The New Races in the AFC and NFC North (11/15/16)

By Frank Brank @realfbra

We simulate the NFL season 50,000 times each week to update the current standings and project the odds of each team's divisional and wildcard chances. Due to some poor play overall, the AFC and NFC North divisions have suddenly tightened up to give three teams in each division a tangible chance to take the title.

The Steelers were the favorites to win the AFC North at the beginning of the season and were overwhelming favorites after their 4-1 start. Since then, they lost a game to the now-relevant Dolphins in which Ben Roethlisberger suffered a knee injury requiring surgery. Landry Jones filled in the next week in a loss to the Patriots. Roethlisberger returned and was visibly less than 100% in their loss at Baltimore. As Ben looked much closer to 100% in his great, losing effort against the Cowboys on Sunday, the defense gave up 35 points to lose on a 32-yard rushing touchdown by Ezekiel Elliott.

The Steelers now find themselves one game behind the Ravens, a team that many would argue are not good as the Steelers, but also a team that is holding the tiebreaker with that one-game lead. The good news for the Steelers is they will play the Browns twice in their remaining seven games. The bad news is that's their only truly awful team left on the schedule. They will play the Colts, Giants, Bills, Bengals, Ravens between those two remaining Browns games. Among all of those other games, Prediction Machine projects their win percentage to be between 44.3% and 58.8%. If the Steelers want to make a run at the division title, they'll need to win a lot of closely projected games, and losing defensive end Cameron Heyward to a pectoral injury for the remainder of the season certainly isn't going to help matters.

The Ravens now hold the tiebreaker and one-game lead in the North but their schedule is even more difficult than the Steelers. The only team they will play currently under .500 is the Bengals, twice. However, most would argue that the Bengals are still a dangerous team that is better than their record indicates, although Marvin Lewis' conservative gameplans continue to hinder the team overall. They also aren't the Browns. In the other five games, they will play arguably the best two teams in the NFL, the Cowboys and Patriots, along with hosting the Dolphins and Eagles, and traveling to play in Pittsburgh in a game that may decide the division itself.

The Ravens will only be favored in three of their remaining seven games, including being underdogs in their last two games of the season in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Because of their lead and tiebreaker, their odds of winning the division are identical to the Steelers. This is a dead heat. Prediction Machine projects the Ravens final record to be an average of 8.3-7.7 while the Steelers are 8.2-7.8. They each have a 40% chance to win the division.

That leaves the Bengals with a 20% chance (things rarely work out to clean numbers like this). They aren't necessarily dead yet either as they win the division one in every five chances on average. As their toughest remaining games are going to be at home, the Bengals are projected to be favored in all but one game when they play at Baltimore. Considering they are trailing the Ravens by two games in the win column, they'll need to nearly run the board unless the Ravens and Steelers both melt down the stretch.

The NFC North is a bit different. There is a distinct favorite along with a new second place team. The Vikings currently hold a 54% chance to win the division despite losing their last four games. They started their season 5-0 while their defense was the focus. In their four losses, they've allowed at least 20 points in every game. Prior, they hadn't allowed more than 16 in any of their wins.

The Vikings will currently be favored in all of their remaining games besides when they host the Cowboys where Prediction Machine is showing the game as a virtual coin flip. The remaining tough games for the Vikings are the Cardinals this week (at home), the Cowboys (home), and at the Packers, if you're still believing the Packers are better than they've showed thus far.

With the struggles of the Vikings and Packers, the Lions are now in the hunt for the NFC North division title. Granted, they are only showing a 28.8% chance, but they can make larger jumps if the Vikings and Packers continue to struggle. Currently tied with the Vikings, the Lions have a case to be made that they own the best quarterback in the NFC North.

Matthew Stafford has been the most under-appreciated quarterback in the NFL this season. He's completed a career-high 67.3% of his passes while also achieving a near career-high 7.5 yards per attempt in his first nine games this season. The real improvement, though, is his five interceptions and 1.6% interception rate. At his current rate, Stafford would only throw about nine interceptions this season. He's never had a 16-game season in which he's thrown less than 12 picks.

That being said, the Lions schedule does not do them any favors. Their toughest games are on the road, making them less winnable, and will be underdogs at home against a slightly better Vikings team. They will play at the Saints, Giants, and Cowboys while hosting much worse teams like the Jaguars, Bears, and Packers.

The Packers are not completely out of the divisional race, either, but their odds are dwindling. At a game back and playing worse than the Vikings and Lions as of late, they'll need an impressive run and some help from the Vikings weak schedule to win the division. Prediction Machine projects the Packers to be favored in only two of their last seven games with their last game of the season in Detroit being a coin flip.

The Packers will play at the Redskins and Eagles in the next two weeks and will host the Seahawks in Week 14. If they do go on a run, their biggest game of the season will become Week 16 when they host the Vikings. Aaron Rodgers, or the Packers' passing game in general, will need to play much better than they have for the vast majority of this season and last. Rodgers has completed just 63.1% of his passes and has thrown seven interceptions in nine games. Though these seem like fine numbers, the Packers are used to leaning on Rodgers much more. He's thrown eight or less interceptions in his last five seasons. Packers' receivers are only gaining 10.3 yards per catch compared to Rodgers' 12.1 career rate.

One could argue his receivers aren't talented enough to create enough space or the play-calling hasn't been sufficient, but that problem isn't going to be fixed mid-season. Mike McCarthy has used his system with Rodgers to create some truly great offensive seasons and an upgrade at wide receiver isn't available. Standing at just 16% to win the division, they'll need a good run along with some good luck to overcome their current hole, but Aaron Rodgers could be the one who can turn it around as he has in the past.

Interestingly, the AFC and NFC North divisions have pulled three teams into play due to poor play. There hasn't been a team that has propelled themselves into a favorable position. Will there be a team or two that go on a run to capture a division title or will there be a couple divisions that are won by teams around .500? We will certainly find out in the coming weeks.