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Playoff Picture: Guess who’s back, back again, in first place, tell a friend

(It’s the Seahawks!)

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks
next time i hurdle you
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

First things first: the first-place Seattle Seahawks are in first place, afer defeating the Minnesota Vikings 37-30 on Monday Night Football, vaulting them into first place in the NFC West, atop the division, ahead of all other teams.

It’s not surprising the victory did wonders for the Seahawks’ playoff outlook. Specifically in their bid to nab one of the conference’s top two seeds. So before we get into any scenarios that put Seattle into the enviable position of a first-round bye, we need the raw numbers, as provided by and, our two new best friends.

NFC Playoff odds

Team W-L Record Football Outsiders Composite (unscientific)
Team W-L Record Football Outsiders Composite (unscientific)
NO 10-2 100 100 100
SEA 10-2 99.7 99+ 99+
SF 10-2 99.4 98 98.7
GB 9-3 94.6 93 93.8
MIN 8-4 86.1 82 84.1
DAL 6-6 76.9 65 71
- - -
PHI 5-7 23.4 35 29.2
LAR 7-5 16.2 25 15.6
CHI 6-6 3.6 3 3.3

Nothing prettier than a 99-plus playoffs percentage.

In case you didn’t hear, the New Orleans Saints officially clinched.

Spoiler: the Seahawks’ chance at a bye zoomed upwards, too.

Bye Odds (FO)

Team W-L Record Bye Odds
Team W-L Record Bye Odds
NO 10-2 82.4
SEA 10-2 59.2
SF 10-2 39
GB 9-3 15.5
MIN 8-4 3.9

Football Outsiders believes the Saints and Seahawks are the likeliest recipients of a first-round bye. Feel free to re-read that sentence as often as you please, but if you’re in public, please be aware of how people are staring at your stupid grinning face right now.

Seahawks Scenarios

In this next segment, we map out Seattle’s last four games and look at the most likely result. Schedule reminder: the Seahawks play

  • at LAR Week 14
  • at CAR Week 15
  • vs. ARI Week 16
  • vs. SF Week 17.

You don’t need me to tell you that any and all of those games are winnable and losable. I hear some readers pre-scoffing at the 0-4 outcome, but road games are hard and there’s no reason to think the Seahawks will necessarily win either one, even if they are 6-0 away from the CLink this season. Then Week 16 you’ve got the team that always gives you trouble in Seattle, and actually beats you here more often than not since 2014. Finally, the San Francisco 49ers offense looks way different with George Kittle. Add in that you can’t expect to win every close game ever, and the 0-4 meltdown should at least be considered.

The good thing is that 10-6 probably gets you in anyway, as the 6 seed, and that’s a damn fine worst-case scenario. If the Seahawks, god and gods forbid, lose their final four, they’ll still be armed with a tie-breaker over the Vikings and a season split with the Los Angeles Rams. Even though the models figure Seattle won’t crater, and will win at least one game, the backup backup backup plan of beating Minnesota on Monday Night was a smart one. As was the plan of making Greg Zuerlein miss that one high-leverage field goal early on. Same goes for the Chase McLaughlin overtime miss against the 49ers that could have ended things earlier than the plan called for.

My personal guess is that the Seahawks finish 3-1 and take the division, and the 2 seed. Which is an insane thing to imagine typing in August. Now, the massive table, and I have three remarks to add below.

(Massive might be an understatement.)

Endgame Scenarios

Seahawks go: Finish Win div.? Probable seed Notes
Seahawks go: Finish Win div.? Probable seed Notes
WWWW 14-2 Yes 1 No more plane trips until SB*
LWWW 13-3 Yes 2 Rams could be 6 seed
WLWW 13-3 Yes 2 Root for Saints to go 2-2
WWLW 13-3 Yes 2 Dumb Cardinals
WWWL 13-3 Likely 2 Champs if SF loses 1 other**
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
WLLW 12-4 Likely 2 or 3 Champs if SF loses 1 other
LWLW 12-4 Likely 2 or 3 Champs if SF loses 1 other
LLWW 12-4 Likely 2 or 3 Champs if SF loses 1 other***
WLWL 12-4 Unlikely 5 Champs if SF loses to any 2 others
WWLL 12-4 Unlikely 5 Champs if SF loses to LAR + another
LWWL 12-4 Unlikely 5 Champs if SF loses to LAR + another
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
LLLW 11-5 Unlikely 5 or 6 Champs if SF loses to any 2 others
WLLL 11-5 Remote 5 or 6 Champs if SF loses all 3 others
LLWL 11-5 Remote 5 or 6 Champs if SF loses all 3 others
LWLL 11-5 N 5 or 6 3-3 div. record is worse than SF
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
LLLL 10-6 N 5, 6 or out If Rams win out = trouble

*For Seattle to get that top seed and home-field advantage, the New Orleans Saints have to lose once. They host SF and IND, then travel to TEN and CAR. They’ll be favored in all four, but the Tennessee Titans are playoff-level and division games (Carolina Panthers) get weird. Even if you give the Saints an 80 percent chance in each game (which is generous), that’s only a 41 percent chance to sweep all four.

