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Updated NFL Playoffs picture, Draft order & rooting interests guide: The Watch, Week 17

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's 8:16 PM. All the ingredients are assembled to make my annual contribution to the Christmas treat stockpile - my Mom's legendary Ooey Gooey Bars. (Think Rice Krispies Treats, but more awesome.) And the Seattle Seahawks are 11-4, and playoff bound.

Welcome to the season finale of The Watch.


With the exception of the NFC South, which has been operating on its own plane of existence since the midway point of the season, the five teams that will be representing the NFC in this season's playoffs have been determined. However, the seeding of all five of these teams is still up in the air. The fact that all five of those teams have an 11-4 record may have something to do with it.

But there's very good news for Seahawks fans. Because of the tiebreakers that the team has managed to rack up all year, Seattle currently sits at the top of the standings and has the pole position for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Due to the fact that everyone's tied with the same record - including Dallas, the one team that has a tiebreaker over Seattle if the two teams tie with themselves and nobody else - none of the teams have that coveted "destiny" in control. The Seahawks are the closest, as they can lock up the #1 seed by winning and not having a total fluke happening in another game, but literally any other 11-4 team can still win homefield depending on the results of each other's games in the last week.

As for now, here's how the standings look:


(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.)

There are two big traffic jams in the conference, one at 11-4 and the other at 6-9. Here's a detailed explanation of how everyone ends up where they are now:

1. Seattle has a head-to-head sweep over Arizona, giving them the lead in the NFC West. Similarly, the Lions have a head-to-head win over the Packers with one game left between them.

2. Due to the three-way tie between division leaders, plus the fact that the Seahawks did not play the Lions nor did the Lions play the Cowboys, there is no head-to-head tiebreaker. Instead, it goes to conference record, and Dallas defers to the #3 spot due to having the weakest record of the three, 7-4 vs. 9-2. Since the Seahawks and Lions tie for conference record, the next step is common opponents, and Seattle is a perfect 5-0 against the same teams Detroit has faced, with the Lions only managing a 2-2 record.

3. Common opponents is what also breaks the tie between the Packers and Cardinals, as Green Bay is 2-2 against these teams while Arizona is 2-3. (Incidentally, if the Packers and Cardinals both lose next week, they would tie for common opponents as well, and it would go to strength of victory, which the Cards would massacre the Pack in, currently leading 80-85 to 68.5-96.5.)

4. Meanwhile, five teams - the Falcons, Giants, Rams, Saints, and Vikings - all share a 6-9 record. Division takes precedence, and the Falcons's season sweep over the Saints gives them top billing there. And thanks to having the best conference record, Atlanta also gets the top ranking out of the five. New Orleans, just a game behind Atlanta in conference record, rejoins the party and gets slotted just behind the team that just knocked them out of the playoff race due to a head-to-head win over the Vikings. That leaves the Giants and Rams as the two remaining teams, and since all the tiebreaker criteria restarts when you slot a team, New York gets the nod over St. Louis thanks to the head-to-head win this Sunday.

5. For the last time, LOL Tampa Bay.


As mentioned in the previous section, everyone at 11-4 is in the playoffs, and still in the running to earn the top seed and force everyone else to play on your field. With the exception of the Cowboys, who have already won their division, their spot in the postseason is still very fluid, and could potentially range from #1 to #6. (The only seeding they can't earn is #4, which is reserved for the winner of the malebolge that is the NFC South.) With that in mind, it's time to look at the various scenarios for each of the five teams jockeying for position and where they might wind up after next Sunday's games.

Seahawks (currently #1, last game vs. STL)
#1 seed: A Seahawks win, combined with either a loss by the Cowboys OR a win by either the Packers or Lions (who play each other next week), and the #1 seed is theirs.
#2 seed: A Seahawks win, a Dallas win and a tie in the Lions-Packers game, and the Seahawks claim a first-round bye.
#3 seed: A Seahawks loss, and a Cardinals loss, will drop the Seahawks to #3. The NFC North champ would be guaranteed a better record than Seattle, and Dallas would have either 12 wins or 11 wins and the head-to-head tiebreaker.
#5 seed: A Seahawks loss, a Cardinals win, and the GB/DET game ends with a clear winner.
#6 seed: A Seahawks loss, a Cardinals win, and the GB/DET game ends in a tie.

Lions (currently #2, last game @GB)
#1 seed: A win, plus a losses by both the Seahawks and the Cardinals, puts them in the #1 seed.
#2 seed: A win, plus either a win by the Seahawks, OR a Seahawks loss and a Cardinals win, gives them the #2 seed. Seahawks have the common opponent tiebreaker over Detroit; Cardinals have a head-to-head win.
#3 seed: Not possible - if they win, the conference record tiebreaker they have over Dallas guarantees the Lions would rank ahead of the Cowboys if they win the division.
#5 seed: Not possible, due to the aforementioned head-to-head loss to the Cardinals.
#6 seed: A loss to the Packers is all it takes - they'd be locked in at #6 no matter what.

Cowboys (currently #3, last game @WAS)
#1 seed: A win, and the GB/DET game ends in a tie, and Dallas has the top seed. Note that the result of the Seahawks game is irrelevant - more important to the Cowboys is that neither the Packers nor the Lions get a 12th win.
#2 seed: Losses by both the Seahawks and Cardinals will lock them into the second seed regardless of how they do in their game.
#3 seed: If the NFC West winner (be it Seattle or Arizona) has a 12-4 record, and there's a clear winner in the GB/DET game, Dallas will stay at #3.
#5/#6 seed: Dallas already has the NFC East locked up, so no possibility for a Wild Card.

