NFL Playoffs picture, Draft order & rooting interest guide: The Watch, Week 15

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's 1:54 PM. I just throttled my fantasy opponent by a score of 102-34. And the Seattle Seahawks... sigh... are 11-2.

This is Week 15 of the Watch.

Last Sunday's game against the 49ers had the potential to not just crown the Seahawks as the NFC West champions, but also guarantee the team a first-round bye at the very least. Well... that didn't happen. As a result, the road to homefield advantage got a little tougher. We still have the inside track, and control our destiny to an almost dormy degree, but still. It's going to have to wait another week.

STANDINGS WATCH

The rest of the NFC has started to separate the wheat of the conference from the chaff. The Saints now enjoy a one-game lead and momentary head-to-head superiority over the Panthers, but with a rematch just two weeks away.The Eagles have finally managed to wrestle the division lead from the Cowboys, who continue to make those pundits look smart when they spout off about the team's December swoons. And the Bears have managed to keep the NFC North close; even though tiebreakers still keep the division in Detroit's hands, Chicago has matched their record and the Packers are right behind them both, desperately hoping that Aaron Rodgers can singlehandedly get them in front of both teams with just three games left in the season.

Here's how the overall NFC rankings look at this point:

Screen_shot_2013-12-10_at_2

(Divisional tiebreakers are handled first, in this order: head-to-head, division record, common opponents, conference record, strength of victory, strength of schedule. Conference tiebreakers are then performed in this order: head-to-head, conference record, common opponents, strength of victory, strength of schedule.)

The tiebreakers are fairly straightforward this week, but a couple of new eliminations have fairly lengthy explanations to them:

1. The Panthers lead over the 49ers in the Wild Card standings due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

2. The Bears earn a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys by virtue of last night's win.

3. The Rams are officially eliminated from playoff contention; they can't win the division, and can't win the nine games necessary to match San Francisco and Carolina for a Wild Card spot. (And even if they could, the Niners and Cats would have head-to-heads against the Rams anyway.) The Giants are out, because even if they tie with the Cowboys and Eagles at 8-8, the Cowboys would have a better divisional record. However, Giants do rank ahead of the Rams due to their conference record of 4-5, beating out the Rams at 2-7.

(It was also pointed out that the Vikings still had mathematical hopes to reach the playoffs by winning the NFC North with a 7-8-1 record. Well, the Vikings lost again on Sunday, so never mind that.)

4. The Falcons' 2-7 conference record is enough to keep them out of the conference cellar over the Redskins at 1-8... at least until the two teams play each other next week.

BEST CASE, WORST CASE

As the regular season careens towards a conclusion, it's important to know exactly where the ten teams that still have playoff aspirations can end up. Amazingly enough, most teams in the hunt are all still in contention for their division, however long those odds may be. Obviously, we know the Seahawks are safely in the postseason and in the driver's seat for the #1 seed, but as for the other teams, here are their possible trajectories:

SEAHAWKS (11-2)

Best Case: Homefield advantage can be locked up this week with a Seahawks win and losses by the 49ers and Saints. Failing that, a record of no worse than 13-3 would clinch it.

Worst Case: It would take the Seahawks losing out, the Panthers and 49ers winning out, and the Saints winning their two remaining non-Panthers games, but Seattle could conceivably drop all the way down to #6.

SAINTS (10-3)

Best Case: They would need to win two more games than the Seahawks to pull if off, but homefield advantage is still a possibility.

Worst Case: 10-6 is not enough to reach the playoffs just yet, and if the Panthers overtake the division combined with Arizona and San Francisco winning out, the Saints would be on the outside.

PANTHERS (9-4)

Best Case: Carolina is still in contention for the #1 seed, provided they beat out the Saints in the division, the Seahawks lose out, and the 49ers don't win more games than them.

Worst Case: Two losses out of three would open up the door for the Cardinals to snatch a Wild Card at their expense, and three losses gives the Bears, Cowboys, or even the Packers hope to get in without needing to win their division.

49ERS (9-4)

Best Case: Winning out, plus Seattle losing out, plus the NFC South beating each other bloody enough to produce a division champ with 11 or fewer wins, gives them homefield throughout.

Worst case: Much like the Panthers, two losses gives Arizona a chance to leapfrog them, and three losses everyone on the bubble a chance to get in.

EAGLES (8-5)

Best Case: Amazingly enough, Philly still has an outside shot at homefield advantage. They'd need to win out, and both the NFC West champ AND the NFC South champ, whoever they may be, would have to have no more wins than them (PHI wins the conference record tiebreaker in either case).

Worst Case: Lose that season finale against the Cowboys, and they'd have to win the other two just to get a sniff at a Wild Card.

CARDINALS (8-5)

Best Case: They're officially out of the running for the NFC West; a three-way tie at 11-5 would give the division to San Francisco due to better division record, and a simple tie with Seattle would give the Hawks the nod on account of conference record. They can get a Wild Card berth, but they'll need either Carolina or San Francisco to fade away to get it. (Arizona has the head-to-head against the Panthers, so that's the easier route.)

Worst Case: If both the Panthers and 49ers win as many of their games as the Cards do, there's no way to get in. Bear in mind that San Francisco and Arizona play in the finale.

LIONS (7-6)

Best Case: If the Lions win out and the Saints lose out, they'd potentially topple the Saints for a first-round bye with a superior conference record as long as the NFC East withers down the stretch. (The Panthers can't win the NFC South with fewer than 11 wins, due to the Saints having a strength of victory advantage over them even if they split head-to-head. This makes Carolina immune to the Lions in this scenario.)

Worst Case: The Bears are tied with Detroit in the standings. One Lions loss and one Bears win is all it would take to put the Lions in dire straits.

