Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 9:00 AM
We can't say that Houston at Indianapolis is a marquee matchup in Thursday Night NFL action. But, this really is an ideal day to run through the playoff scenarios in pro football as they set up for this weekend. Since Houston is a divisional winner, and possible bye team...let's look through the possibilities before crunching the numbers in tonight's game.
AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
New England 11-3 (8-2 in AFC)
Baltimore 10-4 (owns tie-breaker over Hou, Pitt, 7-3 in AFC)
Houston 10-4 (8-2 in AFC)
Pittsburgh 10-4 (8-3 in AFC)
These are going to be your top four teams. Houston's loss to Carolina that seemed so devastating this past Sunday because it meant they probably wouldn't get a bye turned out not to be so bad! Baltimore and Pittsburgh subsequently lost prime time games you probably watched on TV. As long as Houston can beat an Indy team tonight that needs to lose...and a Tennessee team next week that's in a slump...then the Texans will finish 12-4 and have a fighting chance because of a 10-2 record in the AFC. They would lose a heads-up tie-breaker with Baltimore because of a head-to-head loss, but would win a tie-breaker with Pittsburgh for the same reason.
Here's what's ahead for that foursome:
New England 11-3 (vs. Miami, vs. Buffalo)
Baltimore 10-4 (vs. Cleveland, at Cincinnati)
Houston 10-4 (at Indy, vs. Tennessee)
Pittsburgh 10-4 (vs. St. Louis, at Cleveland)
New England is a virtual shoe-in for the #1 seed given the high home spreads they'll enjoy. Baltimore could have a toughie in the finale on the road against a team that will probably need to win that game. Should the Texans win out and get some help from the Bengals...then they would be the #2 seed over Pittsburgh. Will be fun to watch it all play out.
AFC WEST RACE
Denver 8-6 (at Buffalo, vs. Kansas City)
Oakland 7-7 (at Kansas City, vs. San Diego)
San Diego 7-7 (at Detroit, at Oakland)
Kansas City 6-8 (vs. Oakland, vs. Denver)
Everyone thought Kansas City would be eliminated by a loss to Green Bay. They didn't lose! Should the Chiefs win out for 8-8, while everyone else clicks into 8-8 also...the Chiefs would actually have the best divisional record at 5-2. Note that Oakland currently has the tie-breaker over San Diego because of a heads-up win in their first game.
Denver is favored to win out...and that would lock up the final AFC division right there. Should the Broncos stumble, they would still have a shot at a Wildcard as you'll see in a moment...as could the winner of the season finale between Oakland and San Diego depending on what else happens in the race for the one and only spot that the AFC North won't get.
WILDCARD CONTENDERS (only one spot available)
NY Jets 8-6 (vs. NYG, at Miami)
Cincinnati 8-6 (vs. Arizona, vs. Baltimore)
Denver 8-6 (might ultimately be runner-up)
Tennessee 7-7 (vs. Jacksonville, at Houston)
Oakland 7-7 (see above)
San Diego 7-7 (see above)
Sunday's Jets/Giants game is going to be huge. If Cincinnati takes care of business vs. Arizona, their season finale with Baltimore will be very big as well. The Jets and Bengals could find themselves in a messy tie-breaker if they both win out and finish 10-6. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. The Giants are currently in the tollbooth and may not let the Jets through!
Was that messy enough for you? If favored teams win this week, the picture will be fairly clear heading into Week 17 in the AFC.
Let's do the NFC...
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
Green Bay 13-1
San Francisco 11-3
New Orleans 11-3
Those will be your division winners barring a bad injury to Drew Brees. San Francisco currently has a better conference record than New Orleans in the fight for the second seed and a first round bye. Note that San Francisco has to play suddenly hot Seattle this week, before finishing on the road at St. Louis. New Orleans hosts Atlanta in a big Monday Nighter this wee, followed by their season finale vs. Carolina.
