One of the more interesting playoff races in the NFL this season will play out in the NFC East. One reason is that, as we enter Week 13 — quite literally — any team in the division can still win the division title. There’s only one game separating the four teams, with Washington & New York sitting atop the standings with identical 4-7 records. Dallas is in last place with a 3-8 record.
A second reason why the race is interesting is that it’s damned unlikely that the division will have a wildcard team. One of the four teams will win the division and go to the playoffs while the other three teams get outstanding positions in the 2021 NFL draft.
A third reason is the possibility — even the likelihood — that the division winner will have a losing record. Mathematically, the division winner could still achieve a 9-7 record, but it seems probable that the crown will be claimed by a team with somewhere between 5 and 7 wins. If that comes to pass, it would be the third time that an NFL team won a division title with a losing record (the others are the Saints and Panthers). Interestingly, both of those division winners won a playoff game in their respective years.
Finding a “pathway” to the division title
I’ve read a bunch of statements from a lot of different sources that talk about the path to the division crown, and how easy or difficult that path is for each of the four teams. I wanted to toss out a few ideas about that here.
Firstly, there’s no doubt that the Cowboys face teams with the worst won-loss record through the first 12 weeks. Here are the combined records for the remaining opponents of each NFC East team:
- Dallas: 20-32-2
- Washington: 29-24-1
- Philly: 30-25
- New York: 31-23
That looks like a big advantage for Dallas, but remember that they are a full game behind Washington and New York. Since they lost twice to the burgundy & gold, it’s not enough for Dallas to finish the season with the same record as Washington; if that happened, the Football Team would win the tie-breaker.
That means that Dallas has to win two more games than Washington does in the next five weeks to win the division outright. If it comes to tie-breakers (two-way or three-way) Dallas is at a disadvantage relative to Washington. So, if Washington goes 1-4, Dallas has to go 3-2 to win the division; likewise, if Washington can win two of its remaining games then Dallas would need to win 4 out of 5 to win the division outright.
Dallas might end up with a tie break advantage over the Giants, but that would require a win by the Cowboys over the Giants in Week 17.
Although the Giants technically play the toughest remaining schedule based on current won-loss records, it feels like the Eagles have the toughest row to hoe, with the next three games coming against the Packers, Saints and Cardinals. With just 3 wins currently, the Eagles would have to win one of those games, and then win in Weeks 16 and 17 against Dallas and Washington just to reach 6 wins. Five wins or less seems more likely. In fact, in the model I’ve put together below, I’m projecting the Eagles to “lose out” and finish the season 3-12-1, though anything less than 6 wins probably won’t get the Eagles the 2020 division championship. The Eagles have to win one more game than WAS and NY to get into first place.
No crystal ball here; no tea leaves either
I’m not pretending to be able to predict 20 games in advance. Hell, on a good week I’m lucky to predict 10 out of 16 games in an NFL schedule.
Think of this as a static model that provides a reference point. If you’d like something interactive that allows you to predict the games yourself and see the results, then you can Google “NFL playoff predictor 2020” or follow THIS LINK to the ESPN simulator. Have some fun, then come back and tell us what you learned.
Looking at my static model above, I have assumed a modest 2-3 record for Washington over the final 5 weeks, losing three in a row to drop to 4-10 before finishing with wins against Carolina and Philly for an overall 6-10 record.
I have assigned a single win to New York (vs Dallas in Week 17) and no wins to Philly. I have, however, given Dallas a winning record down the stretch, with a 3-2 finish giving them the same 6-10 record as Washington. Remember, though, that Washington wins a tie-breaker against Dallas, so this scenario would make Washington the champs of the NFC East.
New York wins
I’ll only change one game for this scenario. Let’s say that New York wins its Week 14 game against the Cardinals (highlighted in pink). This would create a 3-way tie between Washington, New York and Dallas that would be won by the Giants on the first tie-breaker.
Understanding tie breakers for the division title
What’s the point?
The point is that this race is too close to call. There are just too many variables to speak with any certainty about what will eventuate. Here are a few thoughts however:
- Dallas may have the easiest remaining schedule based on opponents’ combined won-loss records, but the fact that they have to win two games more than Washington to win the division outright seems to put them at long odds.
- The Eagles need to win one more game than either New York or Washington to win the division outright (or match the Cowboys’ win total if they are the two teams at the top in Week 17). This need to outperform, combined with Philly’s daunting three-game stretch,, makes them seem to me to have the worst chance of taking the NFC East title and getting into the playoffs.
