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NFC Playoff Picture: Where the Saints stand heading into Week 12, potential seeding changes

While we were greatly helped by our friends in Indianapolis, the Saints best chance of retaining the No. 1 seed is a win.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL playoff picture this year is more crowded than ever. With the expanded format of 14 teams this season – which could potentially expand to 16 – the postseason race is less decisive by Week 12. An unfortunate consequence of the 7-seed expansion, however, is the now incredibly elusive first-round bye. This year, only the No. 1 seed is awarded that bye; its importance cannot be understated. In the case of 16 playoff teams, there would be no bye week.

In Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, the Baltimore Ravens managed to fight their way there with a Wild Card berth. Since then, not one team has made it to the Super Bowl without the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and the resultant first-round bye. I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate to New Orleans Saints fans how much we would prefer to skip that round.

While things initially looked murky with the loss of Drew Brees, the Saints are surging after extending their 7-game winning streak with the win over the Atlanta Falcons – a divisional win at that. With some help from Indianapolis and the Rams, New Orleans currently sits at the No. 1 NFC seed at 8-2.

The NFC standings through Week 11 are as follows:

(1) New Orleans Saints (8-2)

(2) Los Angeles Rams (7-3)

(3) Green Bay Packers (7-3)

(4) Philadelphia Eagles (3-6-1)

(5) Seattle Seahawks (7-3)

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)

(7) Arizona Cardinals (6-4)

If the playoffs started this week, New Orleans would have a first-round bye, Los Angeles (2) would host the Cardinals (7), Green Bay (3) would host the Buccaneers (6), and Philadelphia (4) would host Seattle (5).

At this point, no teams are locked into a playoff berth; the 5-5 Chicago Bears, 4-6 Minnesota Vikings, 4-6 Detroit Lions, and 4-6 San Francisco 49ers are still very much in the hunt, including, unfortunately, the entirety of the NFC East.

The Saints, for once, are in control of the NFC playoff picture through Week 12; at 8-2, they boast a 4-0 division record and a 7-1 conference record. That said, they don’t hold a comfortable lead on the No. 1 slot.

NFC South Seed

Should the Saints lose this weekend, there are two relevant questions: whether they lose the top seed, and whether they’re at risk of Tampa Bay assuming the NFC South slot. Mathematically speaking, it’s nearly impossible for New Orleans to concede that spot to the Buccaneers through the season. The Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay with their sweep in both games this season; accordingly, there is no scenario where a tiebreaker comes into play between these teams – or one that would move New Orleans out of the seed.

The Saints would either need to lose three of the remaining games while the Buccaneers win out and finish 12-4, or New Orleans would need to lose four games or more. The Saints dropping to 11-5 would frankly be an implosion, and ultimately highly unlikely – 10-6 or worse should be out of the question. Accordingly, New Orleans likely locks up the NFC South playoff seed.

No. 1 Seed

The question, then, is whether they retain the No. 1 seed through the next few weeks. If New Orleans wins this weekend, they only stand to extend that lead. However, if Green Bay wins this weekend, a Saints loss would risk just that. This would put both New Orleans and Green Bay at 8-3; thanks to the unfortunate Week 3 loss, Green Bay holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans.

With the current playoff projection, the Saints only hold that relevant tiebreaker with the Packers. All of the other teams in contention – Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals – don’t play the Saints this season; there are no potential head-to-head scenarios with any of these teams.

That said, there are several scenarios that could end in a three-way tie. Here’s a breakdown of how this weekend could shake out.

Weekend Matchups

(1) New Orleans Saints vs. Denver Broncos

  • Win: Saints move to 9-2, with a conference record of 7-1, and a division record of 4-0
  • Loss: Saints fall to 8-3, with a conference record of 7-1, and a division record of 4-0

(2) Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers

  • Win: Rams move to 8-3, with a conference record of 8-1, and a division record of 2-1
  • Loss: Rams fall to 7-4, with a conference record of 7-2, and a division record of 1-2

(3) Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

  • Win: Packers move to 8-3, with a conference record of 6-2, and a division record of 3-1
  • Loss: Packers fall to 7-4, with a conference record of 5-3, and a division record of 2-2

(4) Philadelphia Eagles vs. Seattle Seahawks (5)

  • Eagles Win: Eagles move to 4-6-1, with a conference record of 4-3, and a division record of 2-2
  • Eagles Loss: Eagles fall to 3-7-1, with a conference record of 3-4, and a division record of 2-2
  • Seahawks Win: Seahawks move to 8-3, with a conference record of 6-2, and a division record of 2-2
  • Seahawks Loss: Seahawks fall to 7-4, with a conference record of 5-3, and a division record of 2-2

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs

  • Win: Buccaneers move to 8-4, with a conference record of 4-4, and a division record of 2-2
  • Loss: Buccaneers fall to 7-5, with a conference record of 4-4, and a division record of 2-2

(7) Arizona Cardinals vs. New England Patriots

  • Win: Cardinals move to 7-4, with a conference record of 4-3, and a division record of 2-1
  • Loss: Cardinals fall to 6-5, with a conference record of 4-3, and a division record of 2-1

If Philadelphia loses this weekend, they lose the NFC East playoff slot no matter what. With their win on Thanksgiving, the Washington Football Team moved to 4-7; this would put them in the No. 4 seed over Philadelphia. The Giants are on a bye, so they’ll remain at 3-7 through the week.

