2013 NFL Playoff Picture: NFC Strength of Schedule

The NFC playoff picture after Week 7 - Jon Oliver

With the New Orleans Saints positioned to represent the NFC South in the postseason, who else is in the playoff race? And how likely is each of the six contenders to actually make it through the rest of the season with a playoff-worthy record?

With the bye week leaving us no Saints game to discuss, as much as Bill Belichick and the NFL referees tried to help us out, we find ourselves analyzing what we do have. Considering the ten games ahead and ten games behind us -- given four weeks of preseason followed by six regular season games played so far -- it is not difficult to feel like the 2013 season is half over. For some teams, this is more true than they would like to admit. Looking at where the rest of the NFC South currently stands, the New Orleans Saints seem to have a fairly solid grasp on a divisional playoff spot. If that does happen, the final records of all six playoff teams will determine where each team lands in the playoff lineup. So who are the Saints likely to be competing against in the standings race over the rest of the regular season?

Yesterday, we published an article about the strengths of schedule (SoS) of the NFC South: comparing the original strengths of schedule, the difficulty of the games played thus far, and the difficulty of each team's remaining games. But for those who believe the New Orleans Saints have the NFC South title in the bag, the road ahead for the other playoff contenders may be a bit more relevant. For a better understanding of how the strength of schedule is determined, and what it means, check out yesterday's article. Otherwise, keep reading as we analyze the current NFC playoff picture:

If the postseason began this week, the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints would get a first-round bye, with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys facing off against the wild card San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. However, given the relative difficulties of the remaining schedules for each team, New Orleans might not end up with one of the top two records in the NFC. Below, we look at each of the six teams who are currently in playoff contention.

Team

Current Record

Win %

SoS
Thus Far

Remaining
SoS

Projected Record

Seattle
(NFCW)

6-1

0.857 (2)

0.438 (24)

0.390 (31)

14-2

New Orleans
(NFCS)

5-1

0.833 (4)

0.436 (25)

0.500 (16)

12-4

Green Bay
(NFCN)

4-2

0.667 (9)

0.537 (12)

0.394 (30)

13-3

Dallas
(NFCE)

4-3

0.571 (13)

0.542 (11)

0.448 (25)

10-6

San Francisco
(Wildcard)

5-2

0.714 (5)

0.542 (10)

0.414 (29)

13-3

Detroit
(Wildcard)

4-3

0.571 (10)

0.478 (22)

0.373 (32)

10-6

The numbers in parenthesis indicate the ranking among all teams in the NFL, with the lower number being stronger than higher numbers. For example: 1st place is stronger than 2nd place, and the 16th highest SoS (win percentage of a given team's opponents) indicates a more difficult Strength of Schedule than the 32nd highest SoS.

Of the teams currently in NFC playoff contention, the New Orleans Saints have had the easiest road to get there, and have the most difficult road ahead by a wide margin. The Lions, Seahawks, Packers, and 49ers have the four easiest schedules remaining of all 32 NFL teams; so New Orleans will have a much more difficult time finishing with one of the top records in the conference.

Seattle Seahawks

(Current record: 6-1, Predicted record: 14-2)
The Seattle Seahawks have had the second easiest road of the NFC playoff contenders thus far; and they have the second easiest schedule in the entire NFL moving forward. And with the injuries which have befallen three of the next four teams on their schedule (Rams, Falcons, and Vikings), none of them are likely to pose much more of a challenge than the Bucs, which is the only other team Seattle plays before their bye week. And while their opponents have been getting injured, the Seahawks are trying to decide whether they should bring back Percy Harvin for an easy win this week, or let him rest further from his August hip surgery. Seattle can expect four weeks of smooth sailing, before taking a bye week and preparing to host the New Orleans Saints on the first Monday night in December. By the numbers currently, Seattle should enjoy a bye week and home team advantage through the playoffs.

