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

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It's 8:50 PM. My roommate Adam has been helping out a friend and colleague by dubbing over 600 episodes of The Gong Show from video tape to DVD, and 200 episodes in his sanity is starting to slip. And the Seattle Seahawks are 9-4.

Week 15 of The Watch has arrived.


Seattle's win over the Eagles was the only thing that resembled a "shake-up" in the playoff standings. Every other major playoff contender - Arizona, Green Bay, Detroit, and Dallas - also won their game this week. And since the Eagles still hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys, effectively nothing has changed between last week and this week in terms of playoff positioning. Arizona is still clutching desperately to the NFC West lead and the #1 seed, Seattle is still the higher-ranked Wild Card, and the Cowboys still loom on the outside with but a multi-team tiebreak keeping them from the playoff picture.

Here's how all 16 teams look in the conference with three games left to play:


(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.)

The tiebreakers are just about the same as last week, but here's a refresher.

1. The Cardinals have a better conference record than the Packers (7-2 vs. 7-3), thus they stay at the top of the leaderboard.

2. The Eagles have their head-to-head win in week 3 over the Cowboys as their tiebreaker to lead the NFC East. Next week's clash in Dallas is likely going to determine the winner of that division.

3. In the salt mines known as the NFC South, Atlanta is still enjoying the same head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints that they got in week 1. Their rematch will be on week 16, with Carolina looming just half a game behind both teams.

4. The Seahawks, Lions, and Cowboys remain locked arm-in-arm at 9-4 like a Broadway chorus line. Dallas drops out first on account of a worse conference record, and the Seahawks edge out the Lions with the same common-opponent tiebreaker that's kept them in the Wild Card picture for the last three weeks.

5. The Vikings get a higher conference ranking due to their head-to-head win over the Rams in week 1. However, they're mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, as they would be unable to muster a better divisional record than the Lions (which would give the Lions priority to be seeded), and the tiebreakers mentioned in step 2 would fill both Wild Card positions before the Vikings would be able to be seeded. The Rams, meanwhile, could still make the playoffs if they win out and get a lot of help - more on that later.

6. The Saints and Bears have to go four tiebreakers deep to figure out who emerges with the #11 seed. They haven't played each other (yet), they're both 4-5 in the conference, and they're both 4-5 against common opponents (essentially the entire NFC North and South divisions). Strength of victory is where the Saints finally outshine the Bears, thanks mainly to their wins over the Packers and Steelers while the Bears have beaten only one team that's over .500 (SF). Fortunately, the two teams play each other next week, so this will stop being an issue then. (That is, unless they tie, which would be hilarious.) The Bears were eliminated from playoff contention last week, and are still eliminated.

7. With a 3-game deficit against the two teams tied for the NFC South lead and both of those teams playing each other in Week 16, the Buccaneers can no longer win the division and as such have been eliminated from the playoffs as well. This has to be a record for the latest in a season that a 2-win team was eliminated from contention. (In case anyone is wondering, the 2010 'Hawks were already 6-7 at this point in the season.)


Three weeks ago, we took a closer look at ten NFC teams that were vying for playoff contention and where each of them could possibly end up with six games still to play. It's time to re-assess those positions, and see just what it would take for each of these teams to claim the best possible playoff seeding. We're setting aside the NFC South just because they're operating on a completely different universe (in that whoever wins the division is now locked in at #4 and no Wild Cards will come from there). Despite that, there are still eight teams that are mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, although none have clinched a berth outright. Here's how all of their fortunes look with three games left in the season.

CARDINALS (10-3, lead NFC West, currently #1 seed)

The first time I did this, I mentioned that "the only way they won't finish the season at #1 is if they lose enough games between now and the end of the season to actually drop a game behind someone else." Well, suddenly that doesn't look so far-fetched - they've already lost two of their last three (including their tilt in Seattle), and while they still control their own destiny for homefield advantage, a single loss to the wrong opponent (i.e. the Seahawks) could potentially drop them all the way to the #5 seed. Two losses, and they can still sneak in as a #6 seed. (Having swept the Lions, Cowboys, and Eagles really comes in handy in this situation.) But three losses would slam the door shut on the team - and given their recent injury luck, would likely break their nose when the door closes.

PACKERS (10-3, lead NFC North, currently #2 seed)

Green Bay can lock up a first-round bye if they win out, and would be the first team to snag HFA away from the Cards if they lose another game. They have the tiebreaker over the Eagles, so don't expect them to host a Wild Card game if they do win their division. The Lions are just one game back, however, and already have a head-to-head win over them. If the Packers fall out of the division lead, they're relatively safe against the Cowboys and Eagles, but defer to the Seahawks due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. Like the Cards, it would take a precipitous drop to miss out on the playoffs - but unlike the Cards, the Packers don't have a coatrack playing quarterback right now.

EAGLES (9-4, lead NFC East, currently #3 seed)

Losing to the Seahawks really puts the Eagles behind the 8-ball when it comes to getting a seed that's higher than the one they already have. With head-to-head losses against the Cards, Packers, and Seahawks, it would really take a coordinated implosion by all of these teams in order to earn a first-round bye, assuming they won their three remaining games. And they'd better hope that they hang on to the division - Philly's conference record is two games worse than the Lions, making their Wild Card hopes tenuous at best.

