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Dorktown: The quest for the six-win playoff team

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFC East is so bad that we’re in danger of seeing a six-win team in the playoffs. Maybe even a five-win team.

When the NFC East heads into Week 11, its leader will have three wins. THREE WINS! Ever since the NFL split into its eight-division format in 2002, there have been 152 opportunities for a team to drag its sorry three-win-having ass to Week 11 and find itself atop its division. This is the first and only time it has ever happened. Congratulations to the 3-5-1 Philadelphia Eagles.

Chart: Wins of every NFL’s division leader through Week 10, 2002-2020. This year’s Eagles are the only team to sit at just three wins.

At this stage of the season, you almost always need at least six wins to lead a division, but the Eagles hold sole possession of first without even having to resort to tiebreakers:

  1. Eagles (3-5-1)
  2. Giants (3-7)
  3. Washington (2-7)
  4. Dallas (2-7)

Know this: throughout NFL history, no team has started 2-7 or 3-7 and made the postseason – unsurprising, since even if they’d somehow turned around and ran the table the rest of the way, 9-7 is often not good enough. This year, the NFC East is harboring three such teams, and all three are right in the thick of the playoff hunt.

If this were intentional, it would take a lot of orchestration. This is a two-stage rocket, and the first stage concerns the games these teams play against each other. Time and again, we’ve seen a not-great team vault into a record like 10-6 after proving just good enough to pick up cupcake wins within its weak division. That won’t work here. All four of these teams have to be more or less equally bad, such that they notch equal wins and losses against one another. So far, they’re doing a great job of this. These are their records within the division:

Chart: NFC East teams’ division-game record. Eagles are 2-2, Giants 3-2, Washington 2-2, Cowboys 1-2.

They’re sharing wins and losses as equally as the schedule allows; as of this date, the Giants and Cowboys are stuck with odd records only because they’ve played an odd number of division games. There’s every reason to hope that this equal winning and losing will continue: the Eagles have lost to Washington, who have lost to the Giants, who have lost to the Cowboys, who have lost to the Eagles, who have lost to the Giants, who have lost to the Cowboys, who have lost to Washington.

Now, the second stage of this rocket is a far more demanding one: these teams have to go out and lose to everyone else. And have they ever:

Chart: NFC East team records vs. teams outside of the division. Eagles are 1-3-1, Giants 0-5, Washington 0-5, Cowboys 1-5.

Look at all that orange. When NFC East teams are kicked out of the house by their exasperated parents and told to go play with the neighborhood children, they almost always lose. They’re 2-18-1 against the rest of the NFL this season. Let’s examine those three games that weren’t losses:

  • Eagles 25, 49ers 20. Philly squeaks by an injury-depleted Niners team that was missing their starting quarterback, their top two running backs, their starting center, star edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, star cornerback Richard Sherman, and several other key guys. They did so after mounting a fourth-quarter comeback and barely surviving a last-minute drive led by their third-string quarterback.
  • Eagles 23, Bengals 23. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz leads a last-minute drive to tie a Bengals team that is universally understood to be bad. Overtime goes like this: Bengals punt, Eagles punt, Bengals punt, Eagles punt, Bengals punt, Eagles punt, end of game. During their final two possessions, the Eagles make it well into Bengals territory before penalties pushed them back to their side of the field.
  • Cowboys 40, Falcons 39. Atlanta leads 39-24 with under six minutes left in the game. In one of the most spectacular comebacks I’ve ever seen in the NFL, Dak Prescott mounts three quick, heroic drives to pull out the squeaker. Of these three non-losses, this is the only particularly impressive one, although three things must be said about it. First, it hinged entirely on a recovered onside kick, which in today’s NFL counts as an incredible stroke of luck. Second, this happened against the Falcons. Not the Raheem Morris-coached Falcons who have really shown some fight over the last month, but the Dan Quinn Falcons who went 0-5. Third, Prescott was sadly lost to injury a few weeks later, robbing the NFC East of their only guy who’s proven himself capable of this kind of magic.

Two wins, 18 losses, one tie. Since ties are conventionally counted as 0.5 wins and 0.5 losses, this gives us a winning percentage of .119. Let’s flip that around: this season, teams who get to play an NFC East team this season have a winning percentage of .881. They’re juggernauts.

Consider how tough it is to find any split that will get you more favorable results than .881 over a span of at least 21 games. Let’s stack up a few splits that would seem favorable, with the help of Pro-Football-Reference’s Stathead tool.

Chart: various winning percentages. If you’re the home team: .523. If you have more total yards than your opponent: .620. If you have fewer turnovers than your opponent: .713. If you’re outside of the NFC East and playing any NFC East team: .881.

Let’s have even more fun or even less fun, depending on who’s reading:

Chart: from 2000-2020, NFL teams’ winning percentage if they score at least X number of points, 0 points - 52 points. Teams that have scored 30+ points still don’t have a winning percentage as high as .881.

