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Long-Shot NFL Playoff Picture: Make-Believe For The Mathematically Living

11 weeks into the NFL season, only one team has been mathematically eliminated. Teams such as the Rams, Vikings, and Panthers are still technically alive. Here, we plot out the ridiculous methods by which they can reach the postseason.

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 2:  Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams fumbles the ball as he is sacked against the Washington Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome on October 2, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 2: Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams fumbles the ball as he is sacked against the Washington Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome on October 2, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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If you're the Packers or 49ers, you're virtually guaranteed a playoff spot. If you're one-third of the teams in the league, you control your own destiny. If you're in the middle of the pack, you need some help from other teams to reach the postseason. And if you're a team like the Rams, Vikings, or Redskins, you're an astronomical playoff long-shot who needs tons of games to break the right way for you to miraculously grab a postseason slot.

Suppose there are 10 games, the result of which you have no control over, to land in your favor. If we hyper-simplify the probabilities of these outcomes to coin flips, you're still talking about flipping heads 10 out of 10 times. The chances of this happening are about one percent.

Maybe you need 20 games to break the right way. The odds of coming up heads 20 of 20 times falls dramatically to about 0.0000953 percent.

If 30 of 30 desired results are necessary, your odds are 0.0000000093 percent.

But as we all know, numbers are stupid, and there's a reason they play football with a football instead of an abacus (there are multiple reasons, this is not the only reason for that). So here's a rundown of all the teams that, as determined by, stand a chance of 1 percent or less at reaching the postseason:


Record: 0-10 playoff chance: zero percent

The Colts are the only mathematically-eliminated team in the NFL. Supposing they were to miraculously win the rest of their games to finish at 6-10, and supposing the Bengals somehow held on to the second wild-card slot despite losing the rest of their games and finishing at 6-10 (supposing that's even possible, which it probably isn't), the Bengals would clinch through tiebreaker since they beat the Colts in Week 6.

Similarly improbable scenario: The NFL changes its stupid overtime format.


Record: 2-8 playoff chance: zero percent

Actually, the Rams are not mathematically eliminated just yet, though I certainly can't blame for sticking a fork in them. This is what would need to happen for the Rams to claim the NFC's second wild card slot:


  • Either the Lions (7-3) or Bears (7-3), who would take the wild card slots if the season ended today, would have to lose their final six games.
  • The Giants and Falcons (6-4) would have to win no more than one game throughout the rest of the season.
  • The NFC's middling teams (Eagles, Buccaneers, and Seahawks) would have to remain far out of contention.


This is only mathematically possible due to the nature of these teams' schedules. Strangely, the major contenders for the NFC's wild card spots -- the Lions, Bears, Giants, and Falcons -- don't play one another even once throughout the rest of the schedule.

Similarly improbable scenario: it turns out that God is actually your 2004 Honda Accord.


Record: 2-8 playoff chance: <0.1 percent

The Vikings' story is pretty similar to the Rams'. Their odds are slightly less astronomically improbable, because unlike the Rams, the Vikings play a couple of teams (Falcons and Lions) with whom they would need to catch up. That takes two extra coin flips out of a series of, like, 30 coin flips, each of which would need to come up heads. 

(If you flip a coin 30 times in a row, by the way, there is a 0.000000093 percent chance that it will come up heads all 30 times. Welp!)

Similarly improbable scenario: You wake up one morning to find Barack Obama in your kitchen, making you an omelet. He cusses you out for not having any shallots on hand, then tearfully explains that he was just trying to do something nice for you before sheepishly asking if you will unlock the door for him so that he doesn't have to crawl back out through the chimney.


Record: 2-8 playoff chance: <0.1 percent

Again, here's a 2-8 NFC team with odds similarly abysmal to those of the Rams. This is unrelated to the playoff picture, but on Sunday we'll get to see the teams with the two worst defenses (Panthers and Colts) go at it.

In preparation for this Very Special Episode of football, I think both teams should cut their punters and replace their slots on the rosters with interns whose only job is to advise the head coach on clock management. Every team should probably have one of these.

Similarly improbably scenario: Tupac Shakur is not only alive, but quilting.


Record: 3-7 playoff chance: 0.1 percent

The Cardinals' wild card odds paint just a slightly less impossible picture than the three teams above, so let's instead imagine a scenario in which they oust the 9-1 49ers and win the NFC West.

This is pretty straightforward: the Niners would have to lose the rest of their games, and the Cardinals would have to win the rest of their games. This would tie the teams at 9-7, and since they would have split their season series at 1-1 at this point, the winner would be determined by division record, in which the Cards would win out.

Similarly improbably scenario: Italy declares war on Mongolia because it doesn't look like a foot.


Record: 3-7 playoff chance: 0.1 percent

In the remaining portion of the schedule, the Giants play the Cowboys twice. In the Redskins' best-case scenario, these two teams, which are currently tied for the NFC East lead, split the games and implode throughout the rest of their schedule.

Mathematically, the Redskins could run the table and win the division with a 9-7 record. As long as we're speaking mathematically, they could win the East at 8-8.

Not sure what the Redskins would do with a playoff berth. If I were them I'd probably refrain from using it, opting instead to frame it and hang it on my wall like small businesses do with the first dollar they earn.

Similarly improbably scenario: It turns out the Moon landing was a hoax, not because NASA lacked the engineering, but because the universe ends at a ceiling 450 meters in the sky that was decorated with painted stars, Moon, and Sun by ancient Druids.


Record: 3-7 playoff chance: 0.2 percent

Interestingly enough, Coolstandings has pegged the Dolphins' playoff chances as smaller than one percent since Week 2, when they started 0-2 and everyone else in the AFC East was 2-0. Their odds completely bottomed out in Week 8, when they were an 0-7 team in a division featuring two 5-2 teams and a 4-3 team.

While a division title for the Dolphins is not mathematically impossible, they have a better shot at the wild card. Ahead of them in the race for the second slot are a 7-3 team, a 6-4 team, four 5-5 teams, and three 4-6 teams. That's a bummer, but on a positive note, the Dolphins are riding a three-game winning streak, and held their opponents to single digits in all three of those games.

Similarly improbably scenario: The movie Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever was based on events that actually happened to Tony Sparano.


Record: 3-7 playoff chance: 0.3 percent

The Jags' odds of a wild card slot are more or less those of the Dolphins, so let's look instead at their AFC South prospects. If we're hoping for the Jaguars to win the South, we're hoping that Matt Leinart ends up being such a terrible fill-in starter for the Texans that they go 1-5 the rest of the way.

If that happens, if the Titans stay put, and if the Jaguars run the table, they take the division. Regarding that last condition, Jacksonville does face quite a few flawed opponents throughout the rest of the season.

Similarly improbably scenario: The Tree of Life was based on events that actually happened to Blaine Gabbert.