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Bris Vegas NFC Playoff Seeding Projection – Week 17

The hangover after Christmas

Washington Commanders v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Despite back-to-back losses, the Commanders enter Week 17, not only still in the playoff hunt, but rather remarkably, still in control of their own destiny. Thanks to a stocking full of presents from the Lions, Seahawks and Giants, the Commanders are still guaranteed to make the playoffs if they can just win their last two games.

Unfortunately, the Commanders got caught up in the Christmas spirit themselves on Saturday. By failing to pull off a massive upset over the 49ers, they kept alive the playoff hopes of the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. At halftime they were looking more like Ebenezer Scrooge. However, a visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future at halftime appears to have filled them with the spirit of yuletide generosity and, they let off the gas in the second half, allowing dear old friends Kyle Shanahan and Trent Williams to walk away with a lopsided victory.

In the penultimate edition of my weekly NFC playoff seed edition, I am switching into full playoff mode. At this point in the season, teams reveal who they really are. The very best teams have started to clinch their playoff berths. The teams that are still vying for playoff spots either step up to the challenge and raise their level of play, or begin to fade away. That might be a cause for concern to Commanders fans – I’ll get back to that in a minute.

In the sink-or-swim spirit of the final playoff push, I am making one final tweak to the model. This week and next, all that matters is how teams have played over the last month. In previous weeks, I have based the predictions on how teams have played over the whole season to date or the last eight weeks, and adjusted offensive efficiency grades when there are changes at QB. The final two projections assume that, by this point in the season, momentum takes over and the contenders rise to the challenge, while the pretenders crash and burn.

Method Update

The fundamental structure of the projection model remains the same as the previous weeks. Matchups between opposing teams are decided based on how each team’s offense stacks up to the opponent’s defense using the efficiency metric EPA/play to quantify how strong or weak each unit is.

The real intention of this week’s tweak is to make the predictions more dynamic. Last week’s predictions were not too different from the week before, because losing and adding one week’s data doesn’t make much difference when calculating EPA/play over 14 or 8 games. Therefore, to make the model more responsive to changes in how teams are playing as we approach the playoffs, I limited the EPA/play calculations to the last 4 weeks. This should better reflect how teams are playing now instead of how they were playing early in the season.

I also dispensed with trying to predict which QBs would play the next week because it was hard to always get it right, and I’m not convinced it made much difference. In the final version for the regular season, each team’s EPA/play on offense and defense is calculated over the last 4 weeks, regardless of whether they had a bye.

Commanders’ Week-to-Week Efficiency in Review

The big question facing the Commanders over the next two weeks is whether they have what it takes to peak in time for the playoffs. The Commanders have certainly been on a journey through the course of the 2022 season. To get a better sense of where they have got to, heading into the final two weeks of the season, let’s see how that journey looks from the perspective of play efficiency, as measured by EPA/play.

The graph uses the efficiency metric EPA/play to quantify the Commanders’ performance on offense (burgundy and gold) and defense (black and gold) through every week of the 2022 season to date. EPA uses a statistical model to determine how each play affects the probability of scoring by the team on offense. It is good to have positive values of EPA on offense and negative values on defense. Values of around +0.1 EPA/play indicate a very good offense, and -0.1 EPA/play indicates a very good defense.

During the first two games of the season, the Commanders were efficient on offense and terrible on defense. The defense began to improve in Week 4 against Dallas, and remained very good through the first Giants game in Week 13. The offense took a nosedive in the Week 3 and 4 matchups against Philadelphia and Dallas and then righted itself, somewhat, when Brian Robinson joined the lineup. It remained weak, but not absolutely terrible through Week 8, finally crossing into terrible territory again in the Week 9 loss to Minnesota. Since that time, the Commanders offense has had two more strong performances, in the Week 12 win over Atlanta and the Week 13 tie with the Giants.

The Commanders first flashed potential as a team that might be capable of winning a playoff game in the Week 10 upset of the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles. That win marked the first time this season that the Commanders had positive EPA/play on offense and negative EPA/play on defense. It was one of only two times this season that the Commanders have shown that “contender” profile; and it was the only time this season that they have beat a team that currently has a winning record.