Brief aside: this is due to the sample size really thinning out toward the summit, but it is pretty funny that NFL teams’ winning percentages actually dip just slightly if they pass 42 points, and only recover once they hit 50. Similarly, that .881 winning percentage is based on a sample of just 21 games, so this chart wouldn’t quite hold up in an academic paper, but the fact remains: teams that score at least 30 points still have a less impressive winning percentage than literally any non-NFC East team that plays an NFC East team in 2020.

Now, it is true that the interdivisional schedules of these four teams have been pretty damn tough. Let’s use Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings (through Week 9) to sort the quality of these teams from top to bottom, and count how many times our poor heroes have had to play them:

Chart: DVOA of all interdivisional opponents NFC East teams have faced so far in 2020.

Rough stuff. Most of the time, they’ve run into good or very good teams. They’ve had to play the team with the NFL’s best record, the Steelers, three times (although it could just as easily be said that the Steelers have the NFL’s best record in part because they’ve gotten to play the NFC East three times).

Of course, the above chart omits the NFC East’s worst opponents: them. Come on out, fellas! There’s a bunch of folks here and they wanna laugh at you! Come on now!

Chart: same as above chart, only the NFC Teams themselves are represented. All are well below average in terms of DVOA.

This is why we can’t feel bad for any of these teams individually. Any tough opponents they’ve had to face elsewhere are more than balanced out by the privilege of being able to play their sorry selves.

You know, if I had the ability to assign teams to any division I wanted before the season started, with the objective of producing a division leader with as few wins as possible, I don’t know if I’d change anything. I think reality might have given us our best shot here, or at least something very, very close to it. If I just chose what I felt were the four very worst teams in the Jets, Bengals, Jags and Broncos, that could be trouble, because I suspect the Jets are miles worse than even the Bengals are. That would give the other three a punching bag that would allow them to pad their wins, which would blow the whole thing.

Instead, give me four teams who are both unmistakably bad, and almost the exact same degree of bad. Four teams who are dog shit in quadruplicate, and don’t appear to be much better or worse than each other in any material way.

So. Are we gonna see the NFL’s first-ever six-win playoff team? It’s absolutely in play, maybe even likely. I’m going to add a few more words in the hope of speaking them into existence:

We might see a five-win playoff team.

Let’s run through the remaining schedules of the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Football Team and see where we sit entering Week 11. Once again, we’ll rely on Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Dallas Cowboys

Chart: DVOA of Cowboys’ remaining opponents.

The Cowboys would need to win five of these seven games to reach seven wins and ruin our day. While they did play the Steelers close over the weekend, and they have four very winnable games ahead, this is a team that’s lost four straight. I just can’t see Andy Dalton coming back from the bye and winning five of seven.

(I’m not factoring home-field advantage here, although it’s worth noting that home teams only hold a slight advantage this season. The omnipresent NFC East loser vibes are far stronger in my view.)

Washington Football Team

Chart: DVOA of Washington’s remaining opponents.

Same story as the Cowboys. Washington needs five wins to kill our dreams. I find the most useful way of framing this is: do we even trust them to get to three? I don’t.

New York Giants

Chart: DVOA of Giants’ remaining opponents.

The numbers are just slightly more friendly to the Giants: to make us unhappy, they need to win four of six, rather than five of seven. Their most likely path would be to beat the Cowboys and Bengals, then find some way to beat two 6-3 teams out of four.

I don’t see this as likely, but for purely unscientific reasons based on previous Giants team with entirely different rosters who stumbled backwards into sudden success, I think these guys are the most likely of the four to reach seven wins.

Especially because the Eagles’ upcoming schedule is so difficult.

Philadelphia Eagles

On paper, the Eagles have the easiest path to seven wins, as they only need to win four of their next seven. Four of these opponents are good-to-great (although the recent injury sustained by Drew Brees may mean beating the Saints is less unrealistic). The other three teams are subpar. All seven, though, hold a better DVOA than the Eagles.

The odds of Philadelphia reaching seven wins feel somewhere around 50-50 to me. I’ll take it! They still get to play two of their division rivals, and if they beat them both – which they’ll probably have to do in order to have a shot at 7-9 – that consequently deals a serious blow to all their seven-win aspirations, hopefully leaving the Eagles as the only team we’ll have left to worry about. From there, we hope that all five of the other teams, which are currently 6-3 or better, beat them.

Now, a five-win division champion? The road to that is tougher, but it’s absolutely possible. The math gets a little tricky, since in division games one team’s loss is another’s win, but you’re not at work here. You’re having fun. Simply scroll back up to those four charts and find:

  • four teams that can beat the Cowboys
  • four teams that can beat Washington
  • four teams that can beat the Giants
  • four teams that can beat the Eagles

If you can do that, you can imagine a team that lurches into the playoffs with a record of either 5-11 or 5-10-1. I need this. I need such a team to reach the playoffs while a very good team, like the Saints, Bucs, Cardinals, Rams or Seahawks, gets shut out of the postseason. Please, NFC East. Deliver us this future.

For further reading on the NFC East, check out this history lesson from Will, who points that these teams have been producing bad football since the 1930s.

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