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NFC Playoff Picture: Where the Saints stand heading into Week 13

The three-way tiebreakers continue to get messier. As always, a Saints win is more than optimal.

NFL: NOV 28 Saints at Falcons Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints, with a little help from San Francisco and Kansas City, grew their lead in the NFC playoff race with their Week 12 win against the Denver Broncos. Not only that, but New Orleans potentially locks up a playoff berth with a win this weekend in Atlanta:

At this point last week, a Saints loss risked a fall from the No. 1 seed with a few different tiebreaker scenarios. Thankfully, this was all for pure exercise sake, as the Saints managed to sneak out a win against a team sans quarterback. With some upsets and divisional matchups in Week 12, the NFC playoff picture changed a bit.

The NFC standings through Week 12 are as follows:

(1) New Orleans Saints (9-2)

(2) Seattle Seahawks (8-3)

(3) Green Bay Packers (8-3)

(4) New York Giants (4-7)

(5) Los Angeles Rams (7-4)

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

(7) Arizona Cardinals (6-5)

The Seahawks overtook the Rams for the No. 2 seed, while the Giants ousted the Eagles for the ever-elusive NFC East seed. The Giants hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Washington with their two-game sweep this year. The Packers fall to No. 3 behind Seattle due to the relevant tiebreaker of strength of victory.

As Green Bay and Seattle don’t go head-to-head, hold the same conference record at 6-2, and haven’t played four common games yet this season (though they will in Week 13), the strength of victory tiebreaker comes into play. This tiebreaker pertains to the won-lost-tied percentage of all opponents whom a team has beat. Through Week 12, the Seahawks have beaten opponents with a collective 38-49-1 record (0.431), while Green Bay’s opponents hold a 37-51 record (0.42).

Several teams are still in the hunt: Minnesota Vikings (5-6), Chicago Bears (5-6), San Francisco 49ers (5-6), and legitimately every NFC East team. Technically, the Falcons, Lions, and Panthers aren’t mathematically eliminated, but it would take a miracle for any of these teams to sneak in.

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


First-Round Bye(?)

With that said, Week 12 threw a potential huge wrench in New Orleans playoff aspirations – relevant to the first-round bye. On Nov. 10, NFL owners unanimously approved a playoff contingency plan that would expand the playoffs from 14 to 16 teams. This would only occur in the event of the cancellation of “meaningful games” as a result of Covid-19. Meaningful games essentially pertain to games that would affect either eligibility or seeding for the postseason.

There’s been some misconceptions over the addition of a Week 18; this wouldn’t lead to an eighth playoff seed. The resolution, as reported by Tom Pelissero, is broken down as follows:

Presumably, this would push back the playoffs by a week, as Week 17 ends on Jan. 3, with the playoffs scheduled to start Jan. 9. All teams in the playoffs would then technically have a “bye week” in terms of rest; the No. 1 seeds would have two weeks off. Which, may or may not be a good thing.

An eighth seed would only come into effect if the NFL is unable to play out any games that have an effect on playoff eligibility or seeding. For example, the Steelers-Ravens matchup will likely have AFC playoff implications. If, for some reason, the league was unable to reschedule this game (which, until the mid-afternoon Wednesday kickoff, is still up in the air) through Week 18, this would trigger the eighth seed. Unfortunately, this would lead to an overall expansion to 16 teams.

It would be pretty on brand for the Saints to finally have a comfortable lead on the No. 1 seed, and for that to all be for naught. The Saints retain control over the NFC playoff picture at 9-2, and have all but secured the NFC South slot; last week’s breakdown on the division seed can be found here:

New Orleans, however, does not hold as comfortable of a lead on the No. 1 seed.


No. 1 Seed

Ultimately, the Saints need to avoid a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Packers for the No. 1 seed. In the current playoff projection, New Orleans only holds that relevant tiebreaker with Green Bay; the Saints won’t face the Rams, Seahawks, or Cardinals this season. Of note, neither do the Packers.

In Week 12, in the event of a Saints loss, a three-way tiebreaker with Seattle over Los Angeles was the optimal outcome. A three-way tie involving Los Angeles would have dropped New Orleans to the No. 3 seed, while a three-way tie with Seattle kept the Saints in the top slot.

Unfortunately, that same train of thought does not ring true through Week 13; it’s the exact opposite. This makes the upcoming Atlanta matchup crucial. As was the case last week, there are several scenarios that could end in a three-way tie, with some more unfavorable to New Orleans than others. Here’s how Week 13 could shake up the NFC playoff seeding.


Weekend Matchups

(1) New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons

  • Win: Saints move to 10-2, with a conference record of 8-1, and a division record of 5-0
  • Loss: Saints fall to 9-3, with a conference record of 7-2, and a division record of 4-1

(2) Seattle Seahawks vs. New York Giants (4)

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

(3) Green Bay Packers vs. Philadelphia Eagles

  • Win: Packers move to 9-3, with a conference record of 7-2, and a division record of 3-1
  • Loss: Packers fall to 8-4, with a conference record of 6-3, and a division record of 3-1

(5) Los Angeles Rams vs. Arizona Cardinals (7)

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

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – BYE

  • Buccaneers remain at 7-5, with a conference record of 4-4, and a division record of 2-2

If the Giants lose this weekend, they lose the NFC East playoff slot with either a Washington or Eagles win. If both Philadelphia and Washington win, Washington moves into the No. 4 seed. In the event of a Cardinals loss, a Vikings or Bears win moves either team into that 7th slot.