SEAHAWKS (9-4, 2nd in NFC West, currently #5 seed)

The Seahawks could snatch the NFC West right out of Arizona's fingertips with a win against them in week 16 and then matching their results the rest of the way. If that happens, you can almost bank on the fact that they'll have the #2 seed, although we need to see another loss by the Packers if we want a chance at HFA. What we really want to see is a Cowboys loss between now and the end of the season, just to keep that head-to-head tiebreaker against us from coming into play should the Lions break rank.

LIONS (9-4, 2nd in NFC North, currently #6 seed)

Detroit is actually in a very similar situation to the Seahawks, a game behind their division leader but with a head-to-head win already in their favor with one left to play, essentially giving them control in the division. If they do steal the NFC North, the #2 seed is pretty much the only one they can get without the NFC West swooning enough for them to overcome all of the tiebreakers against them.

COWBOYS (9-4, 2nd in NFC East, currently #7 seed)

Things are slightly different for the Cowboys - they're already tied with the Eagles, but are down a head-to-head game. If they win this week, they're back in the driver's seat, and could potentially snag the #2 seed depending on who wins the West and what record they have when they win it. Obviously, they're already ranked 7th in the conference, so a loss this week will probably spell doom for Mid-'90s America's Team.

49ERS (7-6, 3rd in NFC West, currently #8 seed)

San Francisco cannot win the NFC West for much the same reason that Tampa Bay can't win the NFC South - they trail by too many games against two teams that play each other later on. Getting in the playoffs is still doable, but they'll need to win out and one of the teams from the NFC North or East has to lose out. They could even get the #5 seed if more than one of those teams ends the season 0-3, or if the same fate befalls either Seattle or Arizona.

RAMS (6-7, 4th in NFC West, currently #10 seed)

Amazingly enough, St. Louis' road to the playoffs isn't that much different than San Francisco's. The key difference is that they need both of the teams that don't win the NFC North and East to completely nosedive. So the road is simple for the Rams - it's just hella tough.


The schadenfreude that was the Raiders defeating the 49ers on Sunday had a major side effect: all of a sudden, it's a five-way tie for the worst record in the NFL.

Oakland, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and the Jets are all knotted together at 2-11. And the team that emerges from that smoldering wreckage just happens to be the Titans. Even though they share an almost identical schedule to their fellow 2-win division rivals the Jaguars, the two games where they differ - the Titans with games against the 2-11 Jets and 7-6 Chiefs, the Jags with games against 7-6 Miami and 7-6 San Diego - gives the Titans a weaker overall schedule than the Jaguars. In fact, the Jags aren't even second in the order at the moment - they're third, with the Bucs having so many games in the NFC South that they can't help but have a terrible strength of schedule.

Here's where all 32 teams find themselves in the draft order as of 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.)

As explained above, the full tiebreaker process is used in the case of strength of schedule ties, which means that the head-to-head win of the Cowboys over the Seahawks actually gives Seattle a better pick at the moment. Granted, we have yet to see a team clinch a playoff berth, which will cause most of the movement in the bottom of the rankings to be moot.


It's getting to the point where the important games and the most beneficial outcomes thereof are pretty obvious. If the Seahawks win out, we know they'll win the NFC West, but the priority will quickly shift to getting the best seeding possible if and when the playoffs begin. Here are the games of note, and what we want to see happen:

Thursday night: Cardinals (10-3) at Rams (6-7)
Suffice to say that the Rams are starting to look a bit scary right now. They're actually the one matchup the Seahawks have left that I'm the most nervous about - and yes, I know it's a home game. Let's just hope they keep that friskiness up for one more game so we have the chance to take the division lead before the big clash against the Cards. Go Rams.

Sunday morning: Packers (10-3) at Bills (7-6)
The other majorly important game involves the one team that stands between the Seahawks and a potential top seed in the NFC. They need one more loss to put Seattle in the driver's seat, and although they have a fearsome offense, Monday night's game exposed a soft defense and the game is on the road for them. It's a big ask, but Go Bills.

Sunday afternoon: Vikings (6-7) at Lions (9-4)
This is the trickiest game of the week to pick, because the Lions continue to provide insulation against the Cowboys, who would rank ahead of the Seahawks if Detroit didn't share the same record as both teams. At some point, though, we have to expect the 'Hawks to move up on their own merits - especially since it's not a Wild Card berth we're seeking. Go Vikings.

Sunday night: Cowboys (9-4) at Eagles (9-4)
A win by the Eagles would just about be the nail in the coffin for the NFC East. It would give Dallas a fifth loss, and hopefully some breathing room in case there's a stumble at the end of the season. Plus, it would only further the mythology of the Cowboys being cursed in December, and that's always fun. Go Eagles.

Last week, the Seahawks got their playoff run in gear. This week, they aim to step on the throats of a hated rival that would love to spoil the party if they can at all help it. The week after that comes the clash for the West. This season is barrelling down the track like an old roller coaster, and no doubt the most exciting - and most stressful - games have yet to be played this season.

I'll see you all next Tuesday. GO HAWKS!!