With last Sunday's curb-stompingly emphatic win over the hapless Cardinals now out of our systems, it's time to set our sights on the final three games of the year.
Currently, the Seattle Seahawks are sitting pretty with an 8-5 record, their best start in five years, as well as the first time in five seasons that the Seahawks will not finish the season with a losing record. Five years can feel like an eternity to an NFL fan. After all, it was five years ago that the Patriots were embroiled in their Spygate scandal, JaMarcus Russell was a rookie for the Raiders, Brett Favre was still a Packer, and Peyton Manning had the most Super Bowl rings in the family.
By virtue of Minnesota's win over the reeling Bears, the Seahawks now have possession of the #5 slot in the NFC playoff picture. The division title, while not our current "destiny" (one that we may be able to control, that is), is still possible, and most importantly the upgrade in playoff positioning helps to insulate us against the other teams threatening to make the playoff brackets. I'll explain how being #5 is a much, much safer place to be than #6 is in just a moment, but first let's establish where everyone is in the NFC standings.
5. Seahawks (8-5, beat CHI)
6. Bears (8-5, lost to SEA)
Now that we know where everyone stacks up, it's time to have some fun.
No doubt, we've all been playing around with ESPN's Playoff Machine - after all, it's how I figured out that the only way the Saints can even get in the playoffs at this point would involve an insane number of ties between the teams that have a better record at the moment. But in my sick, twisted desire to test the Seahawks' playoff chances, I created some of the most logjammiest scenarios possible this late in the season. Namely, how many teams could finish the year at 10-6, and where does Seattle rank in that situation?
The short answer to the above question is six - the Seahawks, Bears, Giants, Packers, Vikings, and either the Redskins or Cowboys (who play each other in Week 17) could all potentially end the year with the exact same record. The NFC North and NFC East titles, as well as both Wild Card spots, would all be subjected to one big mishmash of tiebreakers. Here's how strong the chances of each of the potential 10-6 teams currently look.
Green Bay Packers (currently 9-4, remaining games @CHI, TEN, @MIN):
The Packers would only drop to 10-6 if they lost two of their last three; however, two of their last three games are against divisional teams, and if they lose both of those, they'll go from leading the NFC North to out of the playoffs entirely. Replace a divisional loss with one to the Titans, however, and the Packers are on much safer ground, as they would have swept one of the divisional foes and have a superior divisional record against the other. As long as they don't lose to both the Bears and the Vikings, they'll be fine.
New York Giants (currently 8-5, remaining games @ATL, @BAL, PHI):
As it stands, the 8-5 Giants control their own destiny for the NFC East. Even if they slip up once, however, they would still be in very good shape to lock down a Wild Card berth thanks to their conference record. If their loss comes against the Ravens, they'd have a 9-3 conference record which would outshine Seattle, who could do no better than 8-4. If the Giants loss came to either Atlanta or Philly, however, and Seattle's loss came to a team other than San Francisco, it could go all the way down to Strength of Victory, which Seattle currently leads .529 to .505. Essentially, the Giants only need to win twice and they're all but assured a playoff spot.
Chicago Bears (currently 8-5, remaining games GB, @ARI, @DET):
The Bears are the odd man out of almost any situation where they end up tied with another team. They'd lose to Minnesota in a common games tiebreaker (7-3 vs. 8-2), they trail Green Bay in Strength of Victory (.418 to .440), Seattle beat them head-to-head, and Washington and the Giants would outdo their conference record. The only team the Bears could beat in a tiebreaker is Dallas, who they beat head-to-head in week 4. Put simply, any loss from this point would seriously jeopardize the Bears' playoff hopes.
Washington Redskins (currently 7-6, remaining games @CLE, @PHI, DAL):
While the Redskins do not control their own destiny for the divisional title, they're the next team in order of succession should the Giants lose in any of their remaining games. With only one divisional loss, they'd clobber the Giants in that tiebreaker. Even if the Giants hold serve, however, they'd have a stellar 8-4 conference record that would be enough to outrank any of the NFC North teams, as well as the Seahawks if they lose either to the 49ers or Rams.
Dallas Cowboys (currently 7-6, remaining games PIT, NO, @WSH):
Much like the Redskins, the Cowboys could usurp the division by winning out and watching the Giants drop a game, due to a superior divisional record (4-2 vs. 3-3 at best). They don't have as strong a conference record, however, and would lose in tiebreakers to Seattle (head-to-head), Chicago (head-to-head), and Green Bay (Strength of Victory), beating only Minnesota in common games (2-3 vs. 1-4). They need help, but not as much as...
Minnesota Vikings (currently 7-6, remaining games @STL, @HOU, GB):
Of all the teams on this list, they're the only ones who need two divisional rivals to come down to their level. Beating the Packers in the season finale would help that cause, but they would need the Bears to beat Green Bay as well, then lose one of its two remaining games. If all that were to happen, though, they'd back into the NFC North title with a better divisional record than Chicago (4-2 vs. 3-3) and a better common game record than Green Bay (8-2 vs. 7-3). That's pretty much the only way they can reach the playoffs unless everyone else ends up with less than 10 wins; Seattle and Washington beat the Vikings head-to-head, and Dallas has a better record in common games.
