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NFC Playoff Picture: Where the Saints stand heading into Week 14

The New Orleans Saints are the first team to clinch a postseason berth, but locked into the top seed they are not.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With their ninth straight victory, the New Orleans Saints became the first NFL team to clinch a postseason berth. New Orleans mercifully skipped the week of upsets in both the NFC and AFC; the Steelers relinquished their undefeated record to Comeback Player of the Year shoo-in Alex Smith, while the New York Giants managed to defeat the Seattle Seahawks without their starting quarterback.

The NFC standings through Week 13 are as follows:

(1) New Orleans Saints (10-2)

(2) Green Bay Packers (9-3)

(3) Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

(4) New York Giants (5-7)

(5) Seattle Seahawks (8-4)

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

(7) Minnesota Vikings (6-6)

The Packers assumed the No. 2 seed, while the Seahawks saw a steep fall to the 5th seed with Los Angeles holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. New York still edges out the Giants with their head-to-head tiebreaker, Tampa Bay remains at No. 6 through their bye, and Saints fans worst nightmare happened with the No. 7 seed.

With Arizona’s divisional loss to the Rams, they relinquished the last Wild Card slot to the Vikings; both teams are 6-6, but Minnesota holds the relevant tiebreaker of common opponents. Those common opponents are: Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, and Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings hold a 2-4 record (0.333) with those opponents, while Arizona is at 2-5 (0.286).

Past that, several teams remain in the hunt: Arizona Cardinals (6-6), Chicago Bears (5-7), Detroit Lions (5-7), San Francisco 49ers (5-7), still every NFC East team, technically, and Atlanta and Carolina are still not mathematically eliminated.

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

NFC South Seed

With the Saints holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay, they’ve remained decisively in control of the NFC South seed. New Orleans is on the cusp of clinching that seed for the fourth consecutive year; a win against the Eagles this weekend, or a Buccaneers loss against Minnesota will do just that. Technically, things could get incredibly weird, and a tie for both teams works as well.

No. 1 Seed

This is really what everyone is more concerned with. New Orleans all things considered, has sat comfortably in the NFC South seed all season. At this stage, the No. 1 seed is the Saints to lose. While those early season losses may have necessarily kicked the team into high gear, it would be optimal if they’d consider doing that next time against solely AFC opponents. Ultimately, New Orleans still needs to avoid that head-to-head tiebreaker with Green Bay for the top seed.

The last two weeks of playoff picture scenarios have been riddled with maddening three-way tie scenarios, but with the Seattle upset in Week 13, those tiebreakers mercifully won’t apply this week. Here’s how Week 14 could shake up the NFC playoff seeding:

Weekend Matchups

(1) New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles

  • Win: Saints move to 11-2, with a conference record of 9-1, and a division record of 5-0
  • Loss: Saints fall to 10-3, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 5-0

(2) Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

  • Win: Packers move to 10-3, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 4-1
  • Loss: Packers fall to 9-4, with a conference record of 7-3, and a division record of 3-2

(3) Los Angeles Rams vs. New England Patriots

  • Win: Rams move to 9-4, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 2-2
  • Loss: Rams fall to 8-5, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 2-2

(4) New York Giants vs. Arizona Cardinals

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

(5) Seattle Seahawks vs. New York Jets

  • Win: Seahawks move to 9-4, with a conference record of 6-3, and a division record of 2-2
  • Loss: Seahawks fall to 8-5, with a conference record of 6-3, and a division record of 2-2

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Minnesota Vikings (7)

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

In the ever-exciting NFC East playoff race, only the Washington Football Team and the Giants are in contention for the No. 4 seed this week. The No. 7 seed is where it gets a bit more interesting. With Tampa and Minnesota, facing off this weekend, a Cardinals win knocks one of these teams out of the seeding no matter the outcome.

In this scenario, if Minnesota wins, they move to the No. 6 seed while Arizona assumes the No. 7 seed; the Vikings would still hold the common games tiebreaker over Arizona. This outcome would put both Tampa Bay and the Cardinals at 7-6, but Arizona would hold the relevant tiebreaker of best won-lost-tied percentage in conference games; as the Cardinals play the Giants, they would move to a 5-4 conference record, while the Buccaneers would fall to 4-5.

Should Tampa Bay win in this scenario, they would retain the No. 6 seed while the 7-6 Cardinals would edge out Minnesota, who would fall to 6-7. While the Wild Card slots will have shake-up potential, the only divisional seed team in danger this weekend is Los Angeles. If the Rams lose to the Patriots, and Seattle beats the Jets (they will), the Seahawks move into that slot; Los Angeles would fall to the No. 5 seed, where they edge out Tampa Bay with the head-to-head tiebreaker.

This week, there’s just one divisional matchup between the Packers and the Lions, while New Orleans, New York, and Tampa Bay all play NFC opponents. Los Angeles and Seattle’s conference records won’t change through Week 14.

If the Saints Lose...

As will continue to be the case until Green Bay loses another game, a Saints loss risks a loss of the top seed. The last two weeks have been incredibly convoluted with several three-way tie possibilities; this week, much less of a headache. The Seahawks and Rams are now two games behind New Orleans.

While there was potential for the Saints to fall to the No. 3 seed the last two weeks in certain outcomes, they only risk losing the top seed with a loss this week.

Scenario 1: Green Bay Win

This is the only harmful outcome for New Orleans in Week 14. The tiebreaker is simple: that pesky Week 3 loss. New Orleans would then fall to the No. 2 seed.

