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Updated NFL Playoffs picture and rooting interests guide: The Watch, Week 15

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With 13 games played, the Panthers are so far in front of the rest of the conference that they've already guaranteed themselves a week off in the postseason. The team that currently ranks at the bottom of the conference still has an outside shot at the playoffs - the two teams ranked above them do not. The two teams sitting in the Wild Card are so far in front of the teams on the outside that they can both lock in their positions with two games still to play. And the Seattle Seahawks are going to be rooting for the Steelers and Cowboys for the rest of the year if they want any prayer of winning the division.

Welcome to Week 15 of The Watch.

NFC STANDINGS, WEEK 15:

From a playoffs perspective, things couldn't have gone much better for the Seahawks. Not only did they chalk up their fourth win in a row against the hapless Ravens, but Minnesota's last-second yak job in Arizona means both teams now sport an 8-5 record. By virtue of Seattle's smackjob of Minnesota in Week 13, the Seahawks have the head-to-head tiebreaker and thus ownership of the #5 seed over the Vikings. Not only that, but losses by the Falcons and Buccaneers put them both two games behind the Seahawks and Vikings in the playoff picture. If the right dominoes fall this week, the Seahawks could have a playoff spot clinched even before their last two contests are played.

Sadly, they also could have little opportunity to improve their lot in those remaining weeks. The loss by the Vikings improves our immediate position, but the fact that it was a loss to Arizona makes our prospects for winning our third straight division title about as grim as they could possibly be short of mathematical elimination. The Seahawks and Cardinals can only tie at this point with 11-5 records. Should this happen, it would take five layers of tiebreakers to decide things between them - and at the moment, Arizona has the edge in that category too.

We'll talk more about the razor-thin margin of error the Seahawks have for the NFC West, but first here's the rundown of the conference rankings:

1

Division tiebreakers take precedence, and go in the following order: head-to-head, division record, common opponents, conference record, strength of victory, strength of schedule. Conference tiebreakers are then handled in the following order: head-to-head sweep, conference record, common opponents (minimum 4), strength of victory, strength of schedule.

If three or more teams tie for the same record, tiebreakers are used until one team either succeeds or fails outright, at which point the tiebreakers start over for the remaining teams.

  • The Panthers can do no worse than 13-3 at this point, and since the current #3 seed (the Packers) can do no better than 12-4, this guarantees Carolina a first-week bye in the playoffs.
  • Washington maintains the NFC East lead in the same fashion they did last week: first the Giants fall off the map due to the weakest divisional record, then hold a head-to-head tiebreak against the Eagles. The Eagles then get second place due to their head-to-head win over the Giants.
  • The Seahawks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings due to their Week 13 win over Minnesota.
  • The Bucs have a head-to-head sweep over the Falcons with wins in Week 8 and Week 13, giving them ownership of second place in the NFC South.
  • As for the Bucs, Falcons, Eagles, and 'Skins ranking against each other, both Tampa Bay and Atlanta have head-to-head wins over the Eagles (in Weeks 1 and 11, respectively), so they both get in front of the Eagles without even having to worry about Washington.
  • By comparison, the tiebreaker between the 5-8 teams is a breeze to explain: conference record gives the Rams top billing, then the Saints.
  • Similarly, the three-way tie between the Lions, 49ers, and Cowboys is solved by the conference record tiebreaker. However, since the Cowboys are only two games behind the rest of the NFC East, they are still mathematically in the playoff hunt. The 49ers and Lions can neither reach the wins necessary to win their division or overtake either wild card, so they are officially eliminated from the playoff race.

LIVING ON THE EDGE

As explained above, the Seahawks are not officially out of the divisional race, but they're going to need an ungodly amount of help to get there. For the Seahawks to even have a chance at the NFC West title this year, they will need to win their three remaining games, and the Cardinals will have to lose their last three. (The two teams face each other in the regular season finale, so I guess that's 1/3 of the job done.) Another win by the Cards or a loss by the 'Hawks, and the door officially slams shut.

That would put both teams at 11-5, but the fun only starts there. Here's how the first four tiebreakers would look in this situation:

Head-to-head: Split, with one win apiece.
Divisional record: Both teams would finish the year 4-2.
Common opponents: The entire AFC North, NFC North, and the other two teams in the West. Both Seattle and Arizona would be 10-4.
Conference record: Both teams would be 8-4.