Dallas 8-6 (vs. Philadelphia, at NYG)
NY Giants 7-7 (vs. NYJ, vs. Dallas)
Philadelphia 6-8 (at Dallas, vs. Washington)
The Eagles are still alive thanks to a recent surge, the Giants upsetting Dallas, then Washington upsetting the Giants. You can see there's a lot of interconnectivity in the remaining schedules. Somebody must WIN the division. Either the Cowboys or Giants would take the division by winning out (with the loser of their head-to-head finale being denied "winning out"). Philadelphia would take the tie-breaker in a three-way tie at 8-8. So, we put Philadelphia-Dallas on the list of big games this Sunday.
NFC WILDCARD (top two make it)
NY Giants 7-7
That two-game lead with two to play looks pretty daunting for the stragglers. But, Atlanta does have to play at New Orleans this week...while Detroit is far from a sure thing at home against San Diego. If they both lose...things could get interesting. That being said, Seattle has to win at San Francisco this week to stay alive, while Arizona has to win at Cincinnati, and Chicago has to win at Green Bay. Atlanta may have clinched a Wildcard before kickoff of the Monday Night game in New Orleans if the stragglers lose.
For now, we're probably looking at...
Worst Wildcard at New Orleans (winner visits San Francisco)
Best Wildcard at NFC East winner (winner visits Green Bay)
Okay...that's enough playoff talk for now. Let's quickly run through the Houston-Indianapolis numbers before calling it a day...
Houston: 13.3 on offense, 9.1 on defense
Indianapolis: 9.1 on offense, 15.1 on defense
Houston hasn't been quite as dominant in our favorite indicator stat as their won-lost record might have suggested. But, they're clearly a playoff caliber team for the season, and may still actually be one with C.J. Yates at the helm...though it's probably best to think of them as peaking at Wildcard level with that lineup. Indianapolis actually isn't as bad in these numbers as a 1-13 record would suggest...which would suggest they've been doing enough to lose on a regular basis to make sure they get the #1 draft pick. Do they care about that any more now that Robert Griffin III has looked as good as Andrew Luck down the stretch? Probably. Luck is a good fit for their system.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Houston: 44% on offense, 35% on defense
Indianapolis: 33% on offense, 48% on defense
This is where these teams start to spread out a bit. Houston's done a great job of shutting people down and forcing punts. Indianapolis just gets squashed in this stat. They can't sustain drives until they're way behind and facing soft prevents. The defense doesn't force punts.
Houston: +10 (25 takeaways, 15 giveaways)
Indianapolis: -11 (12 takeaways, 23 giveaways)
Houston's played smart all year. And, having a strong running game helps you avoid turnovers. We've been trying to drive that point home for about a decade. Indianapolis is a mirror image of the Texans in this stat. They can't take the ball away, but they're not very good at protecting the ball.
The key to handicapping this game tonight is evaluating how much of a fight Indianapolis is going to put up now that they've avoided the 0-for but need to keep losing to clinch the #1 draft pick. Should the team show some pride against a divisional foe (which they did last week), then this could be a close game because C.J. Yates may not have the moxie to coast to an easy win. But, if this is a pure lay-down, then Houston can name the score...as Atlanta and Dallas did last week in early-week prime time games vs. non-contenders.
JIM HURLEY is working closely with his sources to determine the Colts mindset. He'll make sure you get the value side or total in this game, and in the Las Vegas Bowl matching Arizona State and Boise State. If you missed our stat preview of that game, please check the archives for the Tuesday report that crunched the numbers.
There's no football Friday, but Saturday is LOADED because the NFL has moved most of its schedule to Christmas Eve so most teams don't have to play on the holiday itself. To avoid any confusion about who's playing when, you can sign up for the rest of football by calling 1-800-323-4453. You'll get every bowl pick, great plays from the last two weekends of the regular season, and our NFL playoff package...all for a very reasonable price.
Enjoy the Thursday Night football. Back with you Friday morning to discuss early lessons from the opening salvo of college bowl action. Don't make a move in Thursday Night Football until you hear what JIM HURLEY has to say!