It's 7:08 PM. During my weekend trip to Arizona, I spotted 43 license plates from various states and other territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, Quebec, and Cherokee Nation. And the Seattle Seahawks are 8-4.
Welcome back to another installment of The Watch.
To some, it's an overhyped video game. To others, it's the name of their favorite dancer at the local gentlemen's club. (Although it's just as likely she spells it "Destanee".) But to football fans, "destiny" is the one-word condensation of the notion that if a team wins all of their remaining games, they can achieve a specific goal regardless of interference from other teams.
At this point, the Seahawks now control their own destiny to win the NFC West.
This is certainly a big contrast to where the team was two weeks ago, sitting at 6-4 in eighth place in the conference, three games back in the division, with no assurances of a playoff berth much less a chance at the NFC West title. But here we are now, with a team that looks a hell of a lot more potent than the one that lost to the Chiefs two weeks ago.
It would be foolish to make assumptions at this point, but if the Seahawks do manage to overtake the Cardinals and win the division, their destiny still include anything more than a home playoff game. A number of teams still have a record that's just as good or better than Seattle's, and they'll need to pick up an extra loss in these last four weeks before homefield advantage becomes an attainable feat.
The NFC as a whole has turned into essentially an nine-horse race, as half the conference have at least seven losses. (Granted, two such teams are neck-and-neck in their own division, but we'll try to avoid talking about them as much as possible.) Here's where everyone stands at this point in the season:
(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.)
With so many teams tied for the same record on that list, here's an explanation for how everyone ends up in the appropriate spot:
1. The Cardinals have lost their material advantage over the rest of the NFC for homefield advantage, but since the Eagles have lost to both the Packers and Cards (representing the first time head-to-head has come into play with more than two teams), they fall to the bottom of the trio and Arizona's superior conference record allows them to retain the #1 seed over Green Bay.
2. As explained last week, the Seahawks have their wins over the Cardinals, Panthers, Packers, and Giants to thank for their tiebreaker advantage over the Lions, as the Lions are 2-2 against those teams. They can also thank the Lions for sharing their 8-4 record with the Cowboys, because it prevents the Dallas' head-to-head win over the 'Hawks from being a factor and sends them to the 7th seed with an inferior conference record.
4. We've got another 4-team logjam towards the bottom of the standings. Division takes precedence, meaning the Bears earn the head-to-head tiebreak over the Vikings with their week 11 win. The Saints, however, have a common opponent tiebreaker over the Bears, as they are 4-3 against the same teams (ATL, CAR, TB, SF, DET, GB, MIN) that the Bears are only 4-4 against. Once that's settled, the Vikings have a better conference record than the Rams, thus they get slotted third of the four teams.
5. The Giants still have that win over the Redskins to use as a tiebreaker. None of it matters, though, because both of them are eliminated from playoff contention. (It'll take at least 8 wins to get a Wild Card and 9 wins to win the division; the best either team can get to now is 7-9.)
6. Even though Tampa Bay is still the worst team in the conference at 2-10, they still have a chance to win their division and thus a playoff berth. To do it, they'll need to win out, the Panthers would have to win their remaining games against the Saints and Falcons, and then the Saints and Falcons would have to tie their week 16 matchup against each other and lose all their other games. Were this to happen, a Bucs fan on my Facebook feed warned, "I will shit pure uncut diamonds for the following four months."
This past week has illustrated one of the big reasons why I like the NFL and don't like the NBA. In the NBA, a team can cheerfully give their fans the finger by refusing to put a competitive team on the floor, all in a cynical attempt to stockpile high draft picks with the misguided hope that on some distant date, they'll have enough talent to potentially make a title run - provided, of course, that those players haven't been so emotionally bruised by the years of endless losing that they can remember what a basketball looks like or how to throw it into that orange halo suspended over their heads, as if by magic.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, you have teams that irredeemably stink. These are teams that are so bad that the league forces them to play in London and then try to pass it off as growing an international market when I'm sure the real motivation for making teams play over there is so that the team's stench will blend in anonymously with their shepherd's pie and their spotted dick and their licorice allsorts.
(I'm just kidding, England. You guys are cool. You gave me my one and only television writing credit, for Pete's sake.)
