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NFC Playoff Picture: Where the Saints stand heading into Week 15

The New Orleans Saints fell victim to a trap game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and relinquished the NFC No. 1 seed in turn.

NFL: DEC 13 Saints at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints fell to 10-3 after a bewildering loss to the now 4-8-1 Jalen Hurts-led Philadelphia Eagles. Rather than lock up the NFC South division title for a fourth consecutive year, the Saints decided a Week 14 win was optional. New Orleans would have clinched the division slot with either a win on Sunday, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss to the Minnesota Vikings, or a respective tie for the Saints and Buccaneers.

As none of these things transpired, the Saints relinquished the NFC top seed to the Green Bay Packers. Another year, another late season loss to an inferior opponent in what should have been an easy win.

The NFC standings through Week 14 are as follows:

(1) Green Bay Packers (10-3)

(2) New Orleans Saints (10-3)

(3) Los Angeles Rams (9-4)

(4) Washington Football Team (6-7)

(5) Seattle Seahawks (9-4)

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)

(7) Arizona Cardinals (7-6)

In the NFC West, while the Rams and Seahawks both won their respective games against the New England Patriots and New York Jets, Los Angeles retains the seed by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Washington beat the San Francisco 49ers; they reassumed the NFC East seed with the New York Giants loss to the Cardinals.

Past that, several teams remain in the hunt: Minnesota Vikings (6-7), Chicago Bears (6-7), Detroit Lions (5-8), San Francisco 49ers (5-8), still every NFC East team, and the Carolina Panthers (4-9). Saints fans can find small solace in the fact that the Atlanta Falcons were finally mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

If the playoffs started this week, New Orleans no longer has that first-round bye. Instead, the Saints (2) would host the Cardinals (7), Los Angeles (3) would host the Buccaneers (6), and Washington (4) would host Seattle (5).

Clinching Scenarios

The Saints were previously the only team to clinch a playoff berth; the Packers surpassed this feat in Week 14 and clinched the NFC North division title. By the end of Week 15, we’ll not only have several teams who can secure playoff berths, but we’ll also be able to eliminate most of the bottom-dwelling teams from contention.

New Orleans Saints: NFC South Title

  • NO win OR
  • NO tie + TB tie OR
  • TB loss

Just as perturbing as the Packers loss is to our playoff hopes and dreams, the division sweep over the Buccaneers is the Saints saving grace. If New Orleans wins this weekend, they at worst end the season at 11-5. As Tampa Bay already has five losses, the Saints win the head-to-head tiebreaker. This would also be the case if the Buccaneers lose, which would drop them to 8-6, or an extremely weird reality where both games end in a tie.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Playoff Berth

  • TB win + MIN/CHI tie

This one is just simple mathematics. If Tampa Bay wins this weekend, they rise to 9-5. Both Minnesota and Chicago are at 6-7; a tie would ensure that neither team can surpass 8 wins. It further helps Tampa in the event that the Vikings sneak in, as they now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Los Angeles Rams: Playoff Berth

  • LAR win/tie OR
  • MIN/CHI tie

Same as above, Los Angeles clinches by virtue of season record. With a win, worst-case scenario, the Rams end 10-6. Neither Minnesota nor Chicago can surpass that with 7 respective losses. Same with a tie.

Seattle Seahawks: Playoff Berth

  • SEA win/tie OR
  • MIN/CHI tie

Seattle’s clinching scenario is the same as the Rams at 9-4. They have head-to-head implications for their division seed, but neither team will miss the playoffs with a win/tie in Week 15, or a tie between Minnesota and Chicago. The Seahawks also have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings, should they need it down the stretch.

Eliminated from Playoff Contention

The NFC East race isn’t necessarily exciting, but it’s not entirely over yet. That said, there are several scenarios where Dallas and Philadelphia are eliminated from NFC East title and playoff contention this week. A Dallas loss eliminates them outright, while Philadelphia is knocked out with a loss and a Washington win.

Detroit is at risk from elimination if they lose; a Minnesota or Chicago win knocks them out in this scenario, so the only way the Lions skate by with a loss this week is if that game ends in a tie.

The Panthers are eliminated with a loss/tie or a Cardinals win/tie, and the 49ers are eliminated with a loss and a win/tie by Arizona. Technically, they get knocked out as well with a tie and an Arizona win. Now, back to the Saints.

No. 1 Seed

The Saints had one job in Week 14, and they blew it. New Orleans was in control of their playoff destiny for several weeks running; they finally relinquished the No. 1 spot to the Packers. There’s no way around it - the Saints need to win out should they hope to regain the top seed and resultant first-round bye.

The Saints need to either win out while Green Bay loses one remaining game, win out and hope for a three-way tiebreaker, or just start preparing for the Wild Card round. Here’s how Week 15 could shake up the NFC playoff seeding:

Weekend Matchups

(1) Green Bay Packers (10-3) vs. Carolina Panthers

  • Win: Packers move to 11-3, with a conference record of 9-2, and a division record of 4-1
  • Loss: Packers fall to 10-4, with a conference record of 8-3, and a division record of 4-1

(2) New Orleans Saints (10-3) vs. Kansas City Chiefs

  • Win: Saints move to 11-3, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 5-0
  • Loss: Saints fall to 10-4, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 5-0

(3) Los Angeles Rams (9-4) vs. New York Jets

  • Win: Rams move to 10-4, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 2-2
  • Loss: Rams fall to 9-5, with a conference record of 8-2, and a division record of 2-2

(4) Washington Football Team (6-7) vs. (5) Seattle Seahawks (9-4)

  • Washington Win: Washington moves to 7-7, with a conference record of 5-5, and a division record of 3-2
  • Washington Loss: Washington falls to 6-8, with a conference record of 4-6, and a division record of 3-2
  • Seahawks Win: Seahawks move to 10-4, with a conference record of 7-3, and a division record of 2-2
  • Seahawks Loss: Seahawks fall to 9-5, with a conference record of 6-4, and a division record of 2-2

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) vs. Atlanta Falcons

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

(7) Arizona Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Eagles

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

While all NFC East teams, astoundingly, are still in title contention, only the Giants and Washington are fighting for that seed through Week 15. If Washington loses, and New York beats the surging Cleveland Browns, the Giants move back into the No. 4 seed.

Seattle only assumes the NFC West seed with a win and a Rams loss. For the remaining Wild Card slots, there’s a lot that can transpire this week. If Tampa Bay loses and the Cardinals win, Arizona takes the No. 6 seed with a better conference record.

However, if Arizona loses, they only keep the No. 7 seed if Minnesota and Chicago tie. If the Bears win and advance to 7-7, their conference record would also rise to 6-5, giving them the edge. Should the Vikings win, they hold the common games tiebreaker. Those are as follows: Cowboys, Lions, Panthers, Seahawks. The Vikings hold a 2-2 record (0.500) with those opponents, while Arizona is at 2-3 (0.400).

This week, there’s just one divisional matchup between the Buccaneers and Falcons, while Green Bay, Washington, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Arizona all play NFC opponents. The Saints and Rams conference records won’t change through Week 15.

If the Saints Win

Should the Saints win this weekend, nothing changes unless Green Bay loses. In the event this occurs, New Orleans takes back the No. 1 seed. Nothing is ever that simple; we all know this by now.

Here, the seeding only shakes up with a Rams win. If Seattle wins and Green Bay loses, they both are at 10-4, with the Packers winning the relevant tiebreaker of conference record. Should the Rams win, their conference record beats Green Bay, and the Packers fall to the No. 3 seed.

If the Saints Lose...

With the Saints Week 14 loss, they not only fell out of the top seed, but that comfortable two-game lead over both NFC West teams is now diminished to just one. That said, the Saints can’t fall out of the No. 2 seed with a loss this weekend.

Normally, New Orleans would really only need to fight for the No. 2 seed; there’s no true homefield advantage this year, save for trying to avoid Lambeau Field in January. Unfortunately, this year is the first where that seed no longer gets a first-round bye. Thankfully, there’s a world where they re-gain the No. 1 seed with a Week 15 loss. It’s just a far-fetched one.

Scenario 1: Green Bay Win

If the Saints lose, and the Packers win, they just fall deeper into a hole. There’s no way to sugarcoat the likely second seed projection at best. New Orleans would either need Green Bay to lose both of their remaining games, or just one with an optimal three-way tie - assuming the Saints win out thereafter. Either way, they retain the No. 2 seed through Week 15.

Rams Win

As the head-to-head doesn’t apply for the Saints and the Rams, they move onto the conference record tiebreaker at 10-4. The Chiefs are an AFC team, as are the Jets; both New Orleans and Los Angeles retain 8-2 conference records.

This then triggers common games tiebreaker. Those opponents are as follows: 49ers, Bears, Buccaneers, Eagles. The Saints hold a 4-1 record (0.800) with those opponents, while Los Angeles is at 3-2 (0.600).

Neither team has any remaining common games. Of note, the Packers hold the same common opponents; this tiebreaker is quite realistic with all three teams holding similar conference records. Green Bay currently has a 4-1 record with one game remaining against the Bears.

Rams Loss, Seahawks Win

Here, the Saints retain the No. 2 seed with the conference record tiebreaker. As a loss to an AFC team won’t change their 8-2 record, the Seahawks are still a game behind them with a Week 15 win, which would put them at 7-3.

Scenario 2: Green Bay Loss

If Green Bay somehow manages to throw the Saints a bone, the seeding would depend on the outcome of the Seahawks and Rams games. Thankfully, either team winning in this case bodes well for New Orleans. Save for an insane reality where both Seattle and Los Angeles tie, New Orleans actually retakes the No. 1 seed either way.

Rams Win

If the Saints and Packers both lose, and the Rams win, all three teams are at 10-4. New Orleans and the Rams will retain 8-2 conference records throughout Week 15, while a Green Bay loss would drop their record to 8-3. The Packers fall to the No. 3 seed.

The Rams and Saints then head to the same common games tiebreaker outlined above. New Orleans wins, and assumes the No. 1 seed.

Rams Loss, Seahawks Win

If the Saints, Packers, and Rams lose, and Seattle wins, all three teams are 10-4. A Green Bay loss drops their conference record to 8-3, while the Seahawks would only have a 7-3 conference record. At 8-2, New Orleans takes the No. 1 seed.

Green Bay wins the tiebreaker over Seattle, so the Packers would be the No. 2 seed.

Path to the No. 1 Seed

New Orleans made the NFC playoff picture needlessly competitive with an idiotic Week 14 loss. The Saints are back to banking on the outcome of their opponents through the season. Not ideal.

The 10-3 Saints now sit tied with the Packers (10-3), with the Rams (9-4) and Seahawks (9-4) not far behind. We know that New Orleans can’t afford a tie with Green Bay. Winning out, coupled by a Packers loss - a possibility with the Panthers, Bears, or Titans - would be the easiest path back to the No. 1 seed.

With the status of Drew Brees still very much in the air, and the assumption that the Saints won’t risk re-injury over the top seed, which they absolutely shouldn’t, I can’t confidently say this outcome occurs. Annoyingly, Green Bay never loses the late-season games we sit glued to the screen in Week 17 banking on - looking at you, 2019 Detroit Lions. The consensus has been Tennessee as the most likely upset, but keep your eyes on Chicago and how they fare against Minnesota. A divisional opponent just can never be counted out.

If New Orleans and Green Bay both win out, neither NFC West team can catch up to them. If the Packers lose one of their three remaining matchups, this gives the Saints some breathing room for a loss. More than one likely evaporates any hopes of regaining the No. 1 seed.

If both the Saints and Packers lose one of the three remaining games, our destiny lies in the hands of Los Angeles and Seattle. Either would need to win out to force a three-way tie. As discussed, these tiebreakers will come down to either conference record or common games.

We’ll break down these remaining matchups, and their respective importance, after Week 15 plays out. Until then, you might as well relax, as fate is no longer in our hands. Here’s to four split-screen games on our televisions in Week 17.

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