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NFL Playoffs scenarios, rooting guide, and NFL Draft order: The Watch, Week 17

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Two weeks ago, the Seahawks were flying relatively high. Sure, the division was put out of reach, but the they'd locked up a playoff spot with two games still left in the season, and had the tiebreaker over the other Wild Card team, with a good chance to play against whoever came out the wreckage that is the NFC East. Then the Rams game happened, and... well, the less said the better.

Welcome to Week 17 of The Watch.

NFC STANDINGS, WEEK 17

The Seahawks losing was bad enough. But at the same time, Minnesota decided it wasn't done contending for the NFC North title, and dispatched the Giants quite handily. That gives the Vikings a 10-5 record, and at the moment they're tied for the lead in their division while holding a one-game lead over the Seahawks for the #5 seed in case that doesn't work out. Elsewhere in the conference, a 14-1 team somehow still hasn't managed to nail down homefield advantage, and the Redskins have finally strung enough wins together to wrap up the NFC East and guarantee that someone's going to have to play on that pock-marked patch of crabgrass in Maryland.

The irony is that most of the chaos in the NFC Standings are happening below the line of demarcation that separates the playoff teams from the unwashed hobos. Take a gander and you'll see what I mean.

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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 Packers still have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings thanks to their win in Week 11. The two teams play each other next week, however, and this will decide the NFC North title.
  • The big pileup is at 6-9, where six teams find themselves. Starting with the divisional races, the Lions beat out the Bears because of their win in Week 6. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers split their series against the Saints, but they have the better divisional record, 3-2 vs. 2-3. And the Eagles beat the Giants in Week 6, so the Eagles get priority in the East.
  • As it turns out, the Lions and Bucs are tied out of everyone for the best conference record at 5-6. This brings up the common opponent tiebreaker, and the Lions have done much better against the Bears, Saints, Eagles, and Rams than the Bucs did - 3-1 vs. 2-3 - so the Lions are on top of the 6-9 pile, while the Buccaneers slide in right behind them. The Saints are the next in line, with a conference record of 4-7. Next comes the Bears and Eagles, who tie with a 3-8 conference record. Their common opponents are the Lions, Buccaneers, Redskins, and Cardinals, and one win by the Bears is good enough to take the tiebreaker as the Eagles goose-egged against all four teams. This puts the Bears at #12, the Eagles at #13, and since the Giants can't outrank the Eagles, they get sent to the #14 spot.
  • Oh, you think we're done with the common opponent tiebreaker? Think again. Because the 49ers loss dropped them to 3-8 in conference record, they no longer beat out the Cowboys in that category. But since they each have one win against the Packers, Falcons, Giants, and Seahawks, we have to go to Strength of Victory to find out which of these teams is officially the worst. The teams that San Francisco has beaten - Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and Minnesota - have a combined record of 29-46, while the teams Dallas has beaten - Miami, the Giants, Philadelphia, and Washington - are a combined 25-50. So the 49ers still manage to have a modicum of superiority over one team.

It's just that simple.

BREAKING DOWN THE TOP SIX

There's only one seeding in the playoff bracket that's set in stone - the Redskins, with their 8-7 division-winning record, are locked in at #4. As for the other five teams, there's still the potential for some movement, particularly between the top two seeds and the NFC North combatants. Here's a quick rundown of where everyone currently stands.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (14-1) vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (13-2)
Obviously, the Panthers have the upper hand for the #1 seed. If they win their final game against Tampa Bay this Sunday, they'll lock up the the #1 seed. If they lose, that opens the door for the Cardinals to come in and snatch the top seed away by beating the 49ers. Should that happen, both teams would tie at 13-2, and the Cards would get in with a better conference record (11-1 vs. 10-2).

GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-5) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10-5)
As mentioned above, the Packers are nominally leading the NFC North with a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings. But since the two teams face off against each other this week, the game on Sunday will ultimately decide the winner of the division. (If the last game ends in a tie, then the head-to-head win would give the Packers the division.) Even if the Packers lose, they can do no worse than the #5 seed since they hold a head-to-head win over the Seahawks in Week 2 should both teams end 10-6 in the Wild Card spot. The Vikings, however, lost to the Seahawks in Week 13, so if they lose and the Seahawks win, the Vikings would drop to #6.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10-5) vs. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-6)
Before their loss to the Rams last week, the Seahawks really had a fair bit of control over the #5 seed, but because of the loss they're now at Minnesota's mercy. The Seahawks need to beat the Cardinals in their season finale, and the Packers need to beat the Vikings, in order for Seattle to climb back into the #5 spot. Since this is the only outside game that has any bearing on the Seahawks' short term playoff prospects, this makes the "Who To Root For" section of the column rather straightforward. (That is, unless you actually want to play in Lambeau for Wild Card Weekend.)

DRAFT PROJECTION

We haven't been paying much attention to the draft this year, largely because we're not in any sort of rebuilding mode and so jockeying for draft position seemed a bit ghoulish. That said, there's only one week left in the season, so now is a good time to take a peek at where the teams that will be watching the playoffs from home can expect to draft in the first round.

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Strength of schedule is calculated using all 16 opponents on a team's schedule, with divisional opponents getting double the weight. If there's a tie for schedule strength, lowest divisional record breaks the tie; if there's a tie in that category, a coin toss determines the order. Playoffs teams pick no higher than 21st, and their order is based on where they finish in the postseason. Not pictured are the Patriots, who forfeited their 1st round pick for deflating footballs.

Last year I had the Titans in the #1 spot because I had their SOS box pointing to the wrong thing on my spreadsheet. This year, it's legit. If they somehow beat the Colts next week (remember, Indy's not the only team with a wounded QB) the top pick would go to Cleveland, assuming they lose to the Steelers, and I know what happens when you assume, but I think we're pretty safe here.

WHO TO ROOT FOR

Just to clarify what's at stake this week: If the Seahawks lose on Sunday, they're locked into the #6 seed. At that point, it's a question of whether we go to Green Bay or Minnesota for their first game - and whoever wins between them on Sunday night will decide that. If the Seahawks win and the Vikings win, it's the Seahawks going to Minnesota for Wild Card Weekend. If the Seahawks win and the Vikings lose, the Seahawks will travel to Washington to face the Redskins.

There's been a lot of discussion in the comments of these columns about whether we really want the #5 seed considering where we'd be playing. Then again, there are quite a few people nervous about going to Lambeau in January, and others still feel nervous about giving the Vikings a second bit at the apple after we smacked them around in their backyard a month ago. So rather than tell you who to root for in order to get a specific matchup, here are all of the possible outcomes and who you want to root for in order to make them happen.

Do you want the #5 seed and a game against the Redskins? Then hope we win on Sunday (natch) and Go Packers.

Do you want the #6 seed and a game in Minnesota? Then regardless of how our game against Arizona goes, Go Vikings.

Do you want the #6 seed and want to play in Lambeau Field? Then Go Packers. You'll also want the Seahawks to lose, so I hope you can live with yourself.

With that, this season's edition of The Watch is over. After next Sunday, we'll have a clear picture as to where everyone's seeded, who's playing whom, and what our potential road to a third straight Super Bowl will look like. As always, I want to give massive props and credit to Danny Kelly, who has given me an opportunity to share all of these machinations with you on a weekly basis - even if I got a late start on the year thanks to various work- and life-related incidents that arose this autumn. (Nothing negative, mind you - hey, when you get offered a free trip to Hawaii, you take it.)

This was my fourth year overseeing The Watch, and it still amazes me how someone who knows as little about the X's and O's of football can contribute so much to the readers here and generate lively discussion on a weekly basis. Let this be an inspiration to everyone at FG - there are ways you can inform and entertain people if you look hard enough. For me, I just opened up an OpenOffice spreadsheet and went from there.

Until next season, when we get to do this all over again, GO HAWKS!!