2013 NFL Playoff Picture: NFC Strength of Schedule

The NFC playoff picture after Week 12 - Jon Oliver

With the New Orleans Saints currently threatening Seattle's No.1 seed, and trying to fend off the Panthers, where are they likely to land in the postseason? And how likely is each of the six contenders to actually make it through the rest of the season with a playoff-worthy record?

Five weeks ago, we took a look at the NFC Playoff picture and strengths of schedule (SoS) -- through the first seven weeks, and moving forward -- for the top six teams in the conference. Now in the middle of a long week for the Saints, we take another look at the current playoff picture, the adjusted strengths of schedule for the top teams in the conference, and how well each team's performance compares to the Week 7 projections.

Each team in the NFL has played eleven games, and no bye weeks remain in the regular season. One team, the Atlanta Falcons, has already been eliminated from playoff contention; and another one or two might eliminated this week. Either the New Orleans Saints or the Seattle Seahawks could clinch the top seed in the NFC within the next three weeks, while a number of teams will be jockeying for postseason placement through the last two games of the regular season.

Last month, 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 with two NFC South teams likely to make the postseason, the road ahead for the playoff contenders seems a bit more relevant at this juncture. For a better understanding of how the strength of schedule is determined, and what it means, check out last month's SoS 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 each get a first-round bye, with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys facing off against the wild cards San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers. However, nothing about the playoff picture is concrete just yet. It is still quite possible that the top seed in the NFC could go to the Saints, Seahawks, or Panthers, with either the Saints or Panthers likely taking a wildcard slot. And both the NFC North and NFC East division titles are up for grabs, as is the second wildcard spot. Below, we look at each of the six teams who are currently in playoff contention, the difficulty of their schedules (SoS) thus far, the strengths of their remaining schedules, and their projected final records.

Team

Current Record

Win %

SoS
Thus Far

Remaining
SoS

Projected Record

Seattle
(NFCW)

10-1

0.909 (1)

0.417 (32)

0.582 (7)

13-3

New Orleans
(NFCS)

9-2

0.818 (2)

0.455 (28)

0.618 (2)

12-4

Detroit
(NFCN)

6-5

0.546 (11)

0.455 (28)

0.418 (29)

9-7

Dallas
(NFCE)

6-5

0.546 (11)

0.517 (10)

0.446 (26)

9-7

Carolina
(Wildcard)

8-3

0.723 (5)

0.475 (22)

0.510 (11)

11-5

San Francisco
(Wildcard)

7-4

0.636 (7)

0.523 (8)

0.491 (17)

11-5

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.

The Seattle Seahawks have had the easiest schedule in the NFL thus far; and the New Orleans Saints face the most difficult road of the current playoff contenders. Although the Panthers have not had a difficult schedule thus far, their last five games -- though not as difficult as the current top two teams -- will be more difficult than what they have faced this season. The road ahead for the 49ers and Cowboys should be significantly easier than the schedules they've already faced; and the Lions have been blessed with one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year.

Seattle Seahawks

(Current record: 10-1, Projected record: 13-3)
The Seattle Seahawks have had the easiest road in the NFL thus far; though their schedule moving forward is significantly more difficult. The Saints and 49ers will be fighting the Seahawks with everything they can muster, and even the Cardinals (7-4) could pose a threat if fighting for a playoff spot. Fortunately for Seattle, however, they host the Saints (9-2), as well as the Cardinals and Rams (5-6) to end the season. Although they travel to San Francisco (7-4) after facing the Saints, the only other away game remaining for the Seahawks is against the New York Giants (4-7).

As predicted five weeks ago, the Seahawks sailed smoothly through the Rams, Bucs, Falcons and Vikings. And now -- given their momentum, their home field advantage, and their recent bye week -- they have every advantage stacked in their favor against the Saints. However, with their loss of players to drug charges balancing things out somewhat against the losses New Orleans has recently suffered from injuries, this week's game will be critical in determining where Seattle lands in the playoff picture.

While five weeks ago they were projected to end the season with a 14-2 record, there is still a good chance they could lose two of their next five games. Winning their next two games, however, would lock them in as division champions; and winning the next three would guarantee them the No.1 seed in the NFC.

