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NFL Playoffs picture and rooting interests guide: The Watch, Week 16

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There are still two weeks remaining in the NFL regular season. But the way things are shaping up in the NFC, that last week might well become irrelevant depending on how various games shake out next week.

Welcome to Week 16 of The Watch.

As it currently stands, there are nine teams still vying for a playoff spot in the NFC. Three of those teams belong to the NFC East, where the division title is the one and only path to the postseason available to the Redskins, Eagles, and Giants.

That means for the rest of the conference, there are six teams dancing around five musical chairs. And four of those teams have already sat down, because this is a weird game of musical chairs. With two games separating each of the top three seeds, one more win from each of them will lock in their seeding, and a loss by the team directly below them will lock it in anyway. There could end up being very little to play for in Week 16, aside for that NFC East greased pig.

The Seahawks currently sit at the #5 seed, which they can no longer improve on thanks to Arizona's season-long refusal to drop a clunker somewhere, thus clinching the NFC West title. And thanks to the current standings, Seattle's spot in the playoff seedings is actually the most precarious one.

NFC STANDINGS, WEEK 16

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 Seahawks still hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings for the #5 seed thanks to their win in Week 13.
  • Four teams are currently tied in the NFC standings at 6-8: the Eagles, Giants, Rams, and Buccaneers. The NFC East tiebreaker is handled first, and since the Eagles and Giants still have only played once so far this season (their rematch is in Week 17), the Eagles' lone win gives them first consideration against the Rams and Bucs. Their conference record, however, is the lowest of those three - 3-7 against 5-5 for both St. Louis and Tampa Bay - so they fall to #10 in the standings (and the Giants automatically drop to #11 since they can't rank any higher). The Rams get the #8 seeding by virtue of their win against the Buccaneers last Thursday.
  • There's also a three-way tie at 5-9 between Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans. The Lions won the one game they've played against the Bears (they also play in the season finale), so they get better position in the division - and since they just beat the Saints on Monday night, they end up at the top of the 5-9 pile. Meanwhile, the Saints have a 4-7 conference record, which gives them the edge over the Bears at 2-8.
  • Finally, the 49ers and Cowboys remain inseparable at four wins apiece, and the conference tiebreaker (3-7 vs. 3-8) still keeps the 49ers out of the cellar. NFL Network really couldn't have timed that "The Timeline" special about the 49ers vs. Cowboys rivalry any better.

SOWING THE SEEDS OF CONFUSION

It's that time of year where we know most of the teams playing in January. What we don't know for sure is where they'll end up in the seedings.

Even though the playoffs are already 67% set, there's still the potential for a fair bit of movement in the seedings and matchups. In most cases, a team is just one win (or one rival's loss) away from setting their postseason seeding in stone, but there are still a fair number of disaster scenarios out there that can make several teams drop in the standings. And for Atlanta, they'll need such a disaster to just get in. Here's the rundown on which teams are in contention for which seeds, and what they'll need to get there.

#1 SEED: CAROLINA PANTHERS (14-0) vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (12-2): With a win against the Falcons this week, or a loss by the Cardinals to the Packers, the Panthers will be guaranteed homefield advantage through out the playoffs. If Carolina loses their last two games and the Cardinals win out, however, they'll both be tied at 14-2, and the Cardinals' superior conference record (11-1 vs. 10-2) will earn them the top seed.

#2 SEED: CAROLINA PANTHERS (14-0) vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (12-2) vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-4): Two losses by Carolina, and two wins by Arizona, drops the Panthers to the #2 seed. If the Panthers lock up the top seed, though, all the Cardinals would need is one win or a loss by the Packers to clinch the other first-round bye. Arizona and Green Bay face off this Sunday, however, so if the Packers win that matchup, they can sneak in to the #2 seed by beating the Vikings and the Cardinals losing to the Seahawks in their respective season finales. In this case, both teams would be at 12-4, and the Packers would own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

#3 SEED: ARIZONA CARDINALS (12-2) vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-4) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-5): This is where the Cardinals would end up if they lose out and the Packers win out. In any other scenario, the Packers will be stuck at #3. Of course, if the Packers lose their two remaining games and the Vikings win their last two, Minnesota will snatch the NFC North title away from Green Bay. The #3 seed is the only place that the Vikings can go, since they're already three games (and a tiebreaker if it mattered) behind Arizona.

