It's 8:58 PM. I'll be driving right past the University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday en route to visiting family in Sedona. And the Seattle Seahawks are 7-4.
Welcome to the Thanksgiving edition of The Watch.
There's been a fair amount of controversy on Twitter the past 24 hours regarding where the Seahawks stand in the playoff race after their win over the Cardinals on Sunday. ESPN had them ranked 7th, NFL.com had them ranked 6th. After confirming both the tiebreaker procedures and the wins and losses of all teams involved, I can say with full confidence that ESPN can go piss up a rope.
(Actually, ESPN corrected their standings to have Seattle in #6 as well, so all is right with the world.)
We'll get into further detail when going through each of the tiebreakers, but the Cliff's Notes version is that the Seahawks have the tiebreaker over Detroit due to their record against common opponents. This is also excellent news going forward, as the combination of being two games better than the Lions in that criterion and both teams having already played through the AFC portion of their schedule means that Seattle has the edge over Detroit completely locked up. Should the two teams finish with identical records at the end of the year, whether in the race for a wild card or - be still my beating heart - divisional seeding, the Seahawks have the edge.
(Which also means that everyone who's been on my case about rooting for the Lions this whole time have been vindicated. Hey, at least we know for sure now.)
Arizona still leads the NFC West and the NFC at large with a 9-2 record, but their loss coupled with wins by pretty much every other team in contention (except Detroit, natch) means their lead has shrunk considerably. They still hold tiebreakers against the Eagles, Cowboys, and Lions, so it's not as though one more loss will knock them down a peg. Not yet, at least.
Here's the full rundown on the NFC Standings as of Week 12:
(Division tiebreakers are handled first, and go in the following order: head-to-head, division record, common opponents, conference record, strength of victory, strength of schedule. After that, conference ties are handled in this order: head-to-head, conference record, common opponents, strength of victory, strength of schedule. Ties are counted as half a win for percentage purposes.)
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: the tiebreaker explanations, AKA why the Seahawks are in the playoffs and the Lions and 49ers aren't.
1. To start off, the NFC East continues to be contested between the Eagles and Cowboys, both with 8-3 records, but the Eagles continue to hold the advantage with a better divisional record. The two teams play each other on Thursday, which will give a distinct advantage to the winner.
2. The Packers taking over the NFC North lead is bad news for Philly, though, as the Packers beat the Eagles in Week 11 to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker for the #2 seed right now.
3. The Seahawks, 49ers, and Lions are all fighting for the last playoff spot with a 7-4 record. Division tiebreakers take precedence, and Seattle's win over the Cards gives them a 1-1 division record while the 49ers are still at 1-2, giving Seattle the edge. The tiebreaker against the Lions gets significantly messier though, as the teams do not play each other and are both 5-2 within the conference. Records against common opponents is the next metric, and in this case those opponents are the Cardinals, Panthers, Packers, and Giants. Seattle is a perfect 4-0 against those teams; Detroit is only 2-2. Thus, the Seahawks emerge victorious. The Lions do, however, get the #7 spot on account of a better conference record than San Francisco (5-2 vs. 6-3).
4. The Falcons maintain their lead in the NFC South thanks to a Week 1 head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. Incidentally, both teams would have to go 3-2 in their last five games to finish the season 7-9. (Why'd I pick 7-9? Oh, no reason.)
5. This means the Saints are tied with the Rams and Vikings tie for the 10-spot in the conference with 4-7 records. New Orleans' 4-4 conference record allows them to emerge as the top team of the three, while the Vikings' win over the Rams in Week 1 slots them next in line.
6. The Giants still have that Week 4 win over the Redskins to give them the tiebreaker for 14th place, which is cool, I guess.
7. Somehow the Buccaneers have still not been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet. Nor will they be for at least one more week. Nonetheless, LOL Tampa Bay.
THE HYPOTHETICAL GAME
Now that we've played "What Do We Know?", let's play "What If?". (And mad bonus points if there's anyone out there who gets the reference.)
One of the toughest parts of predicting the fate of a team lies in the fact that you have no idea just how many more wins your team needs in order to be assured a spot in the playoffs or a division title. Obviously, going 5-0 the rest of the way will most certainly clinch a Wild Card at the very least, while going 0-5 will doom the team to an early trip to the slopes. But what happens if the Seahawks go 4-1? Which opponent does the least amount of damage if we lose to them? What if they only go 2-3? Could they sneak in if they win the right two games?
With the help of ESPN's Playoff Machine, we're going to figure out what it would take to reach the playoffs depending on how we finish the season. This should prove to be a fun exercise.
Just as a quick reminder, Seattle's last five games are: @SF, @PHI, ARI, @SF, STL.
If the Seahawks go 5-0 (12-4):
A #1 seed is still possible for the Seahawks, as long as all the Cardinals, Packers, and Cowboys all lose an additional game along the way. If the Packers or Cowboys don't cooperate, we drop to the #2 seed; if they both win out, we drop to #3. And if the Cardinals go 4-0 in all their non-Seahawk games, we'll be a #5 seed, but that's as far as we'll drop.