New Orleans Saints

(Current record: 9-2, Projected record: 12-4)
Although the Saints currently have the second-best record in the NFC, they face the second most difficult road in the NFL. Their next game may be their biggest challenge, and is guaranteed to have a major impact on their playoff hopes. Facing the Seahawks (10-1) in Seattle is not an easy prospect at any time of year, much less when freezing rain and snow are expected. However, should New Orleans manage a win this coming Monday night, they will control their own postseason destiny.

Five weeks ago, New Orleans was projected to go 12-4; and an unexpected loss to the Jets has kept that projection from changing. The Saints could realistically lose any of their five remaining games, especially given the upcoming battle in Seattle and their two matches against a Panthers (8-3) team that is nipping at their heels. Winning any three of their five remaining games would guarantee New Orleans a playoff berth, though even the last game of the season could impact their hopes for a bye week and home-field advantage in the postseason. Barring a surprise run by Carolina... a Saints win against the Seahawks would mean that New Orleans can end with the top seed in the conference by winning at least as many games as Seattle through their last four games. If they lose to Seattle, however, the Saints will likely be competing against the Panthers for the second seed with the NFC South title.

Detroit Lions

(Current record: 6-5, Projected record: 9-7)
Although the Chicago Bears (6-5) have kept pace with the Lions, Detroit holds the tiebreaker over them for the lead in the NFC North. Unless the top contenders in the NFC South and NFC West somehow fall apart, there won't be any wildcard spots available for the runner up in either the NFC North or the NFC East. So if the Lions want to make the postseason, they should do so as division leaders. With the Bears and Packers both suffering losses at the quarterback position this year, Detroit is in a great position to continue taking advantage of the easiest schedule in the NFC. In Week 7, Detroit was projected to end the season with a 10-6 record. After their loss to the Buccaneers, however, the Lions are now projected to finish at 9-7.

After losing to Detroit twice this season, the Bears would need to win more games than the Lions in order to take the division, which means ending with a better record than the 9-7 currently projected for Chicago. Therefore, although it is by no means guaranteed, Detroit should be hosting a wildcard team during the first week of the postseason.

Dallas Cowboys

(Current record: 6-5, Projected record: 9-7)
Currently undefeated in their division, the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker against the Eagles (6-5), Giants (4-7), and Redskins (3-8). A win against either Washington or Philadelphia would guarantee Dallas keeps that division tiebreaker. And with a remaining schedule that is significantly easier than what they've already faced, and also easier than what remains ahead for the Eagles, there is a decent chance Dallas will be hosting a wildcard team in January. All it would take for them to be watching the playoffs on television, however, would be for the Cowboys to lose one more game than the Eagles. And since their projected record has slipped from 10-6 to 9-7, letting another game unexpectedly slip through their fingers is not beyond the realm of possibilities.

Carolina Panthers

(Current record: 8-3, Projected record: 11-5)
After winning seven consecutive games, Carolina has vaulted into contention for not only the playoffs, but for leadership of the NFC South. Their schedule thus far has been fairly easy, and gets tougher. But it won't be as difficult as the schedules faced by the Saints and Seahawks. So it's likely that the Panthers will at least make the playoffs. Whether or not they do so as a wildcard team, or as a division leader, will likely depend on how they fare in their two games against the New Orleans Saints.

San Francisco 49ers

(Current record: 7-4, Projected record: 11-5)
Although San Francisco is currently sitting in a wildcard spot only due to their tiebreaker against the Arizona Cardinals (7-4), the Niners have had the most difficult schedule of all NFC teams currently in postseason contention. They also have the least difficult schedule remaining of any team in their division -- or the NFC South -- which makes it quite likely that they will make the playoffs. Given their performance thus far, and considering the disparity between the schedule they've faced and their remaining schedule, the Niners are the only team in NFC playoff contention which is expected to win four of their remaining five games. However, even four wins are unlikely to be enough to pass the Seattle Seahawks for the lead in the division. And even if they had the second-best record in the NFL... without winning their division, San Francisco can't earn a bye week, nor home-team advantage in the playoffs.

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