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The 2013 NFL Playoff Picture for the New Orleans Saints: the How's and Why's

With three games remaining in the regular season, there is a bit of confusion regarding when and how teams would be guaranteed playoff berths, either as division champions or wildcard teams. In this article, we look at the NFL's tie-breaking procedures, and the various possible scenarios remaining for the New Orleans Saints.

The NFC playoff picture after Week 14
The NFC playoff picture after Week 14
Jon Oliver

Following an eventful weekend of football, the New Orleans Saints are one game away from clinching a playoff berth. No matter what happens in Week 15, however, New Orleans will not be able to clinch the division lead until their rematch against the Carolina Panthers on December 21st.

If the Panthers lose to the Jets, and the Saints beat the Rams, New Orleans will be two games ahead of Carolina in the standings. But that would still not guarantee Drew Brees any postseason games in New Orleans. What do the Saints need to do to clinch the division? Beating Carolina a second time would guarantee New Orleans the NFC South title, and likely the No.2 seed. But what if they lose that game? And how does winning any one game guarantee them a playoff berth? It all comes down to the NFL's tiebreaking procedures.

What are the NFL's tiebreaking procedures?

It depends on whether the two teams being compared are within the same division or not. Since winning any one game would guarantee the Saints a wildcard berth, at the very least, let's look first at the first three tie breaking steps for determining the wildcard seeding between two teams in different divisions:

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.

One more victory would guarantee at least eleven wins for New Orleans. So which other NFC teams can still finish the season with at least eleven wins? The Seattle Seahawks (11-2), Carolina Panthers (9-4), San Francisco 49ers (9-4), Arizona Cardinals (8-5), and Philadelphia Eagles (8-5).

Either New Orleans or Carolina will win the NFC South, so they will not be competing against each other for wildcard placement. And while the Saints could theoretically end with a worse conference record than the Eagles -- currently (8-1) and (7-2), respectively -- Philadelphia winning three more games would have them representing the NFC East in the playoffs. Arizona can not win more than eleven games this season, and their September loss to New Orleans guarantees the Saints would win that tiebreaker. Likewise, New Orleans owns the tiebreaker over San Francisco; though it wouldn't matter for determining whether or not the Saints make the playoffs. With either Seattle or San Francisco representing the NFC West in the playoffs, only one of them could grab one of the two wildcard spots from New Orleans. So with a single victory in the next three weeks, Sean Payton would guarantee his team a playoff berth.

What about clinching the NFC South division title?

The Saints cannot clinch their division this coming weekend, regardless of what happens. Even with a two-game lead, they could still end up tied with the Panthers at (11-5), at which point the following tie-breaking procedures would determine the overall winner of the NFC South division:

  1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. Strength of schedule.
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed

Strength of victory is the combined won-lost-tied percentage of all the teams that a club has defeated.
Strength of schedule is the combined won-lost-tied percentage of all the teams that a club has played against.

So why can't the Saints clinch the division this coming weekend?

A Panthers loss to the Jets accompanying a Saints win against the Rams would do little besides giving the Saints more cushion in the postseason race. If New Orleans were to then lose to the Panthers and Buccaneers, with the Panthers beating the Falcons as well, both teams would finish the regular season with (11-5) records. The clubs would also be tied on the head-to-head comparison, so the division records would then be compared. In this scenario, the Saints would have a (4-2) division record, which would cause them to lose the NFC South to a Panthers franchise with a (5-1) division record.

A Saints win against Carolina would clinch the division for the Saints, regardless of what happens this coming week and the final week of the regular season. Even if the Saints lost to the St. Louis Rams and the Buccaneers: Panther victories against the New York Jets and the Falcons would leave Carolina losing the head-to-head tiebreaker against New Orleans. The Saints would still have a worse conference record than an (11-5) Eagles at that point, however, so the NFC South is not guaranteed the No.2 seed with eleven wins, unless Philadelphia loses one of their final three games.

A Saints division win accompanying any Panthers loss, or a Panthers division loss accompanying any Saints win would leave the two teams tied in the standings, in head-to-head wins, and within the division. Assuming the Panthers beat the Saints (since the alternative has already been discussed), this scenario happens if the Saints only win against the Buccaneers or the Panthers only lose to the Falcons. If both of those happen, then New Orleans ends with a better divisional record.

- If the Saints only beat the Rams, and the Panthers only lose to the Falcons, the tie-breaking procedures would stop at the fourth step in the process. While the two teams would be tied in the standings, head-to-head wins, division wins, and wins against common teams: Carolina would end the season with one win fewer than New Orleans, against teams within the NFC conference.

- If Carolina only loses to the Jets while New Orleans only defeats the Bucs, the NFL would proceed to the third step in the tie-breaking process, and compare their records in common games. Carolina losses to the Seahawks, Jets, Bills, and Cardinals would balance out with New Orleans losses to the Seahawks, Jets, Patriots and Rams in that scenario. When the conference records for each team were then compared, in the fourth progression of the process, each team would have nine wins and three losses to NFC opponents.

Looking at the fifth step in the tie-breaking procedures: removing every franchise which both teams will have defeated... leaves eight teams whose final records would determine whether the Panthers or Saints would win the NFC South division.

  • Carolina: Giants, Vikings, Rams, and Patriots = 23 wins
  • Saints: Cardinals, Bears, Bills, and Cowboys = 26 wins

Currently, the Saints would win this tiebreaker, as their four opponents have won 26 games, compared to the 23 games won thus far by the four opponents relevant to the Panthers. However, with three games ahead for each of those four opponents, either of those win totals could be increased by up to twelve between now and the end of the regular season. The Giants, Vikings, and Rams are all out of postseason contention, while none of the four teams relevant to the Saints have yet been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But while that fact may theoretically favor New Orleans, if the tie-breaking procedures were to advance that far, it is certainly not a guarantee of how strong each of those teams will finish the regular season.

If the Panthers win their final three games, including the one against the Saints, then New Orleans must defeat the Rams and the Buccaneers. This would leave both teams tied at (12-4) overall, and (5-1) within the division. Their records against common opponents would also be equal; but the Saints would be crowned division champions at the fourth step, with a (10-2) conference record besting a (9-3) conference record for the Panthers.

So how do the Saints clinch the NFC South?

A victory against Carolina would seal the deal, though it wouldn't guarantee the No.2 seed without either a second win or a Philadelphia loss. If the Panthers win their final three games, New Orleans must defeat the Rams and Buccaneers in order to clinch the division (and the No.2 seed). If New Orleans only wins one more game in the regular season, they will be guaranteed a berth in the playoffs; but whether it is as division champions or as a wildcard team will depend on a number of other factors.

The Saints could also still clinch the top seed in the NFC by winning two more games than the Seahawks over the next three weeks, since Seattle owns the tiebreaker over New Orleans.  Seattle is unlikely to lose two of their remaining games (@Giants, v.Cardinals, v.Rams), but anything is possible on a given game day.