If the Seahawks go 4-1 (11-5):
Homefield advantage is still not out of reach; even if they lose to the Cardinals, the Cardinals could lose two more games - even a game against the 49ers - to relinquish the division to Seattle. Philly would have to win the NFC East with the same 11-5 record, as would the Packers or Lions in the North.
If the Seahawks go 3-2 (10-6):
This one runs the entire range from #1 seed to out of the running entirely. For one thing, just winning the division would require the losses to be against two specific teams: the Eagles in Week 14, and the Rams in Week 17. Then both the 49ers and Cardinals would have to also finish 10-6 or worse, allowing Seattle to win by virtue of head-to-head sweeps over either or both teams. Then to get the #1 seed, both the winners of the NFC North and NFC East would also have to finish at 10-6 - if the NFC North winner finishes with a different record, whoever wins the East has a head-to-head tiebreaker against us. If the Seahawks lose the wrong game, or the Cards or Niners win any additional games, then we're locked out of the division. And if the loser of the NFC North is 11-5 and Dallas is 10-6, Seattle is on the outside looking in.
If the Seahawks go 2-3 (9-7):
Seeing as the Seahawks are two games back of the Cardinals and tied with the 49ers, winning only two games would give up too much ground to both teams to have a chance at the division. But a Wild Card would still be attainable provided that either Detroit, Dallas, or Green Bay goes into a nosedive to finish the season. And if both Dallas and either NFC North contender simultaneously implodes, Seattle can still get the #5 seed at 9-7.
If the Seahawks go 1-4 (8-8):
The good news is that the Seahawks can still sneak into the #6 seed with an 8-8 record. The bad news is that it would take a carefully orchestrated series of results to pull it off, in which the teams that do not win the East and North go into a tailspin immediately, the 49ers lose the three games they don't play against the Seahawks, and Chicago (who's implicated in quite a few of these games thanks to the involvement of two other North teams) spoils their nemeses just enough to knock one of them out but not so much that they don't take a spot themselves.
If the Seahawks go 0-5:
Sadly, the Seahawks don't play in the NFC South.
Meanwhile, three more teams - the Jets, Buccaneers, and Titans - once again find themselves just one game behind the Raiders and Jags for the top spot. As you could probably guess given the overall stinkiness of the NFC South, Tampa Bay has the weakest schedule of the five teams, meaning if Oakland and Jacksonville somehow manage to both pull a second win out of their hats, the Bucs get that #1 pick.
Nobody has clinched a playoff spot yet, so all 32 spots in the draft order are still live. Here's how everything looks right now:
(Strength of schedule is found by calculating the win percentage of all 13 opponents on a team's schedule. Divisional opponents get double weight. In the event of a tie for strength of schedule, divisional record is used. Beyond that, it goes to a coinflip.)
Once again, we're grouping these games by what benefit they serve us, either in terms of playoff positioning or draft positioning in the unhappy event that the Seahawks don't get in. As mentioned last week, none of the selections made to benefit the team's draft status are made at the expense of the team's playoff aspirations. We obviously want the Seahawks to make the playoffs, but that doesn't mean we don't want them to have a semi-decent pick if they miss out.
FOR DRAFT PURPOSES
Sunday morning: Browns (7-4) @ Bills (6-5)
It's generally a good idea in this situation to root for the rich to get richer. Especially since the AFC North is going to have at least one team miss the playoffs with a winning record. Go Browns.
Sunday morning: Bengals (7-3-1) @ Buccaneers (2-9)
Much like the situation with the 49ers in 2012, Cincinnati's tie might end up being the team's saving grace when it comes to the divisional standings. Even though they have a good chance making the playoffs anyway, Go Bengals.
Sunday morning: Saints (4-7) @ Steelers (7-4)
Might as well complete the AFC North sweep here. Go Steelers.
FOR PLAYOFF PURPOSES
Thursday morning: Bears (5-6) @ Lions (7-4)
Now that we know we have a tiebreaker over the Lions for the rest of the season, we have no pressing concern for who wins the NFC North - only that we hope it's with as weak of a record as possible. Go Bears.
Thursday afternoon: Eagles (8-3) @ Cowboys (7-4)
Along the same lines of the game above, the more these two teams can beat each other bloody, the better off we are. We may end up becoming Eagles fans towards the homestretch depending on how next week's game shakes out, but until then, Go Cowboys.
Sunday afternoon: Cardinals (9-2) @ Falcons (4-7)
It seems that every week, we're trying to either make up or gain ground on our division rivals, only too look at the schedule and see them facing off against another sub-.500 team that's circling the drain. But if the Cards drop this one here, whoever wins the game on Thursday night is definitely going to be smelling blood in the water. Go Falcons.
Sunday afternoon: Patriots (9-2) @ Packers (8-3)
Someone's going to have to win the North, but that doesn't mean they have to dominate doing it. Go Packers.
With that, another week of The Watch is over. We'll return next Tuesday to sort out what happened over the weekend, and if the Seahawks can improve on their playoff position. Until then, I hope everyone out there in Field Gulls Land has a great Thanksgiving holiday, and remember that we've all got a hell of a lot to be thankful for - including a football team that we can finally call defending Super Bowl champions.
See you guys next week. GO HAWKS!!