Week 14 of the NFL season was when a good deal of the potential drama at the end of the season disappeared. Three teams - the Giants, Titans and Cardinals - clinched their playoff spots. A fourth, the Broncos, moved very close to clinching with a "magic number" of one (one Chargers loss or a Broncos win and Denver wins the division). It's early in this season for this much of the playoff picture to be resolved already. That means that sports bettors have a new challenge to face this year - how do we deal with teams that already know that they are going to the playoffs? The answer will obviously be different for each of the teams in question, but there are some general questions we can ask to help us with our thinking. Here are six to get you started:
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Is there really nothing left to play for? - The public will generally assume that a team will start to take it easy once it has clinched. They won't always catch one thing though - that some teams that have clinched still have something to play for. Neither Tennessee nor the Giants have yet secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That is at least as important as earning a spot in the playoffs in the first place, so those two teams are going to be just as motivated now as they were last week. That's different than Arizona. The Cardinals are still technically alive in the race for a second playoff home game, but it's a very long shot, especially since they would lose the tie-breaker against both the Giants and Carolina. They also aren't a franchise that has any history of playoff success, so they can't afford to be looking past the first playoff game. That will give them a much different outlook than the other two teams.
How healthy are the stars? - Once a team knows that they are going to be able to get to where they have been trying to get to, their ability to perform there becomes the next priority. If a team is healthy at their core then their approach down the stretch might not change. If some of their key contributors are struggling to stay on the field, though, then the teams will use the time they have to try to get as healthy as they can while still doing what they need to do down the stretch.
Has the team been evolving or staying the same? - Rarely is a team static throughout the season - using the same offensive and defensive approaches to the same effect all year. Even good teams have ebbs and flows, and they have to change and adapt as the season goes on. If the team is in a particularly good space then the ability to play games that don't matter will allow them to take essentially a working holiday. If a team is struggling, or being forced to adapt to challenges, then they will still have to keep playing at a high level to work out their problems. The Giants are a good example - they might be secure in the playoffs, but it's pretty clear that they still haven't gotten used to life without Plaxico Burress.
What's on the schedule? - How a team plays down the stretch could have a lot to do with who they end up playing. Arizona might have little to play for, but they would still likely excel against a team that can't defend the pass. Tennessee is similarly going to dominate a weak offense regardless of what is on the line. Teams that have clinched may not have the desire or determination to rise up against a tough opponent, but they might not need anywhere near a full effort to still look good against a weaker one.
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Are they playing anyone they might see again? - If a team plays someone after they have clinched who they might meet up with again in the playoffs then you can be almost sure that they won't play at their best. The secure team won't want to tip their hand against a team they could play again in the playoffs. That means that they will put forth a vanilla offense and defense because the game matters far less than the next one could. That can lead to a real edge for the team that is still playing for their lives.
Does the coach or organization have a tendency? - It's not necessarily the case this year, but often teams that have clinched a spot are no strangers to doing so. In those cases, a lot can be learned from looking at what teams have done in the past when they have been in similar situations. Are they the kind of team that keeps the pedal pushed to the floor regardless of what is on the line, or does the coach have the ability and mindset to turn things on or off when they want to?