This is a topic that Footballguys has covered in year's past, and it is highly useful for the final few weeks of the regular season.
This year is wacky with how the NFC conference playoffs are going, so I thought I'd get the ball rolling on this, with a focus on which teams are most incentivized to play hard this weekend.
To be clear - there is TEAM motivation (such as a team must win to stay relevant for the playoffs), then there is INDIVIDUAL motivation (such as getting to a season- or career-long milestone).
Here's what we observed going into Week 14 from a TEAM motivation perspective.
Dallas - No clear team motivation other than wanting to right their ship after a loss on Thanksgiving to Buffalo. A loss to Chicago on the road is not the end of the world, as they will still be in first place in the NFC East regardless of the outcome of Giants-Eagles on Monday.
Philadelphia - The Eagles must also right their ship after another bad loss last week (at Miami). A win at home against the Giants corrects their course and possibly steers them towards an NFC East title.
Washington - Believe it or not, Washington still has a slim chance at the postseason - but only if they win out and the Eagles and Cowboys continue to collapse. A loss at Green Bay this week will end that crazy talk, but Washington could put up a little more fight than expected.
NY Giants - While eliminated for the playoffs, Eli Manning returning as a starter (along with Golden Tate and possibly Evan Engram playing) could shake things up for the Monday Night Football matchup with Philadelphia.
Minnesota - The Vikings have nearly an 80% chance of getting to the playoffs, but the reality is that their schedule after Sunday's home game with Detroit gets tough (at Chargers, vs. Green Bay, vs. Chicago). A win this week boosts their confidence along with their record to 9-4, but the Week 16 matchup with the Packers projects to swing their playoff hopes significantly.
Green Bay - The Packers are nearly a lock for the playoffs (92% chance), but winning at home against Washington followed by another victory in Week 15 at home against the Bears will take a great deal of pressure off of the trip to Minnesota in Week 16. Even if Minnesota wins their next three games - including Week 16 - Green Bay is favored to win both the NFC North and will have at least a 98% chance of getting back to the playoffs. With three teams in the NFC with just two losses entering this week (Seattle, San Francisco, and New Orleans), every game will matter, so expect the Packers to be highly motivated throughout December.
Chicago - The Bears beating Dallas on Thursday bumped Chicago's slim playoff hopes up slightly (3% before the game, 5% after the win), but a daunting schedule over the next two weeks (at Green Bay, vs. Kansas City) leaves the Bears likely out of the mix after Week 15.
New Orleans - The Saints are the only team that has clinched a playoff spot in the highly competitive NFC, but the NFC South champions are still pushing for a bye and the top seed. Week 14 (hosting the 49ers) will determine quite a bit regarding that seeding, but New Orleans will still be favored for a bye (59% chance) even with a loss. Expect the Saints to be fired up this Sunday as a win all but assures them of only needing two wins to get to the Super Bowl (95% chance of a bye).
Carolina - The Panthers get a cursory mention here as they still have a slim chance, but Carolina must win out and have Minnesota lose out thanks to the Panthers' seven losses that are all in the NFC conference. Expect a slight boost in Week 14 with a coaching change that could reinvigorate the team, at least for one week.
San Francisco - As mentioned with the Saints, the 49ers are pushing for a bye and to also stay out of the Wild Card round. Seattle or the 49ers are likely going to be the #5 seed, likely resulting in a trip to Dallas or Philadelphia as a rare road favorite in the opening round of the playoffs Even though the 49ers would be favored in that situation, avoiding an extra game and having a bye (and some form of home-field advantage) is much more desirable. San Francisco's chances for an NFC West title and a bye more than double with a win on Sunday (26% chance with a loss, 53% with a road win in New Orleans).
Seattle - A trip to Los Angeles is next up for the red-hot Seahawks, who are presently in the top spot in the NFC, but a slip-up against the Rams could cost them a bye (similarly to San Francisco's situation). A win on Sunday gives Seattle a 75% chance for one of the top two NFC seeds, while a loss drops that likelihood down to 46%. With so much up in the air in this division, expect both the 49ers and Seahawks to have high motivation through Week 16 at a minimum.
LA Rams - The defending NFC Conference Champs (remember that?) have to win out to realistically have a shot at the playoffs. A home win this Sunday over Seattle multiplies their playoff chances by 4x (41% with a win, 10% with a loss), but the Rams still will need help to get in (likely by hoping Minnesota loses, starting with Sunday). Looming in Week 16 is a tough game with the 49ers, and losing to both Seattle and San Francisco likely leaves the Rams on the outside looking in at the NFC playoffs.
