You may have heard me mention this before, but I’ve always used a very simple formula to structure a path to the postseason. Win at home and split on the road. Looking specifically at this week in the NFL, only the Redskins and the Steelers lost while every other home team held serve. At 5-8, the Steelers are all but eliminated from the playoffs. The Redskins lost their chances at the postseason in Week 13, so it is no wonder that they are the only two outliers.
Of the 14 teams that defended their home turf, the Bengals, Eagles, Saints and 49ers did so against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season were to end right now.
Unsurprisingly, the Bengals started the game against the Colts with three unanswered touchdowns and held a 21-point lead midway through the third quarter. Andrew Luck and the Colts mounted a mini-comeback but ultimately couldn’t overcome another poor first-half performance and fell 42-28. In the last six games, the Colts have been outscored 114-24 in the first half, while the Bengals have now scored 40+ points in three straight games. The win pushes the Bengals’ home record to a perfect 6-0. With a win in Pittsburgh next week, the Bengals will be set up to follow my formula without a fault: undefeated at home with a 4-4 record on the road.
The Eagles put together one of the most dominating fourth-quarter performances I can recall this season to beat the Lions in an epic snowstorm. Philadelphia faced an early 14-point deficit but used four fourth-quarter touchdowns to charge back and then eventually win, 34-20. It’s hard to draw any major conclusions from this game because of the unusual weather, but the Eagles’ defense continues to quietly impress. After giving up at least 21 points in 16 straight games, the Eagles have held their opponents under 22 points for nine straight games and have forced multiple turnovers in five straight. Not so quiet was LeSean McCoy’s record-breaking rushing day in which he went for 217 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first Eagles back to rush for 200+ yards since Duce Staley, currently the Eagles running backs coach, did so in Week 1 of 2000.
Unlike the Bengals, the Eagles have taken a much different route to their division-leading 8-5 record. Philadelphia started the season by losing their first four home games, but have now won three straight. The matchup against the Bears in Week 17 is their only remaining home game on the schedule. One of those four home losses came against the Cowboys in Week 7 and, because of that, if the Cowboys win tonight, the Eagles will fall from the three seed to out of the playoff picture altogether. You must hold serve at home!
Another undefeated team at home this season, the Saints, held serve against the red-hot Panthers last night with a dominating 31-13 win. Not only are the Saints a perfect 7-0 in the Superdome, but they are an entirely different team when playing in New Orleans. In their seven home games, the Saints are averaging 32.9 points while holding their opponents to just 15.5. In their six road games, they have scored just 18.8 points per game and surrendered a full 7.1 more points to their opponents. Furthermore, they boast a +5 turnover differential at home while carrying a not-so-flattering -3 differential on the road.
Just like the Bengals, the Saints are following my formula to perfection: undefeated at home with a perfectly split 3-3 record on the road. They will travel to St. Louis next week and then turn around and play the Panthers for the second time in three weeks, this time at Carolina. Because the Saints have won at home and split on the road, and assuming both the Saints and Panthers otherwise win out, New Orleans can afford to lose in Carolina because they will hold the tie-breaker between the 12-4 teams. On the other hand, the Panthers slipped up at home in the very first game of the season, and that one hiccup at home may cost them a bye in the playoffs. You have to hold serve at home!
The 49ers held on at home to beat the Seahawks for the first time in the past three tries. By doing so, the 49ers moved to 9-4 and held on to the final wild-card spot in the NFC with the 8-5 Cardinals biting at their heels. The 49ers have bounced back from a 1-2 start and have won eight of their past 10 games, allowing just 13 points per game in that span. But the 49ers have lost two games at home this season, leaving them vulnerable in the overall playoff picture. However, they still control their own destiny. With the Week 17 showdown against the Cardinals being their final divisional game, if the 49ers win their next two and then lose to Arizona in Phoenix, then they still win the tie-breaker between the two clubs because their divisional record would be better.
As you can see, there are many paths to the playoffs in the NFL, but the cleanest and easiest to define is to defend your home and split on the road. A 12-4 record might as well be a guarantee to play in the postseason, and most of the time, 10 wins does the same. But as you can see, the further you get from that path, the muddier the waters become.