Which brings us to the fifth level of tiebreakers, strength of victory.

Let's set aside the teams that both the Seahawks and Cardinals will have beaten: San Francisco (twice each), St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota. This would give each team two unique opponents that they have each defeated. For the Seahawks, their unique wins are over the Cowboys (currently 4-9) and the Steelers (currently 8-5). The Cardinals' unique wins are against the Saints (5-8) and Bengals (10-3). Combine the records together and Arizona currently leads with a 15-11 record over the Seahawks at 12-13. In order for the Seahawks to catch up here, the Cowboys and Steelers have to win three games more than the Saints and Bengals the rest of the way. With Andy Dalton out for the rest of the regular season with a fractured thumb, the Steelers hot on their tail for the NFC North crown, and the Cowboys still in a fight for a playoff spot, the variables could work in our favor.

Of course, if we tie for strength of victory, we cross the River Styx into the sixth level of tiebreakers, strength of schedule. Seattle's SOS currently sits at .519 while Arizona languishes with a .462 SOS. That's an awfully big margin (the leaguewide range for SOS is between .442 and .596, Buffalo being a huge outlier there) so it's fair to say that the Seahawks would win the SOS tiebreaker if it does get that far.

It's just that simple. (And you don't want to know what the tiebreakers are beyond SOS.)

WHO TO ROOT FOR

So the good news is that we can still win the NFC West. The bad news is that we need wins by the Steelers and Cowboys, on top of losses by Arizona, to give us any chance. Remember what I said earlier in the season about rooting for Voldemort?

Thursday night: Buccaneers (6-7) at Rams (5-8)
The Seahawks can clinch a playoff spot this week with a win, a loss by the Buccaneers, and a loss by either the Giants or Redskins. In other words, a loss by the Bucs practically unlocks the door into the postseason. Go Rams!

Saturday night: Jets (7-6) at Cowboys (4-9)
If you think that the chances of winning the division are toast already, then you can summarily ignore this pick. If you're still hoping beyond reason that the 'Hawks will somehow pull this out, there's only one outcome that helps us. Go Cowboys!

Sunday morning: Panthers (13-0) at Giants (6-7)
The Seahawks will know going into their afternoon game whether or not a playoff spot is available. If Tampa Bay loses, a Giants loss would put Seattle one win away from the postseason. Go Panthers!

Sunday morning: Bills (6-7) at Redskins (6-7)
And if the Giants win, the Seahawks can still get in with a win if the Redskins lose. Go Bills!

Sunday morning: Falcons (6-7) at Jaguars (5-8)
Of course, the Giants and Redskins don't necessarily have to lose for the Seahawks to get in. An alternate route involves losses by the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Vikings, and then a win by the Packers. It's a more roundabout way of doing it, but we might as well cover our bases. Besides, Gus Bradley still has a chance to coach his team into their first playoff spot since 2007. Go Jags!

Sunday morning: Bears (5-8) at Vikings (8-5)
A little breathing room in the playoff picture couldn't hurt. (Actually, it might guarantee us the #5 seed if everyone outside the playoffs goes down too.) Go Bears!

Sunday afternoon: Bengals (10-3) at 49ers (4-9)
Again, if you're abandoning the division race, then you can sit this one out. Otherwise, we need Bengal losses, regardless of opponent, so hold your nose on this one. Go NotBengals!

Sunday afternoon: Broncos (10-3) at Steelers (8-5)
Likewise, we need Steeler wins for the division, so make way for another Voldemort pick here. Go Steelers!

Sunday night: Cardinals (11-2) at Eagles (6-7)
And of course, the Cardinals need to lose the rest of the way or else this is a total exercise in futility. BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL, GO EAGLES!

Monday night: Lions (4-9) at Saints (5-8)
Saints losses help too. Go Lions!

That'll wrap it up for the Watch this week. Next Wednesday we will probably have a very good idea where the Seahawks are in the playoff race - depending on how things fall, they might be locked into the #5 seed no matter how the last two games play out. That may not be such a bad thing after all - the way players have been going down the last few weeks, a few low-stakes games may be just what the doctor ordered.

I'll see you guys next week. Until then, GO HAWKS!!