Nonetheless, these horrible teams still play their hearts out, despite the knowledge that at the end of the year, whoever had the crappiest team gets first pick of all the incoming college players. The result is that these teams still win an odd game or two out of sheer Any Given Sunday-ness, and that causes a shake-up in the draft order.
The Jaguars were the early leaders in the race to the bottom. Then they won a game, and control of the top pick went to the Raiders. The Raiders then won, ceding first dibs back to the Jaguars - and after their narrow win over the Giants that really made you wonder who was the worse team, Jacksonville has given the #1 pick right back to the Raiders. It's like they don't want the first pick or something.
The win by the Jags opens up a potentially chaotic situation at the top of the draft board. Here's how it 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, ties are broken in the same manner as they would be for conference or divisional seeding. If the teams are from different conferences, a coinflip is used.)
You'll notice that the tiebreaker criteria has changed slightly this year, a revision I've just caught wind of because it's buried at the bottom of NFL.com's tiebreaker procedure page. It doesn't mean much right now - the Colts and Lions are in different conferences, so there are no tiebreakers to decide between them - but it's good to know in the future.
The really interesting situation that may arise is if the Raiders win a second game. That would turn what originally looked to be a 2-team competition for the first pick and make it a 5-team brawl. Tennessee would appear from out of nowhere to capture the lead on account of having the absolute weakest schedule in the league. The team that looks to be in the worst shape is the Jets, who have a surprisingly strong record - a home division where every other team is over .500 will do that.
You know what? Screw the draft. The Seahawks are potentially four wins away from a divisional championship, and chances are they're picking in the low teens if they don't get in the playoffs anyway. What's more important right now is giving the team the best opportunity to make the playoffs, win the division, and snag a high seed in the process. For this reason, we'll be focusing solely on games that have playoff implications this week. Hopefully we'll be able to continue this focus as we reach the homestretch.
Thursday night: Cowboys (8-4) at Bears (5-7)
You know what would keep the Cowboys' head-to-head win over us from figuring into the tiebreakers? If they're not tied with us. Go Bears, and be prepared to be Bears fans the rest of the way due to their ability to mess with the Packers and Lions.
Sunday morning: Panthers (3-8-1) at Saints (5-7)
This has nothing to do with me wanting the Buccaneers to wander Mr. Magoo-style into the playoffs, I swear. I just don't want the Saints to win the division. Go Panthers.
Sunday morning: Buccaneers (2-10) at Lions (8-4)
While it no longer matters to us who wins the NFC North, it does matter how many wins said division champ has at the end of the season. It's fine if they're tied with Seattle, but we'd certainly prefer it to be lower. Go Bucs.
Sunday afternoon: Chiefs (7-5) at Cardinals (9-3)
Just because the Seahawks could overtake the Cards by beating them in week 16 doesn't mean that we can't let another team do us a huge favor by beating them now. If anything, it would buy us an insurance game in case we drop one along the way. Go Chiefs.
Sunday afternoon: 49ers (7-5) at Raiders (1-10)
Sure, the Niners are a game and a tiebreak behind us right now, but if you're not rooting for as much dirt to be thrown on this team as possible, then you're doing it wrong. Here's hoping that Harbaugh gets beaten by what very well may be his next coaching destination. Go Raiders.
Monday night: Falcons (5-7) at Packers (9-3)
Last week, I picked the Falcons to beat the Cardinals, knowing it was going to be a pretty tough task, and they came through. Well, this is even more of a challenge, as the Falcons will be on the road to face a Packers team that has looked nearly unstoppable the past two months. Nothing else to say but the obvious: Go Falcons.
So ends this edition of The Watch. Sunday's game against the Eagles could prove to be even more important than the divisional contests that we have to finish out the season. A win here would not only open the door for the 'Hawks to take the lead in the West, but it would also give the Seahawks the tiebreaker edge over all but one team in the conference going forward. A loss has the potential to knock us back out of the playoff picture and all but slam the door shut on our division title hopes. The stakes are as high as they've ever been this season, and this could end up being the game that we look back on - either with pride or regret, depending on the outcome.
I'll see you all next Tuesday. Until then, GO HAWKS!!