The AFC playoff picture and team motivations are not too complicated either this year (eliminating any team with
New England - The Patriots were cruising at 8-0, but now they have gone 2-2 over their past four games and questions are being raised about how good they really are. A home win against Kansas City will lock the Patriots into the playoffs once again, but will not secure their 11th consecutive divisional title just yet. That outcome (AFC East Champion) is still highly likely even if New England loses to Andy Reid's Chiefs on Sunday, but their chances are slightly better for not just the division but also a bye (96% chance with a victory, 66% likelihood with a loss). Even if the Patriots win their next two contests (Week 15 at Cincinnati), New England is highly unlikely to secure a bye thanks to losses to both Baltimore and Houston, along with Buffalo's strong season. A win by the Texans this week (vs. Denver) ensures that the Patriots will have something to play for through Week 16, so anyone with Patriot players (or their defense) on their fantasy roster should be rooting for the Texans this week.
Buffalo - The Bills have two tough matchups remaining on their schedule, starting with a home game against Baltimore this Sunday. Even with a loss to the Ravens this week and again in Week 16 in Foxboro against the Patriots, Buffalo still has a 91% likelihood of making the postseason and can secure that with a win in Pittsburgh in Week 15. The Bills still have a shot at the AFC East title, and that is the only path to a bye for Buffalo. The best scenario for the Bills to accomplish that feat would be to win their next three contests (vs. Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at New England) and hope that the Chiefs beat the Patriots this week. Those four results give the Bills an 86% chance at the division and a bye. Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Buffalo has plenty to play for through Week 15, but there are several scenarios where the Bills have little to play for in Week 16 and Week 17, so keep that in mind for any fantasy championship games.
Baltimore - The Ravens are the Super Bowl favorite now in Las Vegas (5-2 odds), thanks to their impressive eight-game win streak that has Baltimore at 10-2. Baltimore visits Buffalo in a tough matchup this week, but a win on Sunday puts the Ravens in the playoffs and all but assures them of a bye. Both New England and Houston will push the Ravens over the next three weeks to keep winning, as both could theoretically catch Baltimore for that top spot, but the Ravens have beaten both teams so that seems a bit unlikely. Even if the Ravens clinch everything early (which would require two losses by New England against the Chiefs and Bengals), Jim Harbaugh will want to keep Baltimore motivated and running like a fine-tuned machine, so do not expect any Ravens to be rested before Week 17.
Pittsburgh - The Steelers are still alive, despite everything that has happened to the Black and Gold this year. Pittsburgh enters Week 14 with a 47% chance at the playoffs (likely as a Wild Card) and those numbers go up to 59% with a win in Arizona this Sunday. Ignoring the tough game in Week 15 (home against Buffalo), winning another winnable game at home against the Jets and a highly motivated Le'Veon Bell will boost the Steelers to 75% likelihood of getting into the playoffs. Expect Pittsburgh to play hard throughout all of December.
Cleveland - The Browns (yes, the Browns) enter Week 14 with a 5% chance at a Wild Card spot. Wins over Cincinnati and at Arizona in Week 15 will ensure that Week 16 (home against the Ravens) has playoff implications, even if Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Oakland and Indianapolis all go 2-0 in their next two games. Just like the Steelers, expect Cleveland to play hard and finish strong this season.
Houston - At 8-4, the Texans are likely to secure a playoff berth (90% chance) and the AFC South title (75%) with four games left to play in the regular season. Houston has a remote (5%) shot at a bye thanks to a victory over New England, but a loss to the Ravens will hurt in tiebreakers. Beating Denver and the Titans in Tennessee along with a Colts loss will give the Texans the division title, but it would take a significant collapse from New England to get a bye. Seeding will still matter with the Texans against Kansas City, so expect Houston to play tough all of December.
Tennessee - The Titans are the third-most likely team (42% chance) to get a Wild Card spot behind Buffalo (96%) and Pittsburgh (47%) entering Week 14. Tennessee is a slight road favorite in Oakland this week, and they are going to be highly motivated to come out of The Black Hole with a win with extremely tough games in Week 15 (vs. Houston) and Week 16 (vs. New Orleans) looming in their next two matchups.
Indianapolis - The Colts are 6-6 and have lost two games in a row, yet they still have a slim (10%) chance at a Wild Card spot in the AFC. Those chances swing wildly based upon a win (21%) or a loss (2%), so expect Indianapolis to fight hard in Tampa Bay this week. Motivation could be waning quickly here if they lose come Sunday, so be careful not to count on Indianapolis for strong performances after this weekend.
Kansas City - The Chiefs are nearly locked into the AFC West (99%), but getting a bye is going to be tough unless Kansas City beats New England on the road this week. If Andy Reid goes to Foxboro and upsets the Patriots, the Chiefs can win their Week 15 (Denver) and Week 16 (at Chicago) matchups and hope that the Bills beat New England in Week 16. Those results give the Chiefs the inside track at a bye (66% chance), but it all starts with winning this weekend.
Oakland - The Raiders are one of the surprise teams this season, but they are on the verge of blowing their chance of getting into the playoffs after two bad losses. Their slim chances (11%) more than double (27%) if they beat Tennessee at home this week, and continuing that winning through Week 15 (Jacksonville) and Week 16 (at the Chargers) in winnable games would make the Raiders one of the favorites (61% chance) entering their season finale in Denver.
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