BEARS (7-6)

Best Case: Speaking of which... Chicago can't do any better than a 3 seed, since they lost head-to-head against the Saints and have a massive conference record disadvantage against the Panthers. But win the division and they'd practically be guaranteed #3, since doing so would entail beating the Eagles in week 16 and they just got the tiebreaker over Dallas last night.

Worst Case: All Detroit has do is go blow for blow with them the rest of the way, and they take the division. Moreover, one more win by the Panthers and 49ers freezes them out of the Wild Card Chase.

COWBOYS (7-6)

Best Case: Like the Bears above, winning out will by necessity knock out the Eagles, giving them the division. As long as the Bears don't represent the North, they've got the #3 seed.

Worst Case: Like the Eagles, but worse. If they lose the season finale, they would need three losses from the Niners,Panthers, and Cardinals, PLUS two losses from the Bears, to have a chance at the Wild Card - assuming they won the other two.

PACKERS (6-6-1)

Best Case: Green Bay's hope at this point is to make up a win against both Chicago and Detroit. Should that happen, they'll wobble into the NFC North crown with no better than the 3-seed, but likely #4 as their record can't be any better than 9-6-1. A Wild Card berth would likely require three wins, plus three losses from San Francisco and Carolina or three from either one and two from Arizona. The good news is that they still have Chicago and Dallas left on their schedule, and wins against both of them would give the Packers some serious leverage.

Worst Case: If either the Lions or Bears get as many wins as the Packers do in these last three games, that tie to the Vikings is going to be their demise.

DRAFTWATCH

It's remarkable how some teams that were absolutely sleepwalking through the first half of the season come alive towards the end. Both Jacksonville and Tampa Bay - two teams that combined to go 0-16 to begin the year, and were the sexy picks to go 0-16 for the season - have both rattled off four wins out of their last five, and have essentially conceded the race for the #1 pick in next year's draft. The Texans continue their fall from grace with their 11th straight loss, but the fact that they have the AFC West on the schedule (not to mention New England) has made their position on the draft chart still within reach for the teams that are just one win in front. And it's beginning to look as though the Rams made off like bandits in their trade with the Redskins last year - they mortgaged last year's #2 pick for what appears to be this year's #2 pick. Meanwhile, the Browns extra first-rounder from the Colts will be no better than the 21st, as Indy clinched a playoff spot last week. Here's the rest of the draft order:

Screen_shot_2013-12-10_at_2

(Strength of schedule is found by totalling the win-loss records of all 13 opponents on a team's schedule, with double weight given to divisional opponents. Ties are considered half a win for SOS purposes. Divisional records breaks any ties that remain, followed by a coin flip. Teams that reach the playoffs will draft based on their eventual postseason finish, but no higher than 21st.)

WHO TO ROOT FOR

There are two monumentally big games on the schedule next week, so let's take care of them first:

Sunday morning: 49ers (9-4) @ Buccaneers (4-9)
GO BUCS!! (Quick reminder: this is a 10AM road game against a team that's gone 4-1 in their last five games. There's a real chance this could happen.)

Sunday afternoon: Saints (10-3) @ Rams (5-8)
GO RAMS!! (Less likely, but hey, if it happens the Rams would drop in draft position. So that's a bonus.)

If these two games play out the way we want, and the Seahawks take care of business against New York, the #1 seed would be locked up. On that note, there are quite a few other games on the schedule that you'll want to keep an eye on.

Sunday morning: Redskins (3-10) @ Falcons (3-10)
It's the battle of the basement! As horrible as both teams have been this year after winning their respective divisions in 2012, only one team has given up their first-round pick to a division opponent. Can we at least keep that pick out of the top 5, please? Go Redskins.

Sunday morning: Bears (7-6) @ Browns (4-9)
We're no longer concerned about the eventual NFC North champion overtaking us in the standings. Now it's a matter of which team comes out of the division, and the Bears are probably our top choice in that category. Go Bears.

Sunday morning: Eagles (8-5) @ Vikings (3-9-1)
This game just barely crosses the "meh" threshold because of the Eagles' place in the playoff picture. The prospect of Chip Kelly and Nick Foles in the playoffs is a bit of a question mark going forward. I'm not sure I want our team to be the guinea pig, even if we'd get to see them play a game ahead of us. Go Vikings.

Sunday afternoon: Jets (6-7) @ Panthers (9-4)
Looks like we didn't need the Panthers' help as much as we originally thought. Even though they may have cooled off this week, that may have been more of a product of playing in New Orleans than anything else. I'd still rather see them have to win on the road before they theoretically get a rematch over us. Go Jets.

Sunday afternoon: Packers (6-6-1) @ Cowboys (7-6)
If I had my druthers, I'd rather see the Cowboys in the playoffs over the Eagles. Even though I'd rather see the Packers in the playoffs over the Lions, the first scenario seems much more plausible. Go Cowboys.

Sunday afternoon: Cardinals (8-5) @ Titans (5-8)
A win by Arizona, who are officially out of the NFC West race after the Niners win last week, would both continue to put heat on San Francisco for the Wild Card, but also drop them down the draft chart. Go Cardinals.

Monday night: Ravens (7-6) @ Lions (7-6)
The Lions are the team in the NFC North I least want to win. I see Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley making a Russell Wilson sandwich (three seconds after the whistle already blew) and wake up in a cold sweat. Yeah, let's make this not happen please. Go Ravens.

That'll do it for The Watch this week. Three games loom large on the schedule, and depending on what happens next Sunday, we could be sitting pretty with everything clinched that can be clinched in the regular season, or there might be a little bit of trouble on the horizon. The Seahawks may still have work to do before the regular season becomes a formality, but things are still lining up very nicely for our team.

I'll see you next week. GO HAWKS!!

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