Seattle Seahawks (currently 8-5, remaining games @BUF, SF, STL):
Which brings us to our heroes. Only the Giants and the Redskins have any leverage over them, and in Washington's case, it's only if Seattle's loss comes at the hands of a conference opponent - if the loss is against Buffalo, they'd tie for conference record at 8-4, at which point Seattle's 4-1 common record would trump Washington at 3-2. The Giants could lose to Baltimore and beat us for conference record, 9-3 vs. 8-4 at best. If the Giants and Seahawks tie for conference record (a Seattle loses to Buffalo, and the Giants drop either the game against Atlanta or Philly), Seattle would win out in Strength of Victory. They've beaten the Cowboys, Packers, Bears, and Vikings, which not only helps out in the tiebreakers against those teams individually, but sweeping them all gives the Seahawks automatic priority against all of them if the tiebreaker involves only these teams.
Of course, if we manage to overtake the 49ers in the next three weeks, you can ignore everything I just typed up there. Failing that, our biggest threat is the Redskins, who is pretty much the only team that could match our record and beat us out for a playoff spot if we lose the wrong game.
Moving on to the draft order, because if I go any more into the playoff implications of six 10-6 teams my brain is likely going to turn into soup:
1. Chiefs (2-11, 104-104 SOS)
2. Jaguars (2-11, 112-106 SOS)
3. Raiders (3-10, 95-113 SOS)
4. Eagles (4-9, 106-102 SOS, 1-3 Div.)
5. Panthers (4-9, 106-102 SOS, 2-3 Div.)
6. Titans (4-9, 110-98 SOS)
7. Lions (4-9, 116-90-2 SOS, 0-5 Div.)
8. Cardinals (4-9, 115-89-4 SOS, 1-4 Div.)
9. Chargers (5-8, 94-114 SOS)
10. Bills (5-8, 102-104-2 SOS)
11. Browns (5-8, 106-102 SOS)
12. Saints (5-8, 106-101-1 SOS)
13. Dolphins (5-8, 107-99-2 SOS)
14. Buccaneers (6-7, 99-108-1 SOS)
15. Jets (6-7, 103-103-2 SOS)
16. Rams (6-6-1, 109-97-2 SOS)
17. Bengals (7-6, 95-113 SOS)
18. Steelers (7-6, 98-110 SOS)
19. Rams via Redskins (7-6, 105-102-1 SOS)
20. Cowboys (7-6, 108-100 SOS)
21. Vikings (7-6, 108-98-2 SOS)
22. Bears (8-5, 102-104-2 SOS)
23. Seahawks (8-5, 103-101-4 SOS)
24. Giants (8-5, 108-99-1 SOS)
25. Colts (9-4, 95-113 SOS)
26. Ravens (9-4, 105-103 SOS)
27. Packers (9-4, 106-100-2 SOS)
28. 49ers (9-3-1, 103-103-2 SOS)
(Strength of Schedule is found by combining the total W-L-T records of all 13 opponents on a team's schedule. Divisional opponents are counted twice, since they are played twice. Ties are counted as "half" a win for SOS purposes. Divisional record breaks any SOS ties, followed by a coinflip. Teams that reach the playoffs draft based on their eventual postseason finish, but no higher than 21st.)
No new entries into the "already clinched" category, although the Ravens and Colts could lock up playoff spots with wins next week.
And finally, it's time to look at the games on next week's schedule and find out who we're rooting for. If you paid attention earlier in the column, these should be pretty obvious, but I honestly don't blame you if you just skipped to this part of the post after seeing the prospect of six teams finishing 10-6.
SF @ NE: Without question, the biggest game of the year that the Seahawks aren't on the field for. A Patriots win gives us the pole position for the NFC West title and all the trappings that come with a division crown. A 49ers win makes it all but impossible to run them down. GO, GO, GO PATRIOTS!
NYG @ ATL: A reeling Falcons team would help settle the NFC East race - which we really would rather have settled as quickly as possible - and perhaps give us a chance at homefield throughout the playoffs if we do snatch the division away from the Niners. Presumptive? Maybe. But still mathematically possible. Go Giants!
GB @ CHI: The more chaos in this division, the better. Go Bears!
WAS @ CLE: No word on if RG3 will be back from that gruesome knee sprain he suffered at the end of last week's game. Washington is the biggest challenge to our playoff hopes, and we need them to stay behind us. Go Browns!
PIT @ DAL: Being one of the weaker 7-6 teams, we don't mind Dallas winning too much here - especially if it has the potential to knock the Steelers out of the AFC playoff hunt. Go Cowboys!
MIN @ STL: One more loss for the Vikings would just about finish them off. Go Rams!
The Seahawks have already secured their best season in five years, and the best season since Pete and John joined the team. One more win would guarantee a winning season, and put the team one step closer to the goal of a playoff berth - regardless what the other teams above might do. Clearly, the easiest road to the postseason for the Seahawks is to win out. Do that, and we won't have to worry about a logjam at 10-6. See you guys next week for the penultimate update!