**This is gonna get freaky. If the 49ers win the finale and finish 13-3 alongside the Seahawks, the tie-breakers are nuts. Both teams would be 13-3, 1-1 head-to-head, 5-1 in the division, 11-3 against common opponents, and 10-2 in conference. The next tie-breaker is strength of victory.

Strength of victory is measured by the record of all teams played. 14 games are common to Seattle and San Fran. Therefore, the two games against non-common opponents will be decisive. What the Seahawks want is for their two non-common opponents to be stronger than the 49ers’ two opponents we didn’t face. In other words, we need the Vikings + Eagles to have a better combined record than the Green Bay Packers + Skins.

Right now MIN/PHI are at 13-11, while GB/WAS are at 12-12. We should be rooting very, very hard for the Eagles to win in Washington Week 15 and the Vikings to defeat the Packers at home in Week 16.

For now the Seahawks have a slim lead in the suddenly critical fifth tie-breaker. Best if they don’t have to use it, but good to know that’s how it works.

***It’s difficult to win the NFC West with a 2-2 finish that also includes a loss to the Niners. But it’s much easier to win it with a 2-2 finish that includes a win over them in Week 17. Most of those scenarios where the Seahawks win the finale and end up tied with the 49ers at 12-4 result in a division title — you just need San Fran to lose one of its three preceding games: at NO, vs. ATL, vs. LAR.

That’s just a way of saying that the Seattle’s upcoming games in LA and Charlotte matter, but they’re not must-wins on their own, not by any stretch. It’s more than conceivable to drop them both and still end up with the 2 seed.

Conclusion: What the Seahawks really want to see happen is the 49ers stumble in Week 14 at the Saints, then again in Week 16 vs. the Rams. If that two-step comes true and the Seahawks don’t melt down, Week 17 would likely be a battle for playoff seeding, instead of one for the NFC West banner, which would hang in Seattle. (Its natural habitat.)

Bonus Conclusion: If you find an error in the table, point it out. This is complicated stuff and I welcome corrections.

Extra Thoughts

The Los Angeles Rams also won in Week 12, impolitely, in Arizona, to move to 7-5 and pick up a game on the Vikings. They’re square in the playoff picture again, with a decent enough chance to emerge as the 6 seed, which would presumably place three NFCW teams in the postseason.

A universe exists in which the Rams actually edge out the Niners for the 6 seed, with both teams finishing 10-6. If you get there, please report back. Maybe we’ll explore that a couple weeks hence.

The Philadelphia Eagles can win the NFC East. They need to defeat Dallas in Week 15 and have other stuff happen, but they looked terrible against Seattle and lost in Miami last week. It would be an unlikely turnaround. Historically, only four percent of 5-7 teams reach the postseason.

You can count out the Bears, but the statistical minds from FO would like you to donate them a 3.6 percent chance. That’s up to you. Don’t waste your time.

Pretty Pretty Playoff Picture



Wild-card round

(5) San Francisco at (4) Dallas

(6) Minnesota at (3) Green Bay

Talk about a ratings orgasm for the league. C’mon, NFL, you know you want to arrange Niners-Cowboys somehow, why not guarantee it on wild-card weekend?

Divisional round

Worst remaining seed at (1) New Orleans

Best remaining seed at (2) Seattle

Give us 49ers-Seahawks III, for most of the marbles. Either in the divisional, or the NFCCG. Make it so.

Team Tiers

Legit Contenders

49ers (10-2), Saints (10-2), Seahawks (10-2), Packers (9-3)

San Francisco has a point differential of +166, or more than the Saints, Seahawks and Packers combined. Their average game score is 29-15. Their two losses were by a field goal. Kickers matter.

Need a Break or Two

Cowboys (6-6), Vikings (8-4), Rams (7-5)

These teams are all about as good as one another — great offenses that suffer bouts of inconsistency, for quarters or games at a time, and often at the wrong juncture. Probably two of them will dance in January. It doesn’t have to be the Rams just because they got well against the Arizona Cardinals and their 29th-ranked defense by DVOA.

Next Loss Is Fatal (Sorta)

Eagles (5-7), Bears (6-6)

Philly’s loss in Miami looked like a death blow but turned out to be nothing more than a flesh wound because the Cowboys fell to 6-6 to keep pace with mediocrity. I mean, at 5-8, the Eagles’ hopes should extinguish, except that 8-8 might win the division.

Bears trudged back to .500 but they would be eliminated from the playoffs at 6-7. No wild card team will get in at 9-7, not this year.

For extra fun, visit ESPN’s playoff machine and see if you can’t get a sub-.500 team into the playoffs, or nudge the Browns back into January football, or just mess with the Patriots, who, frankly, deserve it.

Football Outsiders playoff odds

538 dot com playoff odds