Packers (currently #5, last game vs. DET)
#1 seed: A win, plus a loss by the Seahawks, would give the Packers the top seed.
#2 seed: A win, plus a win by the Seahawks, gives the Packers the first-round bye.
#3 seed: Not possible - Green Bay cannot win the division with a tie, which means a win would put them over Dallas automatically thanks to a conference record tiebreaker.
#5 seed: If they tie with the Lions next week, Detroit would win the division due to a better divisional record. The Cardinals would then have to lose in order for the Packers to get the #5 seed.
#6 seed: Much like the Lions, losing their last game locks them into #6.

Cardinals (currently #6, last game @SF)
#1 seed: A win, a Seahawks loss, and a Lions win would give Arizona homefield advantage.
#2 seed: A win, a Seahawks loss, and a Packers win gives Arizona the #2 seed.
#3 seed: Not possible - Arizona has a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas.
#5 seed: If they lose, and GB/DET doesn't tie, Arizona is locked in at #5. They would hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit, and a common opponents tiebreaker over Green Bay.
#6 seed: A Cardinals loss, and a tie in the GB/DET game,

There, that all seems pretty straight-forward, doesn't it?


At various points during the season, as many as five teams were in contention for the top pick in the NFL draft, with Strength of Schedule being the only factor of separation between the two teams. With just one week left in the season, it comes down to two teams: the Titans and the Buccaneers.

Both are currently 2-13 heading into the last game, and the Titans continue to have an advantage in schedule strength over the Bucs. Because every game this week is a divisional game, the only wiggle room in SOS is in the two games played by opponents scheduled in the conference, outside the division, and outside the scheduled intraconference division. For Tennessee, that's the Chiefs and Jets; for Tampa Bay, it's the Redskins and Rams. To close the gap in schedule strength, Tennessee's teams would have to lose and Tampa Bay's teams would have to win, and it wouldn't do enough to wake the Bucs' schedule weaker than the Titans. In other words, for the Bucs to get the #1 pick, the Titans would have to win their last game. Against the Colts. More likely, Tampa Bay defeats a Saints team that just got snuffed last week, making the Titans the clear winner in the draft category. Tennessee even gets the top pick if both the Titans and Buccaneers win, which would let the Jaguars, Jets, and Raiders back into the mix. Tennessee's schedule is still the weakest of them all.

As for the rest of the league, 10 of 12 playoff spots have been snagged, as is reflected in the current draft order:


(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. Playoff teams automatically draft no higher than 21st, with positioning first based on where they finish in the playoffs, then using the above criteria.)


If the clinching scenarios listed above were too soupy to comprehend, then it's a good thing we've been doing this thing every week where we parse out which teams we want to win. With so few teams able to affect our placement now, there aren't many games to focus on, but that's a good thing because they're all extremely important at this juncture. Here are the teams to pull for next week:

Sunday morning: Cowboys (11-4) at Redskins (4-11)
Washington just pulled off a pretty big upset to send the Eagles reeling out of the playoff picture. If they could do that one more time, it would be a huge relief to all of us who are still nervous about the potential of Dallas leapfrogging Seattle in the standings. Go Redskins!

Sunday afternoon: Lions (11-4) at Packers (11-4)
Theoretically, we know the Packers better, we have a better recent history against them, and as the Lions' Dominic Raiola just demonstrated, the Lions are not a team that plays completely clean and as such is not a team I want the Seahawks to take the field with any more than necessary. That said, I don't think we're really concerned with matchups when locking up homefield is so paramount. To that end, I say: Go Whoever, But Whatever You Do, Please Don't Tie.

Sunday afternoon: Cardinals (11-4) at 49ers (7-8)
We have vanquished our hated rivals in Santa Clara. They can do us no further harm this season, and I would say there's a good chance they won't be as big of a threat in the near future as they've been the past few years. I'm saying all this because if nothing else, watching the Cardinals go down in defeat would ensure that the Seahawks win the NFC West in case something untoward happens in their own game. I've mentioned numerous times, the rooting interests section pays no attention to our personal feelings of the teams that are playing, only what result benefits the Seahawks most. I can't bring myself to actually mention the team name in a supporting fashion, though. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Go NotCardinals.

And with that, another season of The Watch has reached its conclusion. This time next week, we'll know exactly where the Seahawks stand in terms of their playoff positioning. Last year saw playoff seeding remain uncertain until the Seahawks slammed the door on the Rams by a score of 27-9, and it would be really nice if they could do the same this Sunday.

I would like to thank everyone who's been following The Watch each week, posing discussions about who to root for, offering possible scenarios of your own, and of course the weekly tradition of pointing out where my math is wrong on the spreadsheet. (I'm getting better, honest.) Special thanks goes to Danny Kelly, who's provided an amazing amount of support in making The Watch one of Field Gulls' featured articles each week. As someone who's still trying to learn the nuts and bolts of the game of football (I have a copy of Football for Dummies sitting in the bathroom now), it still amazes me to some degree that I'm able to contribute in a meaningful way to a community of Seahawks fans across the world. I really, truly appreciate it.

I'll be with you guys over the next few weeks, cheering on the Seahawks in whatever postseason games we have through (and hopefully beyond) January. As for now, I wish everyone out there a safe and joyous holiday season, and a prosperous new year. The Watch will return next fall, when another Seahawks season begins and we once again keep a close eye on our playoff and championship aspirations.

Until then, there's only one thing left to say: