The New Orleans Saints locked up the NFC South on Thanksgiving with their win over the Atlanta Falcons, but all eyes were on their matchup this past Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in a battle of NFC supremacy.
With the Saints coming up on the losing end of Sunday’s 48-46 nail-biter, what are the playoff implications for New Orleans? Is the #1 seed in the NFC still an option? What’s the worst case scenario for the Saints? What’s the best case? What’s the most likely? Is the most likely scenario the same as either the best or worst possible outcome?
As a reminder, here is how the playoff seeding works in the NFL at the conclusion of the regular season. If you already know this part, just skip ahead.
- The number one seed is the divisional winner with the best record, with a series of tie-breakers used to determine seeding in the event of identical records. The one seed gets a bye through the first round (or “wild card round”) of the playoffs and is guaranteed home field advantage throughout the playoffs for as long as they’re alive.
- The number two seed is the divisional winner with the second best record (or the team with an identical record to the one seed but who loses the tie-breaker). The two seed also gets a bye in the wild card round and is guaranteed at least one home field playoff game in the second round (or “divisional round”). The only way the two seed plays on the road would be in the third and final round before the Super Bowl (also known as the conference championship), if the one seed has survived the divisional round. If the one seed loses in the divisional round, the two seed has home field throughout the playoffs.
- The number three seed is the divisional winner right behind the two seed but above the four seed based on records. The three seed does not get a first round bye in the wild card round, but has the benefit of playing that game at home, hosting the six seed. Assuming the three seed can win the wild card round, there is no scenario where the three seed plays their next playoff game at home. The three seed would be forced to travel to the two seed in the divisional round. The three seed could then potentially end up back at home for the conference championship, assuming the one seed loses in the divisional round.
- The four seed is the divisional winner with the worst record. Like the three seed, the four seed does not get a first round bye but has the luxury of playing the wild card round at home. The four seed hosts the five seed, and their playoff future is entirely up in the air after that point. If the four seed wins in the wild card round, they - like the three seed - would be forced to travel on the road in the divisional round, but their potential opponent is not determined until the results of the other games. However, the only way the four seed plays another playoff game at home would be in the conference championship if the six seed has made it that far.
- The five seed is the team with the best record in the conference after taking out all division winners (with tie-breakers used to separate teams with identical records). The five seed travels to the four seed in the wild card round, and the only way the five seed plays a playoff game at home would be in the conference championship if the six seed has made it that far.
- The six seed is the non-division winner with the second-best record in the conference. The six seed travels to the three seed in the wild card round, and there is no set of facts which allows for the six seed to ever play a playoff game at home.
Now that we got that out of the way, what are the different possible seeding options for the Saints?
Because the Saints have won their division, there is no way they can be the five or six seed, which means they are assured a home playoff game or a bye in the wild card round. There is also no mathematical way for the Saints to end up with the four seed at this point, as the Saints are assured to finish with a better record than the winner of the NFC East because both the Cowboys and Eagles each already have 7 losses, and if the Saints lose out, they would only end up with 6.
That means the Saints will either wind up as the one, two, or three seed in the playoffs. The one seed (guaranteed home field throughout and a first round bye) is obviously the best case scenario, while the three seed (required to play in the wild card round) would be the worst, but no matter what, the Saints will absolutely play at least one playoff game at home this year.
As it stands now, though, the Saints are no longer in control of their own destiny. Even if the Saints win out, it has absolutely zero bearing on playoff seeding for New Orleans. If the Saints lose out, there’s no way the Saints can be the one seed, but everything else is still technically up for grabs. That being said, let’s assume the Saints can win their final three games against the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, and Carolina Panthers.
The Three Seed
Even if the Saints win those three games, they still need help to climb above the three seed. If the 49ers win out, they are assured the one seed. If the Green Bay Packers win out also, both the Saints and Packers finish with identical 13-3 records, with the Packers owning the tie-breaker over the Saints based on conference record as all three Saints’ losses came against NFC opponents while the Packers lost to the AFC’s Los Angeles Chargers. That gives the two seed to the Packers.
If the Saints win out and still finish as the three seed, that means the Saints will be forced to play in the wild card round, likely hosting the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are one spot ahead of the Saints in total offense (11th to 12th), but one spot behind the Saints in total defense (14th to 13th), so the game really could go either way. Even if the Saints win, they have tough sledding ahead as they would be required to travel to the two seed in the divisional round, which includes options like the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau in January. Yikes.
Bottom line: Focus on the New Orleans Saints winning out.
The Two Seed
Again, assuming the Saints win out, if the Packers lose at least one of their final three games, the Packers drop to the three seed and the Saints are guaranteed at least the two seed.
The two seed locks up a first round bye for the Saints and sets them up to host the highest-seeded remaining team in the divisional round. That team could be the Seahawks, 49ers, Vikings, or the aforementioned Packers, but unlike as the three seed, the two seed means this game is played in the friendly confines of the Mercedes Benz Super Dome.
That also means that if the one seed loses in the divisional round, the New Orleans Saints would have home field throughout the playoffs.
Bottom line: Cheer for the Packers to lose at least one game, as early as this week when they host the Chicago Bears.
The One Seed
The one seed is still on the table, but it requires help from other teams as well. The Saints need everything to happen for the two seed (the Saints to win out and the Packers to lose at least one game), but then a little more.
The easiest way for the Saints to get the one seed without getting into crazy tie-breaker scenarios would be for the 49ers to lose at least two of their final three games. The 49ers play (in order) the Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks. After a brief showing of life, it appears the Falcons are back to being a dumpster fire, so if the 49ers win against Atlanta, that means the Saints want them to lose to both the Seahawks (who they’ve already lost to once) and the Rams (who just beat the Seahawks last week and could be turning a corner).
If the Saints win out, and the Packers lose at least once, and the 49ers lose twice, the Saints finish as the one seed.
Here’s another way to say it for the Saints to get the one seed:
The Saints win out, and the Packers lose at least once, and the Seahawks win the NFC West.
If the Saints win out, that gives them a 13-3 record. If the Seahawks win the NFC West, the best possible record the Seahawks could finish with is also 13-3, but the Saints would own a tie-breaker over Seattle based on their Week 3 head-to-head matchup. If the Seahawks win out, they win the NFC West, even if the 49ers win their remaining two contests to also finish 13-3. If the Saints, 49ers, and Seahawks all finish with identical records, the division tie-breakers are calculated first, meaning the Seahawks take the division based on their 2-0 record against San Francisco, but then the Saints take the one seed based on Seattle’s 0-1 record against New Orleans.
Bottom line: Cheer for the 49ers to lose and the Seahawks to win every game from here on out.
That was a lot.
One through three.... There are still so many other playoff scenarios that could end up playing out with crazy tie-breakers based on records against common opponents and strength of wins if the 49ers, Saints, and either Packers or Vikings all finish with identical records. Even the Los Angeles Rams could still technically come in late and complicate things.
Hopefully this cleared some basic things up for you and you have a quick idea of who you should be rooting for this week (Bears and Seahawks).
We can afford to scoreboard-watch at this point, but the Saints are not afforded that luxury. They just need to bear down and focus on the things they can control - winning their final three games.