#4 SEED: WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7-7) vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (6-8) VS. NEW YORK GIANTS (6-8): The NFC East race is its own planet here. But with only one game separating three teams, it's not quite as simple as the three spots above. Washington currently holds the lead in the division; if they win out, there's nothing the Eagles or Giants can do. Their next game, however, is against the Eagles; if they lose, they'll cede control of the division to Philadelphia, and all they'll have to do is beat the Giants in Week 17 to win the East. If the Eagles lose that game, that could open the door for the Giants to sneak back into the #4 seed if they beat the Vikings the week prior and the Redskins lose to the Cowboys.

#5 SEED: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-5) vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-4) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-5): Seattle shouldn't start moving all of their furniture into the #5 seed just yet - technically, they don't even control their own destiny for it yet. Even if Seattle wins out, turmoil in the NFC North could send the Packers down into the Wild Card spot. If the Vikings win out, and the Packers beat the Cardinals, the Vikings would win the NFC North on account of a better divisional record (5-1 vs. 3-3). The Packers would be at 11-5, matching the Seahawks' best possible record, and the head-to-head loss to the Packers in Week 2 would drop the Seahawks to #6. And that's not mentioning the potential for Minnesota to win out while the Seahawks drop a game, which would put Seattle at 10-6 and Minnesota at 11-5. If the Seahawks keep pace with the Vikings, however, the only way they lose the #5 seed is the super-specific scenario listed above.

#6 SEED: MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-5) vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (7-7): Still lurking in the weeds are the Atlanta Falcons, who started the season hot then went into a tailspin in the middle of the season. As their two-game deficit indicates, however, the only way they're getting in is by winning out while the Vikings lose out. And even that wouldn't be enough - Minnesota beat Atlanta in Week 12, so the Vikings would still beat out the Falcons if they're the only two teams at 9-7. The only way for the Falcons to get around that tiebreaker is for a third team to enter the tiebreaker and neutralize the head-to-head tiebreaker. That team, of course, would be the Seahawks. Should all three teams tie at 9-7 (meaning the Seahawks lose both their remaining games as well), there would be no head-to-head since the Seahawks never played the Falcons. All three teams would tie for conference record at 6-6, and there wouldn't be enough common opponents between them to use that tiebreaker either. That means it would come down to that same Strength of Victory tiebreaker that kept us mathematically in the division race last Sunday. Atlanta actually has the edge in this category now, with 57 wins by their defeated opponents (and those they would need to vanquish, namely Carolina this week). Minnesota's defeated opponents would have 52, and the Seahawks' opponents would have 45. This would put the Falcons into the #5 seed, and then the Seahawks would slide into #6 as the tiebreakers reset and they have the head-to-head win over the Vikings.


It's just that simple.

WHO TO ROOT FOR

With the Cardinals now in possession of the NFC West crown, at least we can put to bed that icky "rooting for the Cowboys and Steelers" thing we had to do in order to somehow get a Strength of Victory tiebreaker over the Cards. Now the only thing we have to worry about is hanging on to the #5 seed, and fortunately there aren't many games to concern ourselves with on that front.

Sunday afternoon: Packers (10-4) at Cardinals (12-2): The one thing we don't want to have happen at this point is for Green Bay to drop out of the NFC North lead. Keeping the Cards from salting away a first-round bye is a bonus. Go Packers!

Sunday night: Giants (6-8) at Vikings (9-5): Likewise, an extra loss by the Vikings will either guarantee the #5 seed for us or give us some breathing room for the last week of the season. Plus, it introduces one last bit of chaos in the NFC East fiasco. Go Giants!

That'll put a bow on this week of The Watch. As mentioned before, there's a very good chance that next week could be one of the most boring regular season finales in NFL history, with so many spots potentially being locked up. Regardless, we'll have a chance to see one last time where everyone stands in the playoff picture. Until next Wednesday, have a safe and merry Christmas, and GO HAWKS!!