New Orleans Saints

(Current record: 5-1, Predicted record: 12-4)
Although the Saints currently have the second best record in the NFC, they have the most difficult road ahead, of those teams currently in contention. A full quarter of the NFL has schedules which are more difficult than the Cowboys, yet still easier than what the Saints have in store. And nobody in the entire league has an easier road ahead of them than the Seahawks, Packers, 49ers, and Lions. While it is up to the Saints -- and the Saints alone -- to win each of their remaining ten games, the better their record compares to those of the other contenders at the end of the season, the more advantages they get during the playoffs. When the top seed has a very realistic chance of going 14-2, each and every loss is significant... regardless of the reason(s) behind it. Unless the Saints perform even better against a more difficult schedule, the statistical likelihood is that they will be hosting Detroit in the Superdome during the wildcard round, before heading to Green Bay, and then either Seattle or San Francisco for the NFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers

(Current record: 5-2, Predicted record: 13-3)
Although San Francisco currently has a worse record than New Orleans, their much-easier schedule moving forward should land them with a better record at the end of the year. They should have no trouble rolling right over the Jaguars, Buccaneers, or depleted Falcons and Rams right now. Even if the Saints win when we host the 49ers, the other team most likely to beat them is Seattle. And the Seahawks doing us the favor of beating San Francisco would also put our chances of hosting the NFC Championship game even further out of reach. The flip side, however, is that San Francisco could have the second-best record in the entire NFL, and still have a wildcard spot behind Seattle. So, as long as New Orleans ends with a better record than the Cowboys (or whoever wins the NFC East), we wouldn't have to worry about facing the 49ers or Seahawks again until the NFC Championship Game.

Green Bay Packers

(Current record: 4-2, Predicted record: 13-3)
With an even easier schedule than San Francisco, the Packers may end up winning nine of their last ten games. They get to play the Vikings and Bears -- each of which lost their quarterbacks in Week 7 -- two more times, each. And the Eagles, Giants, Falcons and Steelers shouldn't present too much of a challenge, either. Of course, any team could win or lose on any given Sunday; but the Packers are statistically only likely to lose once: to either the Lions or the Cowboys. If the Packers do lose two of their remaining games -- and at least one to the Falcons, Bears, and/or Cowboys -- with a 12-4 record, the Saints should win the tiebreaker for a first-round bye, after which New Orleans would host whomever wins the wildcard round in Green Bay.

Dallas Cowboys

(Current record: 4-3, Predicted record: 10-6)
Currently holding the best record in the NFC East, the Cowboys have also beaten each of their division opponents once this year. This means that they currently hold all tiebreakers in the division, though either the Eagles (3-4) or the Redskins (2-4) could feasibly overtake Dallas in the standings before the year is out. Even though the Eagles schedule is slightly easier, however, they are statistically unlikely to win two more games than the Cowboys, of the last 9 games ahead for each of them. Regardless of which team takes the division, it will likely do so with a worse record than New Orleans. This means the winner of the NFC East title is likely to host the better wildcard contender, in a fight to determine which team travels to compete against the best record in the NFC. Even though the Saints have the most difficult road ahead, the Cowboys have the most tenuous hold over their divisional playoff spot.

Detroit Lions

(Current record: 4-3, Predicted record: 10-6)
Although the Chicago Bears also have a 4-3 record, the Lions hold the tiebreaker over them for the second wildcard spot. Also, the Lions face the easiest schedule in the NFL, going forward, making them more likely to end with a better record... even before the Bears lost quarterback Jay Cutler for at least a month, to a torn groin this past week. The reason Detroit isn't statistically likely to end with the same or better record than the Packers -- despite a slightly easier schedule -- is because Green bay overcame a more difficult schedule on their way to their current 4-2 record... meaning the Packers should be able to take more advantage of the easy schedule ahead. If the probabilities win out, and Green Bay represents the NFC North in the playoffs, the Lions will be traveling to face either the Saints or the Packers in the wildcard round, in hopes of traveling to face off against the other in Week 2 of the postseason. If the Lions can keep Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson healthy for the rest of the season, however, they may be trading places with the Packers -- who may have just lost Jermichael Finley -- in the NFC North playoff race.

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