Though non-conference wins are the least consequential in terms of tiebreakers in the NFL, it doesn’t hurt to rack ‘em up since they are still wins, of course. For the first time since division realignment, the Seattle Seahawks have gone 4-0 against their AFC opponents and it’s helped them to a 6-2-1 record with seven games left to go.
What do their playoff chances look like now and how clear is that path to a critical postseason bye week?
Let’s start with a rundown of the schedule:
Philadelphia Eagles (5-4), at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5), Carolina Panthers (3-6), at Green Bay Packers (4-5), LA Rams (4-5), Arizona Cardinals (4-4-1), San Francisco 49ers (1-8)
First and most important, the Seahawks hold a two-game lead in the NFC West over the Arizona Cardinals, the team that they tied with earlier in the season. That tie is quite beneficial to Seattle since the rubber match is at home in Week 16; for the Cardinals to catch up, they’ll most likely need to win that game, plus they’ll need to be near-perfect if not perfect in all their other games. If Arizona wins out that would leave them at 11-4-1, which would require the that the Seahawks go 5-2 over the last seven, but it’s going to be really difficult for the Cards to do that -- they have five road games remaining, including at Minnesota, at Atlanta, at Miami, at Seattle, and at LA. This is a team that just barely beat the 49ers on Sunday.
Next up, those Rams hold a head-to-head win over the Seahawks, but their road to upsetting Seattle is even longer since they need to close that three-loss gap and still win in New Orleans, in New England, in Seattle, and at home against the Dolphins and Falcons just to have a chance; Los Angeles has scored 29 points over the last three weeks and just barely got by the horrible New York Jets on Sunday. It’s almost certainly not going to happen.
So to that end, the Seahawks have a pretty defined path to a division win and a top-four seed in the NFC, which means a home game in January. What does the competition look like for getting above the four and three seed to get a bye week?
Well, because of their tie, I don’t think that Seattle’s head-to-head wins will even come into play this year. But it doesn’t hurt that they beat the Falcons and therefore, currently sit in the two seed with two fewer losses than Atlanta and the same number of wins. However, the Falcons’ grip on the NFC South is tenuous after midseason disappointment has turned them from 4-1 to 6-4 as they finally head into their bye week. If the Seahawks win next week, they’ll pull out to a more defined 1.5-ish game lead over Atlanta, but the Falcons still need to hold off the 4-5 Bucs and New Orleans Saints. In that regard, either of those teams could technically give Seattle more trouble since the Saints beat the Hawks and Tampa Bay still has their chance.
But those five-loss teams have a very unlikely road to a two-seed, so I don’t think it’s ultimately ever going to be an issue. I’m gonna say that the Seahawks don’t have to worry too much at this point about the NFC South getting ahead of them.
In the NFC North, the 5-4 Minnesota Vikings have seen their hot start completely evaporate in freezing temps as they’ve dropped four in a row following a 5-0 start. The Vikings are now technically in second place behind the 5-4 Detroit Lions, who beat Minnesota two weeks ago; the Vikings have games left against the Cards, at Lions, Cowboys, at Jaguars, Colts, at Packers, and Bears. It’s extremely unlikely that they go 12-4, so already Seattle knows that have a little wiggle room. More than likely the winner in the NFC North probably goes 10-6, or even 9-7. Detroit still has to travel to New Orleans, Dallas, and New York to face the Giants, with home games against the Packers, Vikings, Jags, and Bears.
Finally, Green Bay appears to be a non-threat, and needs to fight and scratch just to make the playoffs this year.
With that, I think the Seahawks have a relatively easy path to a bye week in the NFC, as long as they are the ones who win the NFC West, because those two divisions look quite weak at the moment. Let’s say that Arizona gets hot and wins the West, then I think they’d be the ones in line for the two-seed. It’s more of a lack of confidence in the South and North than it is anything about Seattle, though clearly they look like a better team than anyone in those divisions.
Finally, what are the chances that the Seahawks rise above the two-seed and secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs? Well, by now you know there’s only one team you need to consider in that regard.
The Dallas Cowboys are 8-1, giving them a fairly nice cushion over Seattle for the one-seed. Let’s say the Cowboys go 6-1 over the rest of their season, they are guaranteed to get homefield advantage no matter what the Seahawks do. They’ll need to do 5-2 or worse just to give Seattle a chance. Dallas’s remaining schedule:
Baltimore Ravens (5-4), Washington Redskins (5-3-1), at Minnesota Vikings (5-4), at New York Giants (5-3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5), Detroit Lions (5-4), at Philadelphia Eagles (5-4).
Every one of their opponents sit at five wins, except the Lions who have four. Basically, they don’t have a game left against a really horrible opponent, but they also don’t have one left against a great opponent, as we know it now. The Eagles are the number one team in DVOA, so that could be the Cowboys’ toughest remaining game. The Ravens are winning their division, but it’s not a very good season for the AFC North. Road games to Minnesota and New York will definitely be difficult. I am extremely confident that Dallas won’t go 15-1, pretty confident that they won’t go 14-2, then probably willing to concede that 13-3 is very possible, while 12-4 seems the most probable.
The Cowboys are still running with a rookie quarterback (and will now until he gets hurt or benched for poor performance, which he hasn’t come close to deserving yet) and rookie running back with an average-but-improved defense. I wouldn’t be surprised by either 13 or 12 wins; 13 secures them the one seed, I think, while 12 gives Seattle a very good opportunity to win the one seed at 12-3-1. It would still require that the Seahawks only lose one more game, but I think that’s doable for the NFL’s best November/December/January team over the last five years.
FiveThirtyEight has Seattle number one in ELO, 98% to make playoffs, 91% to win division, 77% to get a first round bye, and 18% to win the Super Bowl.