Should both teams win in this scenario, Minnesota would hold the No. 7 seed. All three teams would be at 6-6. In three-way ties involving two teams in one division, the division tiebreaker is first applied. Minnesota beat Chicago earlier this season; this then triggers a two-way tie between Arizona and the Vikings. They don’t have a head-to-head tiebreaker, and the conference records would be tied as well. The Cardinals would fall to 4-4 in the NFC, which is the same as the Vikings – who play an AFC team this weekend.

The next step is common games (minimum of four). Those common opponents are: Cowboys, Lions, Panthers, and Seahawks. The Vikings hold a 2-4 record (0.333), while the Cardinals have a 2-5 record (0.286) with those opponents.

Last week, there weren’t as many NFC matchups. This week, the Saints and Rams both have divisional matchups, while both Green Bay and Seattle play NFC opponents. As Tampa Bay has a bye week, they’ll be the only team whose conference record won’t change in Week 13.


If the Saints Lose...

Just as last week, a Saints loss risks a loss of the top seed. Fortunately, there’s only one potential three-way tiebreaker scenario this weekend; the Rams are now two games behind New Orleans. Unfortunately, the only applicable three-way tiebreaker does not necessarily favor the Saints.

Scenario 1: Green Bay Packers Win, Seattle Seahawks Loss

If the Saints lose and the Packers win, the Packers take the No. 1 seed with the head-to-head tiebreaker. This would only apply if the Seahawks lose.

Saints: No. 2. seed

Scenario 2: Green Bay Packers Loss, Seattle Seahawks Win

If both the Saints and Packers lose, and the Seahawks win, Green Bay falls to No. 3. New Orleans and Seattle, both at 9-3, would go to the tiebreakers. The head-to-head doesn’t apply, and this scenario would leave both teams with 7-2 conference records. The next tiebreaker is common games – this will come into play, but not through Week 13.

Eventually, Seattle, New Orleans, and Green Bay will all hold the following common opponents: 49ers, Eagles, Falcons, Vikings. This tiebreaker requires a minimum of four games; the Saints only have two applicable games through Week 12. The next tiebreaker, then, is strength of victory.

This is where it gets messy. There are multiple games that factor into the strength of victory tiebreaker for Seattle and New Orleans. For New Orleans, the relevant matchups are: Patriots vs. Chargers, Chiefs vs. Broncos. The 49ers become irrelevant, as Seattle has also beat them, the Lions and Bears play each other, therefore cancelling out, and the Buccaneers and Panthers both have byes.

For Seattle, the relevant matchups are: Cardinals vs. Rams, Bengals vs. Dolphins, Patriots vs. Chargers, Cowboys vs. Ravens, Packers vs. Eagles. ESPN has a playoff simulator you can toy around with; you’ll see that, depending on the outcome of several of these games, the seeding is completely up in the air. There’s some scenarios where New Orleans ends up in the No. 1 seed, and others that put Seattle in the top slot.

This is the least optimal predictive tiebreaker when it hinges on the outcome of nearly every game in Week 13. If the Saints lose, start tallying those totals.

Saints: No. 1 or 2 seed

Scenario 3: Green Bay Packers Win, Seattle Seahawks Win

A Saints loss, coupled with Packers and Seahawks wins, would put all three teams at 9-3. While this was the preferred scenario last week, the same does not apply in Week 13. In Week 12, this scenario would have triggered a three-way tiebreaker of conference record; New Orleans at 7-1 would have edged out both Green Bay and Seattle.

This week, however, all three teams would have the same 7-2 conference record. As is the case in the above, this scenario would invoke the three-way tiebreaker of strength of victory. Eventually, common games will take precedence. Unfortunately, adding a third team to that strength of victory tiebreaker leads to even more potential outcomes.

New Orleans could either retain the No. 1 seed, or, unfortunately, fall back down to the No. 3 seed. Should the Saints win the tiebreaker, Seattle would hold the No. 2 seed with the common games tiebreaker over Green Bay. The Packers will have played the Eagles, invoking that tiebreaker, and would hold a 4-1 common games record, while Seattle is at 4-0. If the Saints lose that tiebreaker, it likely goes to Seattle, as most of the Packers opponents cancel each other out this week.

This would then revert back to that pesky head-to-head tiebreaker with the Packers.

Saints: No. 1 or 3 seed


That Week 3 Packers loss just becomes more and more irritating. Eventually, the common games tiebreaker will come into play between the Saints, Packers, and either the Rams or Seahawks. In a three-way tie with Seattle, those teams are the 49ers, Eagles, Falcons, and Vikings. In a three-way tie with Los Angeles, those teams are the 49ers, Bears, Buccaneers, and Eagles. Much easier to follow than strength of victory; unfortunately, those tiebreakers won’t be applicable until the Saints play the Vikings and Eagles. Accordingly, those wins are pretty crucial.

The top three seeds, regardless, remain New Orleans, Green Bay, and Seattle; no outcome will change that this weekend. As a personal plea for this series, a Saints win this weekend is highly optimal. The farther we can separate from Green Bay, the better.


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