Scenario 2: Green Bay Loss

If Green Bay loses (which would make a Saints loss that much more irritating), the Saints would remain the No. 1 seed. The Packers seeding would depend, then, on the outcomes of the Seattle and Rams matchups.

Rams Win

If the Saints and Packers both lose, and Los Angeles wins, they retain the NFC West seed and overtake Green Bay at No. 2 with the conference record tiebreaker. As the Rams play an AFC team this week, their conference record will remain at 8-2, while a Packers loss drops them to 7-3.

Rams Loss, Seahawks Win

If the Saints, Packers, and Rams lose, and Seattle wins, this outcome really benefits Green Bay more than anyone else. Here, the Packers would retain the No. 2 seed with the conference record tiebreaker over Seattle. Seattle is only at 6-3 in the NFC, and with an AFC opponent this weekend, they can’t improve that record either way.

In comparison to past weeks, the Week 14 playoff picture is refreshingly simple. The Saints need to keep winning, and a Green Bay loss would allow for some breathing room. With only three games left after Week 14, there’s not much room for error. Moreover, the Saints, more than any other top NFC seed, have upcoming games with strong tiebreaker implications.

The 10-2 Saints don’t sit too far ahead of the Packers (9-3), Rams (8-4), and Seahawks (8-4). There’s a possibility, as was the case last season, that we end the season in a three-way tie for the top seed. As we all know, that tiebreaker did not favor the Saints, who, despite a 13-3 record, fell to the No. 3 seed behind Green Bay and San Francisco.

It would be nice to not have a repeat this season. Unlike last year, there’s no potential for a three-way head-to-head tiebreaker; San Francisco’s head-to-head sweep over the Saints and Packers gave them the No. 1 seed, while we fell to 3rd, and we all know what happened in the Wild Card round. This can’t happen this season, so the important tiebreakers are conference record and common games.

Accordingly, Saints fans need to pay attention to the remaining NFC games and common games left on the schedule.

10-2 New Orleans Saints (8-1)

  • Remaining opponents: Eagles, Chiefs, Vikings, Panthers (3 NFC)

9-3 Green Bay Packers (7-2)

  • Remaining opponents: Lions, Panthers, Titans, Bears (3 NFC)

8-4 Los Angeles Rams (8-2)

  • Remaining opponents: Patriots, Jets, Seahawks, Cardinals (2 NFC)

8-4 Seattle Seahawks (6-3)

  • Remaining opponents: Jets, Washington, Rams, 49ers (3 NFC)

Scenario 1: New Orleans, Green Bay, Los Angeles three-way tie

The Saints need to win this weekend for both tiebreakers. A loss to Philadelphia factors into the conference record tiebreaker, and common games in a three-way tie with either Los Angeles or Seattle. This would only occur if all three teams hold the same conference record, but it’s not entirely out of the question with only a few games of separation and several NFC opponents left for all four teams.

Scenario 1: New Orleans, Green Bay, Los Angeles three-way tie

At 8-1, the Saints hold the best conference record over Los Angeles at 8-2, and Green Bay at 7-2.

The common opponents are as follows: 49ers, Bears, Buccaneers, and Eagles. The Saints are at 4-0 with the Eagles game remaining, with Green Bay at 3-1, and the Rams at 3-2.

The Packers and Saints both have one game remaining in this tiebreaker. New Orleans really needs to avoid any trap game shenanigans this weekend, otherwise we’ll be on the edge of our seats in Week 17 for a consecutive season. A loss to the Eagles, coupled with a Green Bay victory over Chicago, puts both the Saints and Green Bay at 4-1, eliminating Los Angeles. Guess what comes back to bite us? The Week 3 loss. We would drop either to No. 2, or No. 3 if the Rams end up with a higher conference record.

Scenario 2: New Orleans, Green Bay, Seattle three-way tie

At 8-1, the Saints hold the best conference record over Green Bay at 7-2, and Seattle at 6-3.

The common opponents are as follows: 49ers, Eagles, Falcons, Vikings. The Saints are at 3-0, with Green Bay at 4-1, and Seattle at 4-0.

A three-way conference record tie is less likely with Seattle at 6-3, but I’m never comfortable with Minnesota and Carolina as our final games. I ran through possible outcomes through Week 17, and a common games tiebreaker, while unlikely, is possible. If New Orleans loses to 1) Eagles and Vikings, or 2) Panthers, and either Eagles/Vikings, both of these could trigger the common games tiebreaker.

In both scenarios, Seattle wins the common games tiebreaker, and we’re back to the No. 3 seed. Now, this is all hypothetical at this stage, but it hopefully illustrates which games remaining are paramount as we inch closer to the postseason, and why.

This is the best team we’ve had since the Super Bowl roster in my opinion, but flukes will always happen. The Falcons beat the Saints and the 49ers in 2019. And unfortunately, we’ve seen a big seeding change a few times in recent years with late season losses. In 2017, we lost the final game to Tampa Bay; we only clinched the NFC South seed at No. 4 because the Falcons upset the Panthers, and we could have had the No. 2 seed over the Rams had we closed out with that win. In 2019, while San Francisco was a much more formidable opponent, that last-minute loss resulted in a No. 3 seed and a first-round exit when we could have had the No. 1 seed.

Obviously, the Saints continuing to simply win out would be the optimal scenario. In the event that they fall at least once, at least we have a better sense of what games are most important and why, so we can accordingly panic about the other four teams in question. Only slightly joking.

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