In the two losses following the Week 14 bye, the Commanders have inverted the desired profile, with negative efficiency on offense and positive efficiency on defense. The defense has not been making the high-impact, game-changing plays that they had been producing through Week 13, and the offense has been making costly mistakes and failing to convert scoring opportunities in critical game situations. This is pretty much the opposite of what you want to see from a team making a final push to secure a playoff berth.

This week’s projection will be based on how the Commanders have played in their last three games over the past four weeks, rather than their earlier games when the defense was playoff-level and the offense was oscillating between efficiency and inefficiency. Unless the return of Carson Wentz and Chase Young can spark improvements on both sides of the ball, the Commanders could face an uphill climb to stay ahead of their competitors in the final push for the playoffs.

Washington Commanders v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Week 16 Prediction Results

Before we get to the projection of the remaining season, let’s review how the model did in Week 16.

NFC East

Eagles L (13-2) – Cowboys W (11-4) CORRECT

Giants L (8-6-1) – Vikings W CORRECT

Commanders L (7-7-1) – 49ers W CORRECT

Commanders – San Francisco Matchup: The model predicted a blowout win by the 49ers and the Commanders did not disappoint. The 49ers fielded the 6th most efficient offense (0.096 EPA/play) and the 11th most efficient defense (-0.116 EPA/play) in the league in Week 16 when they played the Commanders. They were a mismatch on both sides of the ball for the Commanders who fielded the 22nd rank offense (-0.116 EPA/play) and the 27th ranked defense (0.096 EPA/play) that week.

NFC North

Vikings W (12-3) – Giants L (already marked correct)

Lions W (7-8) – Panthers L INCORRECT

Packers L (7-8) – Dolphins W INCORRECT

Bills W – Bears L (3-12) CORRECT

NFC South

Bucs W (7-8) – Cardinals L CORRECT

Lions W – Panthers L (6-9) (already marked incorrect)

Saints W (6-9) – Browns L CORRECT

Falcons L (5-10) – Ravens W CORRECT

NFC West

49ers W (11-4) – Commanders L (already marked correct)

Seahawks L (7-8) – Chiefs W CORRECT

Bucs W – Cardinals L (4-11) (already marked correct)

Broncos W – Rams L (4-11) INCORRECT

Overall, the model got eight predictions right and three wrong, for a win rate of 73%. This was a one game improvement over last week’s 7-4, 64% correct performance. The main change from Week 15 projection is that last week I limited the EPA calculation to the previous 8 games, instead of calculating it from the beginning of the season on offense. Hopefully this week’s switch to calculating it over the past 4 weeks will improve the performance even further.

Week 17 Season Projection

Week 17 Results

NFC East

Saints L – Eagles W (14-2)

Cowboys W (12-4) – Titans L

Browns W – Commanders L (7-8-1)

Colts L – Giants W (9-6-1)

Commanders – Browns Matchup: The outlook for this game has changed since last week due to the Commanders’ second poor defensive performance in a row as well as the sagging performance on offense. The emphasis on recent performance in this week’s projection model makes this matchup even tougher for the Commanders, because they haven’t played well since the first Giants game, which is the earliest game included in the calculations. Meanwhile, the Brown’s defense has quietly become the third-best unit in the NFL over the past four weeks with an impressive -0.162 EPA/play over that span. Their 27th ranked offense remains a liability at -0.157 EPA/play. Hopefully the return of Chase Young and Carson Wentz can return the Commanders’ spark the improvements needed to throw the model’s projections off and give the win to Washington.

