The NFL is in the stretch run and playoff spots are still up for grabs. Nearly half the league remains entrenched in the postseason hunt with only three weeks left to play.
The Saints, Rams and Chiefs are in the playoffs. That much is certain. Bears, Chargers, Patriots, Seahawks and Cowboys are all over 99 percent to make it, as well. Houston is a near lock at 96 percent, despite falling to the division rival Colts this past week. So that leaves one spot up for grabs in the NFC and two spots wide open in the AFC.
Here is how I would approach betting the final three playoff spots.
One of the open AFC spots is the North division crown, so obviously there are fewer teams vying for that opening. Currently, the Steelers sit atop the division by a half game at 7-5-1 with the Ravens a close second. FiveThirtyEight gives Pittsburgh a 62 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 56 percent chance to win the division. Baltimore sits at 55 and 43 percent, respectively. As far as playoff odds go, Baltimore has significantly better value from virtually every handicapper. The odds vary wildly, across sites, but Bovada currently has Baltimore at +135 and Pittsburgh at -195 to take the AFC North. Given the recent trajectories of the two teams, as well as the remaining schedules, the clear bet here is to take Baltimore.
Which brings us to the other open playoff spot, the second wild card. Six teams, including division-leader Pittsburgh are in play for it. Indianapolis, Tennessee, Baltimore and Miami all sit at 7-6, and Denver is just behind at 6-7. That said, Denver is significantly behind the rest in playoff odds at just five percent. Tennessee currently sits with the third-best odds behind Pittsburgh and Baltimore at 34 percent. The Colts are a hair behind at 27 percent, then Miami at 20.
The Broncos essentially have to win out to make it. At least one of these teams will go 2-1 the rest of the way, so 8-8 will not cut it. That is certainly not impossible, as their most imposing game is week 17 against the Chargers, who will likely be set in their position and rest starters.
Everyone else with the exception of Pittsburgh is dealing with similar difficulty in their remaining schedules. 9-7 appears to be a realistic outcome for each of them, though Miami has the best chance at winning out and finishing 10-6. Their toughest remaining game comes this week in Minnesota, who is struggling to find their footing. Then there are the Colts and Titans, who play each other in week 17 in Tennessee. That game that could very well be for the second- wild card.
The Steelers have placed themselves in a bit of a hole. Their remaining opponents are the Patriots, Saints and Bengals, and they have to win two of those to make the postseason, in all likelihood. Given their recent track record, there is a realistic possibility that the Steelers are left out of the postseason entirely.
Betting is all about trends and value. Current trends point most towards the Ravens to take the division and the Dolphins, Colts and Titans to fight for the second wild card. Given the remaining schedules and the value each bet would bring, my wagers will go to Baltimore to take the North and Miami to grab the second wild card.
My Bet: Ravenes to win AFC North, Dolphins to win wild card
Things are considerably more clear in the NFC. Five of the spots are locked in, due to Seattle beating the Vikings on Monday. Two teams have already clinched the division, two are on the verge and the Seahawks are over 99 percent for a wild card. The Vikings remain in good position to hold onto the second wild card, thanks to losses from Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina this past week. Still, they have been far from impressive and sit at .500 with three to play.
Those three teams are the only ones pushing Minnesota. Others have not been mathematically eliminated, but they would need a lot of help to sneak in. As I covered last week, the Vikings remain in control of their own destiny and have tough, but winnable games on the horizon. They host Miami, travel to Detroit, then host Chicago in a game that may be meaningless for the Bears. The Vikings should at least go 2-1 to finish at 8-7-1: an unremarkable total, to be sure. The question is will that be enough?
The other three teams all likely have to win out. They each sit at 6-7, and out of reach of the division titles. So again, we have to look at trends and value.
Trend points in the complete opposite direction of Carolina. Their losing streak is up to five, and they do not even have value as longshot, despite the lowest playoff odds of the four because they still have two games against the Saints left on their schedule. They get bumped immediately.
Washington is no better. Their quarterback situation is, at best, a disaster. They most recently lost to the Giants by three scores. And while they have the easiest schedule left, can anyone trust Washington to beat even two of their remaining opponents (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Philadelphia)? They are ruled out, as well.
That leaves the Eagles. they have some value as longshots at just 18 percent to make the playoffs. The problem is their next two games are daunting. They travel to the Rams this week, then welcome the Texans in week 16. Though they have the best chance of the three, they will likely require too much help from other teams in order to eclipse the Vikings.
As ugly as the Vikings’ last two losses have been, they easily have the best combination of value and remaining schedule. There is not a ton of money to be made in betting them, but they are sitting in the catbird seat in the NFC wild card race, so they get my vote of confidence.
My Bet: Vikings win NFC wild card
Value Dark Horses
If you are in the market to bet small and potentially win big, there are two teams to look at. Both have very slim playoff odds (less than one percent), but there is a path for each to make the postseason. Cleveland has a couple of division games remaining, and if they win out, they would be sitting at 8-7-1 and in position to sneak into a wild card, or possibly even the division crown.
The other team is the Giants. They are similarly riding a recent wave of success and have managed to push to 5-8 against all odds. If they win their final three and get a lot of help, there is an outside chance that they could pull out a wild card.
Again, neither of these outcomes are likely. But if either hits, a minuscule bet would have a large payout. And isn’t that what gambling is all about?
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.