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Jay Cutler's Injury Makes For a Wild Playoff Race in the NFC

The Chicago Bears were emerging as a very dangerous team in the NFC after getting to 7-3 following a win against San Diego. They have head-to-head wins against Philadelphia and Atlanta. They’ve won five games in a row, and with Cutler playing well and getting rid of the ball quickly, he had only been sacked twice in the last three games after 21 in the first seven contests.

Then, we got news of his broken thumb, which is expected to keep him out for the rest of the regular season. Just one week ago, I took a look at the potential impact of losing a starting quarterback on a playoff contending team with Matt Schaub, and that research is relevant here.

To summarize, the average dropoff over the last decade when a starter with a winning record missed games was 0.182 drop in winning percentage and -1.33 drop in adjusted net passing yards per attempt.

If you think that the Bears were expected to win 4.1 games over the rest of the year, then the over/under now on Chicago’s remaining wins would now be exactly 3.0 wins. Those are averages, and so you can adjust up or down depending on whether you think Cutler is an average “starting quarterback on a playoff contender”, or whether you think Caleb Hanie is a typical backup.

The Bears have a diverse schedule over the final six, and a slightly easier than average one overall. They do have to go on the road for 4 out of 6. The Green Bay game is obviously a difficult one. Games against Kansas City, Seattle, and at Minnesota should be less so. Denver is a swing game, and with a backup quarterback in Chicago, I could see a conservative game plan from both teams making that a close game. The upcoming game against Oakland is a tough one to go on the road right after the loss of Cutler. It could be important, though.

The wildcards in the NFC will likely need 10 wins. If Chicago gets there, they are still not absolutely assured of a spot. Remember, ties are broken within a division first. If Detroit finishes even with Chicago on record, they are more likely to win the tiebreaker. Chicago would need to beat Green Bay or have Detroit lose to Minnesota at home. Otherwise, it may go to common opponents, and Detroit would likely hold that edge because Chicago didn’t play San Francisco.

If Chicago finishes in a three way tie with Detroit and Atlanta, it’s possible they lose out, because Atlanta would hold the tiebreaker over Detroit. The NFC East second-place team is also in play, though I doubt two of them finish at 10+ wins, since they still play head to head twice. It would be better for the Bears if the Lions either completely collapsed or otherwise finished clear of them, so that they don’t block Chicago’s path to a tiebreaker win over Atlanta.

The Cutler injury is more important than the Schaub one because of where the Bears are positioned. It puts them right on the cusp of the wildcard cut once we account for a likely dropoff. Caleb Hanie will need to get the Bears 3 wins over the next 6, then hope the tiebreakers work out.

Other NFC playoff notes:

  • Even though Green Bay is undefeated, by Thanksgiving night they could be out of the#1 seed with a loss plus a 49ers win at Baltimore. San Francisco would hold the common games tiebreaker because of the win at Detroit earlier, with five weeks remaining. San Francisco can also officially clinch the West with a win + Seattle loss this week.

 

  • Atlanta was probably the biggest beneficiary of the Cutler news, coupled with the Giants loss to Philadelphia. The Falcons, just one week after some were burying them, can still benefit from either ending in a tie with Detroit, or Detroit and Chicago, and the Giants loss makes it less likely the NFC East runner up is involved.

 

  • Philadelphia stays alive, but is probably not a threat for a wildcard. They will, however, hold the tiebreaker over the Cowboys and Giants most likely if they can go on a run, based on division record. A three-way tie at 9-7 would most likely favor the Eagles. That would still require a split by Dallas & New York, two Giants losses, and another Cowboys loss in addition to Philadelphia winning at Jerry World on Christmas Eve.

 

  • The Giants suffered the biggest drop. Dallas should now be viewed as the favorite if they can just split with New York. Miami, Arizona, Tampa and Philly for Dallas, versus Green Bay, New Orleans, the Jets and Washington for New York, means advantage Cowboys.

[photo via Getty]

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