NFC North

Vikings L (12-4) – Packers W (8-8)

Bears L (3-13) – Lions W (8-8)

NFC South

Bucs L (7-9) – Panthers W (7-9)

Saints L (6-10) – Eagles W

Cardinals L – Falcons W (6-10)

NFC West

49ers W (12-4) – Raiders L

Jets W – Seahawks L (7-9)

Cardinals L (4-12) – Falcons W

Rams L (5-11) – Chargers W

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Week 18 Results

NFC East

Giants L (9-7-1) – Eagles W (15-2)

Cowboys W (13-4) – Commanders L (7-9-1)

Commanders – Cowboys Matchup: While both teams have slid backwards on offense since last week’s projection, the Cowboys (0.101 EPA/play) maintain their superiority to Washington which is still in negative territory (-0.061 EPA/play). The Commanders’ edge on defense has evaporated due to the second poor defensive performance in a row against the 49ers and the switch to calculating EPA over just the last four weeks. The Commanders are now in positive territory on defense (0.007 EPA/play since Week 13, rank 22nd), while the Cowboys’ defense ranks 9th in the league (-0.067 EPA/play). The Commanders may need the Cowboys to rest their starters, as well as Carson Wentz and Chase Young lighting it up to win this game.

NFC North

Vikings W (13-4) – Bears L (3-14)

Lions L (8-9) – Packers W (9-8)

NFC South

Bucs W (8-9) – Falcons L (6-11)

Panthers W (8-9) – Saints L (6-11)

NFC West

Cardinals L (4-13) – 49ers W (13-4)

Rams W (6-11) – Seahawks L (7-10)

Final NFC Playoff Seeding

NFC East Champion – Eagles (15-2), 1st seed

NFC West Champion – 49ers (13-4), 2nd seed – Conference record tiebreak over Minnesota (10-2 vs. 8-4)

NFC North Champion – Vikings (13-4), 3rd seed

NFC South Champion – Panthers (8-9), 4th seed – Head to head tiebreak over Tampa (2-0)

Wild Card 5th seed – Cowboys (13-4)

Wild Card 6th seed – Giants (9-7-1)

Wild Card 7th seed – Packers (9-8)

For the third week in a row, the Eagles clinch the first seed, earning a bye in the Wild Card round and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The 49ers once again edge out the Vikings for the second seed via the conference record tiebreak (10-2 vs 8-4), since they have not played head-to-head.

In last week’s simulation, the Buccaneers won the NFC South outright by virtue of having the best record in the division. This week they were tied with the Panthers, who beat the Lions in real life to improve their record to 8-9 in the simulation. The Panthers win the head-to-head tiebreak, with a 2-0 record against the Bucs, to claim the NFC South championship.

The Wild Card seeds are again determined by Win-Loss record alone, with no need to rely on tiebreaks. The Cowboys win out to finish with a 13-4 record and claim the 5th playoff seed. This week the Giants have the next best record in the NFC, thanks to the tie with the Commanders giving them the edge over the only other team with nine wins.

In this week’s simulation, the Packers win their last two games against the Vikings and Lions to finish 9-8 and claim the 7th Wild Card seed. The Packers have been coming on strong in the last 3 weeks, and over that span have the 8th ranked defense (-0.086 EPA/play) and the 10th ranked offense (0.051 EPA/play) in the league. In this week’s simulation, they got past the division rival Lions due to their real-life upset of the Dolphins (-3.5 pts) and the Lions upset loss to the Panthers (+2.5 pts) in Week 16, as well as their projected head-to-head win over Detroit, which had been projected as a loss last week.

While the Commanders still control their own destiny in the playoff race, they have not been playing like a playoff contender since the bye. This week’s simulation illustrates how teams that belong in the playoffs step it up in the final weeks of the season. If the Commanders want to maintain their current position as the 7th playoff seed, they will need to find a way to get back to how they were playing on defense before the bye and try to become a consistently efficient team on offense. At this point our hopes are riding on Chase Young and Jack Del Rio’s ability to make adjustments for the former, and a revitalized Carson Wentz for the latter. If Scott Turner could somehow learn how to call plays, that might help to take some of the burden off of Carson.

Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett


Who will be the last two NFC Wild Card seeds?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Giants and Commanders (current seeds)
    (160 votes)
  • 22%
    Giants and Packers
    (76 votes)
  • 14%
    Giants and Lions
    (49 votes)
  • 6%
    Commanders and Packers
    (23 votes)
  • 3%
    Commanders and Lions
    (10 votes)
  • 3%
    Packers and Lions
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    Seahawks and any other team
    (2 votes)
332 votes total Vote Now