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Six most impactful games left in 2021 NFL season: Sunday's 49ers-Bengals bout looms large

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

So, as we hit the home stretch of the regular season, I decided to do something a little different this week. I ran extra hypothetical simulations on the remaining regular-season games to identify the five contests whose outcomes figure to have the biggest impact on which teams make the 2021 NFL playoffs.

Obviously, an upset of a heavy favorite could have massive consequences, so the caveat here is that I focused solely on matchups that were as close to a coin flip as possible (favorite only won in 55 percent or less of simulations). I avoided including games that had a significant impact on first-round byes because there are so many competitive games with major playoff-berth implications coming up, which means two things: 1) We're really lucky to have a lot of meaningful football still to watch; 2) we can save seeding/bye discussions for a different article.

Alright, let's get to it!

Of the 300,000 simulations I ran for every game this week, this tilt between San Francisco and Cincinnati is the closest matchup, with the Bengals topping the 49ers in just 51.9 percent of simulations. This could also easily swing to the Niners winning in 52.3 percent of simulations based on who's active (Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel’s game-day status are both in question, for example). The outcome of this coin-flip game will cause some major ripples within both conferences. Entering Week 14, the 49ers made the playoffs in 67.7 percent of simulations; a win this weekend increases their playoff chances to 70.3 percent, while a loss drops them down to just 60.4 percent.

The Bengals are a different story. They currently make the playoffs in 50.9 percent of simulations, and a win increases that likelihood to 56.9 percent. However, if they lose to the 49ers, their playoff probability plummets to 32.8 percent. The Bengals need to win Sunday to set up a pivotal Week 16 matchup with the Ravens (8-4) that will most likely decide the division and whether the Bengals earn a playoff berth. (Baltimore forecasts to make the postseason even with a loss in Week 16.) What's particularly interesting about this matchup is the chain reaction it could have on the Chargers' playoff chances: If the Bengals beat the 49ers on Sunday and win their next two games (at Broncos, vs. Ravens), they'll potentially be responsible for booting the Bolts from the playoffs. How? Because in that scenario, Cincy would be the front-runner to win the AFC North, kicking Baltimore down to a wild-card spot. Because the Ravens have the head-to-head tie-breaker vs. the Chargers, L.A. could end up being the odd team out.

In performing this exercise, one thing became really clear with the Chargers. Brandon Staley's team can easily lose control of its playoff footing with one specific misstep: a loss to the Chiefs on TNF in Week 15. Admittedly, I'm already breaking my own rule by including this game, as the Chiefs currently win in 57.7 percent of outcomes (higher than my self-imposed 55 percent threshold). However, I had to work this matchup in because the reverberations reach so many teams -- the Bills, Bengals, Colts, Patriots, Ravens, Titans -- both in terms of berths and byes. Should the favored Chiefs win in Los Angeles, the Week 16 matchup between the Ravens and Bengals becomes a critical Jenga piece that could cause movement throughout the AFC, but especially for the Chargers, who would be unlikely to make the playoffs if Cincinnati were to beat Baltimore.

The NFC East is far from figured out. Washington has five division games left, including two against first-place Dallas, while Philadelphia, on a bye this week, has four. These WFT-PHI matchups don't really need a ton of extra math to explain their importance. Here’s what happens with the outcomes of these games in my models: If either team sweeps, that team is in. If they split, the Saints sneak into the playoffs.

The Patriots could basically determine how the entire playoff picture pans out, and the first domino they can knock over is imprinted with the Colts' playoff hopes. Indy's best path to the postseason requires topping either the Pats here or the Cardinals in Week 16, and my models forecast a greater potential for an upset vs. New England. Isolating the impact of this game, the Colts cross the 85 percent threshold if they beat the Patriots and, at the same time, deal a huge blow to the Chargers, who drop into the 29 percent range. New England's playoff probability decreases by less than 5 percentage points with a loss, but the greater impact could be on the team's playoff seeding.


As of right now, this game projects to be Buffalo’s ticket to the postseason. If the Colts beat the Patriots in Week 15, dropping New England to 9-5, the door opens for Buffalo to take back the AFC East lead with a win. To be in that position, the Bills would have to beat either the Bucs this Sunday (I see this one going in Tom Brady's favor) or the Panthers in Week 15 to get to at least eight wins before traveling to Foxborough. If New England tops Indy, however, the impact will be mainly on seeding within the AFC.

One other interesting ripple effect from Bills-Patriots: If Buffalo wins or ties and is able to knock New England down to a wild-card spot, then the Chargers likely miss out on the playoffs entirely (lost to New England in Week 8).

Projection Section

NOTE: The figures cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 1 p.m. ET on Friday, Dec. 10.

WEEK 14 UPSET PICK: Baltimore Ravens (+2.5) over Cleveland Browns

The Ravens are 10-4 -- with three straight wins -- against teams coming off a bye week since John Harbaugh became the coach in 2008. That's a fun and interesting fact, courtesy of NFL Research, but not overly predictive. The more predictive note here is that Harbaugh and Co. will be ready for the type of pressure the Browns can bring. Last week, T.J. Watt posted a career high in pressures (12) in the Ravens' loss to the Steelers, and pressure will be a factor in this one. Myles Garrett owns the fifth-best individual pressure rate in the NFL at 15.6 percent. The Browns also can bring pressure without using the blitz; they have averaged a 26.3 pressure rate when sending four or fewer (12th-best). The Ravens have allowed a 33.3 QB pressure rate in this situation since Week 6 (second-highest rate). However, Cleveland's defense has struggled on third down (ranking 26th) and in the red area (27th). Baltimore's defense -- the top-ranked unit vs. the run, on third-down and in the red zone -- further tips the scales. One note: The Ravens' loss of Marlon Humphrey is massive overall, but somewhat lessened in this matchup, as the Browns have the 24th-ranked passing offense.

THING I LIKE: Bengals RB Joe Mixon gaining more than 76.5 rushing yards against the 49ers.

Considering that the Niners' front is their strength, and the fact that Joe Burrow was under the most pressure he's seen this season just last week, it's likely the Bengals will recommit to the run in order to keep Burrow from unfavorable situations. Next Gen Stats show Mixon has earned 36 first downs on rushes outside the tackles, which is the most in the NFL. He's also gained 4.6 yards per rush against stacked boxes, ranking third-best.

THING I LOVE: Football Team RB Antonio Gibson gaining more than 66.5 rushing yards against the Cowboys.

I have 86 rushing yards projected for Gibson against Dallas. Since Week 11, he has averaged 15 rushes per game and 14 first downs on rushes outside the tackles -- both ranking in the top two in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Also during that time period, Gibson leads the NFL with 17 forced missed tackles on rushes and ranks second with eight explosive runs (those of 10-plus yards), according to Pro Football Focus. Only Jonathan Taylor has more explosive runs (15) in that span.

THING I DON'T LIKE: Browns QB Baker Mayfield throwing more than 1.5 touchdown passes against the Ravens.

The higher-probability event is for Mayfield to hand the ball off in the red zone. Yes, the Ravens boast the NFL's top-ranked run defense, and yes, they're now missing corner Marlon Humphrey. Still, the Browns are best suited to use heavier formations and feed their running backs. The main counterpoint here would be: With Kareem Hunt back in the fold, short passes to the back are more likely. However, minimizing the opportunity for turnovers is the strongest likelihood.

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