- Washington needs to win one more game than the Giants down the stretch to win the title and go to the playoffs. The relative situations at QB (Washington with Alex Smith, and NY with Colt McCoy for the moment) seems to leave that door open a crack.
Independent 3rd party analysis
Cynthia Frelund of NFL Network published an article this week that asked who will rise out of the NFC East.
The bottom line of her analysis (in which she ran 100,000 simulations of each remaining game) is this:
In short, here mathematical simulation gives Washington the best chance of winning the division, but the margin is pretty slender. Dallas, in part because of its precarious tie-breaker situation, faces the longest odds in Frelund’s model despite the advantage of a seemingly more favorable set of remaining opponents.
Here’s a little of what Frelund had to say about the teams and her simulation.
Washington Football Team
A strong indicator for success is the combination of an excellent defensive front (in terms of generating effective pressure on passing downs) and the ability to generate efficient yardage output on early downs (first and second). Washington’s front ranks fourth-best in terms of win-share as a unit in my model, and Pro Football Focus agrees with that rosy assessment, giving Washington’s pass rush the fifth-best grade in the NFL. Next Gen Stats shows that Washington’s front generates pressure on 28.6 percent of dropbacks, tied for the sixth-best rate in the NFL, and the rest of the defense helps back that up by allowing a completion percentage on passes of 10-plus air yards of just 43.1 percent, sixth-lowest, per NGS.
My model only has Washington favored in one remaining contest (and by a narrow margin, in Week 17 against the Eagles). But they are within probable striking distance (meaning no less than a 45 percent chance to win) in their games against the Niners and Panthers, which drives Washington’s highest projected win total in the NFC East.
Per @cfrelund: 31.5% https://t.co/8xyT431lKR— Washington Football Team Stats (@StatsWashington) December 2, 2020
New York Giants
Daniel Jones’ availability is a question mark after he suffered a hamstring injury Sunday — but what is clear is that he’s committed many more turnovers (nine interceptions and four fumbles lost) than touchdown passes (eight) this season. This isn’t really an analytics note, but it is just plain staggering. In fairness to the second-year pro, though, I’ll point out that he’s been under pressure on 40.6 percent of dropbacks this season, the highest rate in the NFL.
My model only favors the Giants in their Week 17 matchup against Dallas, with the team forecasted at 44 percent in their next-closest matchup, against Cleveland.
Wentz is pacing the NFL in interceptions (15), and he has not topped 100 in passer rating in any game this season; this is just the eighth time since 2000 that a QB has started 11 games without reaching the century mark in passer rating at least once. For the season, the Eagles’ 21 giveaways rank third (only Dallas and Denver have committed more). Over their past four games, the Eagles’ offense has only converted 28.3 percent of third downs while connecting on just seven passes of 20-plus yards; both marks are the second-lowest in the NFL in Weeks 8-12, while their 4.5 yards-per-play mark in that span is tied for the lowest.
When I simulate the Eagles’ remaining schedule (at Green Bay, vs. New Orleans, at Arizona, at Dallas and at Washington), they are favored in just one remaining matchup. Remember, it’s never binary (100 percent) until the game is played, but Philadelphia’s most likely record is 5-10-1, which happens in about 54 percent of simulations (6-10-1 happens in 21 percent of simulations).
No team is allowing a higher passer rating on passes of 10-plus air yards than the Cowboys (129.8, per NGS). That, combined with leaky early-down run defense (Dallas gives up 126.5 rushing yards per game on early downs, the second-most in the NFL), presents a steep defensive hole for the offense to dig out of....Since Week 8, the Cowboys average just 4.62 yards per play on all downs (down from 5.73 in Weeks 1-7) and only a 36.8 percent third-down conversion rate (down from 42.5% in Weeks 1-7).
[T]he Cowboys’ best chance to shift their fate is to flip two forecasted narrow losses (to Philadelphia and New York) into wins. However, it’s quite likely they could be playing spoiler to the Giants as opposed to playing for their own berth.
Which team will be the 2020 NFC East division champion?
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Which would you choose if you could have your ‘druthers?
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Washington wins the division title with a losing record, then wins the wildcard round game before losing in the divisional round, ending up with the 27th pick in the draft
Washington fails to win the division title and ends up with the 7th overall pick in the draft.