If Arizona loses and Chicago beats Green Bay, the Bears move into that 7th slot. Chicago would be at 6-5 as well, but would hold the won-lost-tied percentage tiebreaker of games played within the conference at 6-3.

The Rams and Packers both have divisional matchups, while the Eagles vs. Seahawks matchup is the only other matchup against another NFC team. For all other teams, this means neither their division nor conference records will change in Week 12.

If the Saints Lose...

If the Saints lose, they risk losing the top seed with a multitude of outcomes. Depending on how the Packers game, Rams game, and Seahawks game all shake out, there are several different three-way ties that would come into play.

And the Green Bay Packers Win

If the Saints lose and the Packers win, they would fall a seed below Green Bay due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. This would only apply if both the Seahawks and Rams lose; either winning would land at least three teams at 8-3.

Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks

Should the Saints lose, depending on the outcome of the Rams (2), Packers (3), and Seahawks (5) games, they could land in a number of playoff seeds. This is all contingent on a Packers win.

If both NFC West teams lose, and Green Bay wins, this would lead to a two-way tie between Green Bay and New Orleans for the No. 1 seed. The Saints (8-3) at would then be at the No. 2 seed above the Rams (7-4) at 3, and the Seahawks (7-4) at 5. In this scenario, Arizona winning could further shake up the seeding with the NFC West.

Either NFC West team – Seahawks or Rams – winning would trigger the three-way tiebreaker procedures. If the Rams win, it doesn’t matter whether Seattle wins or loses; they remain at No. 5 due to the Rams holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with their win against the Seahawks. For three-way ties, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head sweep – meaning the teams would have all had to have played one another throughout the season.

The Rams haven’t played the Packers, nor will they play them this season; Green Bay won’t play Seattle down the stretch either. The next tiebreaker step that would be applied is best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the NFC conference. Of note, once a tiebreaker eliminates a team, it reverts back to the two-way tiebreaker of head-to-head matchup.

Rams Win

Since the Saints play an AFC team in Week 12, they retain their 7-1 conference record regardless of the outcome. With a Rams win, this brings their conference record up to 8-1. The Packers, with a win, would move to 6-2 within the conference. In this case, the Saints would fall to No. 3 as follows:

Three-way tiebreaker: Best won-lost-tied percentage in NFC conference games.

  • New Orleans Saints (8-3): 7-1 (0.875)
  • Los Angeles Rams (8-3): 8-1 (0.889)
  • Green Bay Packers (8-3): 6-2 (0.75)

Los Angeles moves up to the No. 1 seed. This then leaves the Packers and Saints; as mentioned, this reverts back to the two-way tiebreaker. As Green Bay holds the head-to-head over New Orleans, the Saints fall to the No. 3 seed.

Seattle Win, Rams Loss

If the Rams lose, they fall to 7-4; just as both teams in the NFC West winning wouldn’t affect the outcome, neither would either losing – the same tiebreaker above applies. In the case that Seattle wins and Los Angeles loses, however, this is the preferable three-way tie scenario for New Orleans. Here, Seattle would move into the NFC West top seed.

Just as above, this would leave three teams at 8-3 – Saints, Packers, and Seattle. As just the Saints and Packers have head-to-head matchups, this would trigger the three-way tie of the best won-lost-tied percentage of games played within the conference.

Here, the Saints would retain the No. 1 seed as follows:

  • New Orleans Saints (8-3): 7-1 (0.875)
  • Green Bay Packers (8-3): 5-3 (0.625)
  • Seattle Seahawks (8-3): 6-2 (0.75)

With the conference won-lost-tied percentage tiebreaker, New Orleans stays in the top seed. This then leaves Green Bay and Seattle, which would again revert back to the two-way tiebreaker. Here, Green Bay hasn’t played Seattle, nor will they down the stretch, so this drops back down to the third tiebreaker step of best won-lost-tied percentage within conference games.

Heading into Week 12, both Green Bay and Seattle have 5-2 conference records. As both teams play NFC teams this weekend, this percentage will be altered. With a Packers loss, this drops them down to 5-3, while a Seattle win would bring them up to 6-2. The Seahawks would then move up to the No. 2 seed, while the Packers would fall to the No. 3 seed.

Neither the Saints nor Packers are at risk of losing their division seed this weekend; the only team that could enter the top 4 seeds is Seattle – dropping the Rams to the Wild Card slot. Ultimately, these are the only relevant teams that affect the Saints playoff seeding. Past that, there are several different ways the rest of the seeding could shake out – which, in turn, would affect New Orleans playoff opponent.

Frankly, there’s an absurd number of ways the overall seeding could change with a couple of upsets this weekend. For reference, there’s an outcome where Los Angeles drops to the 7th seed with Tampa Bay, Seattle, and Cardinals wins. This won’t be the case each week (hopefully). We’ll go over the entire 7 seeds once the playoffs get closer, or the race widens a bit between six teams who could go 8-3 or 7-4 this weekend.

For now, first and foremost, a New Orleans win is paramount. In the event of a Saints loss, ultimately, we need to be rooting for the Seahawks and 49ers this weekend. That, or an upset from the Chicago Bears.

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