If the Minnesota Vikings make the playoffs this weekend, it will mean that the Seattle Seahawks have played every NFC postseason team this year save for themselves and the New Orleans Saints. In those games, they beat the Dallas Cowboys and Vikings, while losing twice to the LA Rams and once to the Chicago Bears.
In my opinion there’s only one team in the NFC — in reality, the whole NFL — that I don’t think you want to face if you don’t have to and that’s the Saints.
New Orleans is one home game against the Carolina Panthers away from finishing 14-2 and that alone puts them a step ahead of every team. Records can be deceiving but the Saints’ isn’t. It’s surprising to me that they’re only third in DVOA, but they’re second in weighted DVOA and only .2% behind the Kansas City Chiefs for first. Yes, Drew Brees is the face of the city and having another season appropriate for potentially the best quarterback of all-time but what sets this Saints team apart from the many that have let Brees down over the years is a defense that ranks 10th by DVOA.
Consider that New Orleans has twice looked this good: in 2009 and in 2011. They went 13-3 in both of those season with a point differential of +169 in the former and +208 in the latter. This season, they are +170 and actually if they lost 21-20 to the Panthers this Sunday, they’d have the exact same record, point differential, points scored, and points allowed as they did in ‘09.
And they won the Super Bowl that year.
The issue in 2011 was that there were too many good teams and beyond all reasonable expectations, the Saints won their last eight games, finished 13-3, and still had to play a wild card game. They hosted the Detroit Lions and won 42-28 but then had to go on the road to face the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers. The 15-1 Green Bay Packers took the one-seed (and had an even more disappointing postseason) while San Francisco got the two-seed by way of conference record. The Niners scored 380 points that year, compared to 547 for Brees and co.
The Saints went 9-0 at home that season, including the wild card game, but were just 5-4 on the road following a divisional round loss to the Niners. As you probably recall in that classic game, the lead changed four times in the final four minutes, with Alex Smith giving San Francisco the 36-32 win by way of a touchdown throw to Vernon Davis with :09 seconds left.
If that game is played in New Orleans, I could see a different result. This year, the road to the Super Bowl does go through New Orleans. At least, unless you get super lucky and avoid it, which is what the Seahawks should be hoping to do.
If Seattle beats the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, they’ll guarantee themselves the five-seed. If they lose, they open the door for the Minnesota Vikings to take the five and push the Seahawks down to the six. There is only one opponent they could possibly face in that scenario, which would be the Chicago Bears. No, they cannot face the LA Rams in the first round because in order for the Rams to fall to the three seed, it will mean that the Bears beat the Vikings and therefore, Seattle would be the five seed.
Say whatever you want about the matchup vs the Cowboys compared to the matchup vs the Bears, here’s what I can guarantee: If the Seahawks are the six seed, and they win, they have no choice but to go to New Orleans. That’s not a scenario I’d be looking forward to and it’s one you want to put on hold while also crossing fingers that somebody can upset the Saints in the same way that the New York Giants shocked everyone and upset the Packers in 2011.
But if they’re the five seed, there’s still a chance that the Seahawks will play the two seed if they happen to advance past the wild card round. If that team happens to be the Rams, you, me, and everyone we know is aware of how close Seattle was to beating LA in both matchups this season. If it’s the Bears, I’d still say that they present a much more favorable matchup than New Orleans does, even in freezing, outdoor conditions.
And of course if the Seahawks secure the five seed and it ends up mattering in that way, i.e. if the six seed upsets the three seed and sends Seattle to the two seed, then it keeps hope alive for the most important scenario of all: not just avoiding New Orleans entirely but hosting an NFC Championship game. All of that is too far down the line to really care about, I know it, but what all of that information actually does is this: gives more weight to Seattle’s game against the Cardinals this Sunday.
It does matter. They can’t bank on the Vikings losing. They’re at home vs the worst offense in the NFL. They do need to win this one and move into the playoffs with a 10-6 record and a better opportunity. Seeding has had huge implications throughout NFL playoff history and this is no different. It may seem like a small thing, but this win could actually be very significant.