The Vikings' and Lions' Paths to the Playoffs

I recently noted that according to NFL Forecast's computation of playoff odds for each team, MIN at 5-6 appears to have a far better shot at a wildcard spot than 6-5 Detroit. In fact, there are five more teams at 5-6, but none with as a good a shot as MIN. But since DET plays at MIN this Sunday I'll focus on those two teams.

First, MIN is the better team according to their efficiency stats. Although their passing game is below average, they don't throw as many interceptions as DET. Their running game is spectacular, on both sides of the ball. Usually, the running game is not as important as passing, except when it is exceptionally good as it is with MIN.

TeamO Pass
O Run
O Int Rate
O Fum Rate
D Pass
D Run
D Int Rate
Pen Rate
NFL Avg6.14.00.0320.0266.14.00.0320.37

But the real difference between the two teams lies in some stats that usually go overlooked. One thing that really hurts DET is their fumble rate. They lead the NFL in fumbles per play. Almost 5% of all offensive snaps result in a fumble. Their penalty rate is also the worst in the league at half a yard per snap. Accordingly, DET's generic win probability (GWP-the chance they'll beat a league-average team at a neutral site) ranks 27th at 0.33. In contrast, MIN's GWP ranks 13th at 0.56.

This Sunday MIN hosts DET in a crucial game. The prediction model gives MIN a solid advantage with a 0.78 probability of winning at home. That would split the season series and even up their records at 6-6. Now let's look at their remaining schedule.

DET's remaining schedule is listed in the table below. Their opponent's efficiency rank and the probability DET will win the game are also listed. DET has a tough schedule ahead. Their opponents' average GWP is 0.64. Plus, only two of their five remaining games are at home. The GB odds are relatively uncertain because by week 17, the Packers might be resting their starters if they've locked up their playoff seed.

OpponentOpp RankWin Prob.
at Min130.22
at SD100.81
at GB60.13

Here is MIN's remaining schedule. They have a much easier schedule with an average opponent GWP of only 0.37, with three home games.

OpponentOpp RankWin Prob.
at SF320.80
at DEN140.57

Anything can happen, but it looks like MIN has a much better shot at a wildcard than DET despite being a game behind in the standings. That's one reason why this weekend's game is so important. If DET can upset MIN, they'd own the tiebreaker and a two game lead, possibly eliminating MIN from contention.

But let's not forget about the other teams in contention. Here are the other 5-6 teams scrapping for a wildcard berth, their efficiency ranking, and their average future opponent GWP.

TeamRankOpp GWP

I'm not saying MIN will definitely or even probably make the playoffs, but they do have the best shot of all the teams behind the Giants (7-4). Of the other teams, PHI appears strongest, but they also have the toughest schedule. WAS is about even with MIN in terms of team efficiency but it has a much tougher schedule. The loss of Sean Taylor may also affect the team in unpredictable ways. ARI has a relatively weak schedule, but has not been playing well themselves and their secondary is banged-up. NO has been playing well lately but their defense is practically non-existent. They're probably the hardest team to predict this year because of their slow start. CHI is simply bad, even on defense. It's surprising they have 5 wins at this point.

It's possible and perhaps likely we'll see an 8-8 team make the playoffs out of the NFC again this year. I think MIN has the best shot to be that team.

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4 Responses to “The Vikings' and Lions' Paths to the Playoffs”

  1. Doug Walters says:

    I hate being a Lions fan. Even when they win I don't feel so good because I don't expect the success to last.

    Being an "analyst" makes it hard to have a favorite team because you have to be impartial in your analysis.

    Anyway, nice to see you're getting similar results.

  2. Derek says:

    I agree that the Vikings are the better team, but I'll stick with my Lions pick. I've maintained the entire season that they'll back in as an 8-8, 9-7 team. They'll suck again next year, but I don't trust Tavaris Jackson to rally the Vikings into the playoffs.

  3. Chris says:

    I've got the software running again at This is a perfect scenario to analyze. At this time the Vikings have a 47% chance of making the playoffs compared to less than 5% for Detroit.

    If Detroit pulls the upset, the odds change to about 15% for each team and Washington and Philidelphia will become the favorites, each with about 25% odds. The reason lies in the tiebreakers. Nine wins will probably be enough to get Washington, Phillidelphia or Minnesota in the last wild card spot, but 9 wins only gives Detroit about a 50% shot.

    If Minnesota wins on Sunday, their conditional odds increase to 53% and Detrot's drops to below 2%. This is pretty much a must win game for Detroit, as a win increases their odds by about a factor of 8 compared to a loss.

  4. Doug Walters says:

    Very cool.

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