next season.

Please have a happy and safe holiday! Looking forward to making 2022 the best one yet, together!

NOTE: The odds for each team to make the playoffs cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 12:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 29.

AFC Playoff Contenders

Prob.
33.9%
Los Angeles Chargers
ML: N/A · 8-7

Remaining schedule:


Justin Herbert ranks fourth in the NFL with a 92.5 passer rating under pressure this season, throwing for seven touchdowns and only one interception. That lone under-pressure INT came against the Cowboys way back in Week 2, while all seven of those touchdowns came since Week 3. Herbert’s proficiency under pressure will be a key to the Chargers' success over the next two games, as the Raiders rank first in pressure and the Broncos, 10th, per NGS.


Prob.
30.9%
Baltimore Ravens
ML: N/A · 8-7

Remaining schedule:

 

Tight end Mark Andrews leads the NFL in receptions (24) and yards (324) when aligned in the slot over the last three weeks, per NGS, while his two touchdowns trail only Davante Adams (four) and Cooper Kupp (three). This week, the Ravens face a Rams defense that has allowed opponents to complete 76.5 percent of passes to slot targets over the past four games -- which ranks 28th over that time span.


Prob.
16.5%
Las Vegas Raiders
ML: N/A · 8-7

Remaining schedule:


Derek Carr has a 117.3 passer rating when targeting receivers aligned wide since Week 10, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL over that span per NGS. In Sunday's massive showdown with the Colts, he'll face a unit that has allowed an NFL-most 15 touchdowns to receivers aligned wide this season. A win in Indy would provide a big boost to the Raiders' playoff chances and set the stage for a Week 18 win-and-your-in scenario against the Chargers, who have allowed 12 such touchdowns this season (sixth-most).

Prob.
9.8%
Pittsburgh Steelers
ML: N/A · 7-7-1

Remaining schedule:


T.J. Watt has a 20.3 pressure percentage since Week 9, which is third in the NFL behind only Micah Parsons and Trey Hendrickson. His ability to turn up the heat over the next two weeks (and several games breaking Pittsburgh's way) could help extend the Steelers' season, as their upcoming opponents have both shown weaknesses in this area: Baker Mayfield is completing just 42 percent of his passes under pressure (ranks 27th); Lamar Jackson has a 63.7 passer rating under pressure (ranks 19th).

Prob.
9.6%
Cleveland Browns
ML: N/A · 7-8

Remaining schedule:


Nick Chubb has earned 228 rush yards over expected this season, which is the second most in the NFL among running backs, per Next Gen Stats (Jonathan Taylor has 448). D’Ernest Johnson has earned 158 rush yards over expected, which ranks third among backs. My models project Cleveland to top Pittsburgh this weekend in 52.8 percent of simulations.

Prob.
0.2%
Denver Broncos
ML: +2500 · 7-8

Remaining schedule:


The Broncos' defense is allowing a 77.2 passer rating outside the numbers this season, which is seventh-lowest in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. Denver's ability to remain stout in this area could be its key for the next two weeks. Two of Justin Herbert’s four interceptions on outside-the-numbers attempts this year came against the Broncos in Week 12, and Patrick Mahomes was just three of four for 53 yards on such passes against Denver in Week 13. Vic Fangio's group may also have an advantage down the seams against Mahomes, as his defense limited the former MVP to 11-of-20 passing for 127 yards and a pick in that area in their last meeting.

NFC Playoff Contenders

UPDATE: Playoff probabilities for the four NFC teams below were recalculated after publishing in light of Vikings QB Kirk Cousins testing positive for COVID-19, which will keep him out of Sunday's game against the Packers. Initial playoff probabilities in this post were as follows: Saints, 40.4%; Vikings, 13.5%, Washington Football Team, 7.0%; Falcons, 1.8%.

Prob.
42.6%
New Orleans Saints
ML: +160 · 7-8

Remaining schedule:


No defense has held opposing rushers in check better than the Saints' unit, which has allowed -198 rushing yards over expected this season, per NGS. What this means is, an average team, under the same down and distances, would have given up almost 200 more yards to opposing rushers. Both of the Saints' remaining opponents rank near the bottom of the league in rushing efficiency, with the Panthers' offense at -32 RYOE (26th) and the Falcons' at -121 (29th). 

Prob.
8.9%
Minnesota Vikings
ML: +600 · 7-8

Remaining schedule:


Justin Jefferson leads the NFL with 52 receptions and 1,132 yards on downfield attempts (10+ air yards, per NGS), which is 16 more catches than any other player (Tee Higgins and Cooper Kupp are tied at 36). The Pro Bowler's field-stretching prowess will be a big help in the Vikings' final two games – both as a weapon, and as a decoy who can draw coverage and open up opportunities for his teammates (especially with Adam Thielen injured). That said, Minnesota's playoff probability took a major hit with the news after the initial publishing of this piece that Kirk Cousins tested positive for COVID-19 and will be out against the Packers in Week 17. Sean Mannion will start in place of Cousins, per the team.

Prob.
7.2%
Washington Football Team
ML: +1300 · 6-9

Remaining schedule:


With two division games left, the Washington Football Team will look to match or best its prior two results against the Eagles and Giants with respect to generating pressure. In Week 15, Washington was able to pressure Jalen Hurts on 31 percent of dropbacks; in Week 2, WFT's defense earned a season-high 47.2 pressure rate on Daniel Jones (unfortunately, they'll have to do it without Chase Young this time).

Prob.
1.9%
Atlanta Falcons
ML: +2000 · 7-8

Remaining schedule:


The Falcons' run defense might just be underrated, having quietly held offenses to -144 rushing yards over expected this season (second only to the Saints' -198). The Falcons face the Bills on Sunday, who rank 24th in RYOE (-74), and the Saints in Week 18, who rank 28th (-92). One note that’s worth mentioning: While Buffalo overall has struggled to run the ball, its superstar QB Josh Allen ranks third in the NFL with +237 RYOE. If the Falcons can contain the run over the next two weeks, they’ll give themselves a shot to win both games.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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