Analysis: NFL playoff race defines parity, though competition doesn’t always equal quality football

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The NFL playoff race defines parity.

Thirty teams entered Week 15 still alive for a Super Bowl run. Of course, several of those teams had astronomical odds and a few more know they’re not going anywhere. But, it’s been five years since only two teams were mathematically eliminated this late in the season.

Close scores and competitive games don’t always translate into quality football — just ask Tom Brady — but the NFL takes pride in balance.

They’ve sure got it in 2023.

There are 24 teams in or within one game of a playoff spot. Seven of eight division races are within two games, including four that are within one or tied.

Eleven AFC teams have a winning record. Since the 1970 merger, that’s only happened three times previously through 14 weeks.

Five NFC teams that are 6-7 are tied for the final wild-card spot. Three 6-7 teams are tied for the top spot in the NFC South.

Three teams that opened the season 1-5 are within one game of a playoff spot. Only four teams in the Super Bowl era have made the playoffs after starting 1-5.

“I’m sure we’ve seen it like this either in the NFC or the AFC, but I can’t recall having been a part of it,” said Broncos coach Sean Payton, whose team has gone from 1-5 to 7-6 and one game behind Kansas City in the AFC West.

“Obviously, we’re a game out in our division, and that’s how we’re looking at it. We kind of talked about this last week. This next quarter poll is going to obviously define a lot for a lot of teams, and fortunately, we’re one of those teams. We just have to focus on the next job. It is unusual. I think it probably comes up a little more than we think and moves around from the NFC to the AFC. It makes it exciting for the fans, and certainly for TV.”

Five teams who missed the postseason in 2022 are currently in a playoff position: Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Since 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs in every season a year after missing the postseason.

Overall, 72% of games (149 of 208) were within one score (eight points) in the fourth quarter. That’s the third-most games through Week 14 in NFL history.

A total of 55% of games (115 of 208) were decided by eight points or fewer. That’s also the third-most games through Week 14 in NFL history.

All this adds up for an exciting finish and a hectic race for the playoffs. It also means there could be quite a few mediocre teams playing in the postseason.

After first-place teams went 2-6 last week, the race for the No. 1 seed in both conferences opened up.

The Ravens (10-3) lead the way in the AFC but they’ve got a difficult schedule the rest of the way. The Dolphins (9-4), Chiefs (8-5), Jaguars (8-5) and Browns (8-5) are also competing for the top spot.

In the NFC, the fight for the No. 1 seed is a three-way race between the 49ers, Cowboys and Eagles. All three teams are 10-3. The Lions (9-4) are right behind them but have played poor football recently.

Securing a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs hasn’t been the only path to the Super Bowl. In 2021, both No. 4 seeds made it. In 2020, a No. 5 seed won the Super Bowl.

The wild-card picture is jumbled and will likely come down to the final week.

Only the Panthers (1-12) and Patriots (3-10) have already been eliminated. The Cardinals (3-10) and Commanders (4-9) need more than a miracle. Everyone else has a shot ranging from a minuscule percentage to a strong chance to play meaningful games in January.

“The next four weeks are going to be a round-robin tournament,” said Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles, whose team won the division at 8-9 last year and is leading it at 6-7 now. “It’s the playoffs for everybody right now. We’ve got to show up and do the right things we can to win the game. We’re all banged up, we’re all fighting for spots, and we’re trying to get ours in there. … I don’t really care where we play at, as long as we get in.”

Plenty of coaches feel the same way. They just want to have a chance, even if it’s a slim one.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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