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NFC Playoff Picture: Where the Saints stand heading into Week 16

The New Orleans Saints can control their playoff destiny with a win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16.

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

The New Orleans Saints fell to 10-4 in their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort. Week 16 was touted as a potential Super Bowl preview, and while it slightly underwhelmed from an entertainment standpoint, it was one of the most optimistic losses for the Saints in years; even more so than some of the earlier wins this season.

Despite any positive takeaways, this was the second week in a row New Orleans failed to clinch the NFC South division title for a fourth consecutive year. That said, they can lock up that slot this week with a few different outcomes.

The NFC standings through Week 15 are as follows:

(1) Green Bay Packers (11-3)

(2) New Orleans Saints (10-4)

(3) Seattle Seahawks (10-4)

(4) Washington Football Team (6-8)

(5) Los Angeles Rams (9-5)

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5)

(7) Arizona Cardinals (8-6)

Not much changed this week past the re-shuffling of the NFC West. With the Rams bewildering loss to the New York Jets, the Seahawks move into the No. 2 seed with their Week 15 victory over Washington. While both Seattle and the Saints sit at 10-4, New Orleans still holds the edge with their 8-2 conference record; thankfully, Kansas City doesn’t factor into the Saints conference record.

The Rams edge out Tampa Bay for the top Wild Card slot with their head-to-head win in Week 11. Arizona managed to surmount three turnovers to beat the Philadelphia Eagles and retain the No. 7 seed, Tampa Bay kept their division seed hopes alive with a win against the hapless Atlanta Falcons, and Green Bay increased their lead on the No. 1 seed and corresponding bye week by defeating the Carolina Panthers.

A few teams remain in the hunt: Chicago Bears (7-7), Minnesota Vikings (6-8), and yes, still every NFC East team. The Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Falcons, and Panthers were all eliminated in Week 16.

If the playoffs started this week, Green Bay retains the No. 1 seed and first-round bye. The Saints (2) would host the Cardinals (7), Seattle (3) would host the Buccaneers (6), and Washington (4) would host Los Angeles (5).


Saints Clinching Scenarios

In previous weeks, we’ve gone a bit more in-depth with the playoff picture as a whole; both to truly break down the baffling tiebreakers, and to get a big picture look at the Saints path to the playoffs. At this point, all anyone cares about is how New Orleans fares these next two weeks. The Saints, at least, control their destiny over the NFC South title again this week. Here’s how:

New Orleans Saints: NFC South Title

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

It’s pretty simple — we beat the Vikings, we clinch the playoff seeding. Not only is this game a chance to exorcise multiple years of playoff demons (particularly when a Minnesota postseason berth is increasingly unlikely), but it’s also a chance to just pull it together, clinch the division title, and rest our starters. There’s a path to the No. 1 seed, albeit far-fetched, but the smart thing to do is just lock up the title and treat Week 17 as a bye week.

There’s two important things to break down this week: how a Week 16 win or loss impacts seeding, and what needs to take place for the Saints to take back the No. 1 seed and resultant bye week.


Weekend Matchups

(1) Green Bay Packers (11-3) vs. Tennessee Titans (AFC)

  • Conference record: 9-2

(2) New Orleans Saints (10-4) vs. Minnesota Vikings

  • Conference record: 8-2

(3) Seattle Seahawks (10-4) vs. (5) Los Angeles Rams (9-5)

  • Seahawks conference record: 7-3
  • Rams conference record: 8-2

(4) Washington Football Team (6-8) vs. Carolina Panthers

  • Conference record: 4-6

(6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) vs. Detroit Lions

  • Conference record: 6-4

(7) Arizona Cardinals (8-6) vs. San Francisco 49ers

  • Conference record: 6-4

If the Saints Win

A win this weekend solidifies the NFC South title; otherwise, it doesn’t change the seeding for the Saints. Even if Green Bay loses and the Seahawks win, forcing a three-way tie, the Packers currently have the best conference record, and still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans. If the Saints win, they remain in the No. 2 seed no matter what.

If the Saints Lose

If New Orleans loses to the Vikings next week, there’s a lot of problems past playoff seeding. For one, we would be on our third straight loss, and Minnesota is an opponent we should beat. This then puts the seeding in jeopardy, and we have no ability to rest starters in Week 17.

There’s a camp of fans who feel like at this point, it doesn’t matter; the Saints locked a playoff spot, and seeding doesn’t matter as much this season. For one, if anyone thinks that Sean Payton is fine with going from the No. 1 seed to No. 3 or lower in just a few weeks time, the decision to push out Drew against the Chiefs couldn’t make that point clearer.

As much as the Jets victory over the Rams was initially hilarious, it opened up a black hole of seeding changes. Now, a loss this week has the potential for some dire seeding consequences. As insane as it sounds, the Saints can retain the No. 2 seed with a win, and can fall to the No. 7 seed in the end with a loss.

We discussed this in brief on the Bleav in Saints podcast, co-hosted by myself, former Saints DB Delvin Breaux, and fellow Canal Street editor, Kade Kistner; you can hear our breakdown here, including some of the positive takeaways, as aforementioned, from the Chiefs loss:

No. 7 seed

In essence, should we lose both remaining games, and Tampa Bay wins out, we end at 10-6, while they finish at 11-5, giving the Buccaneers the NFC South seed. Los Angeles had the edge on Seattle; with their unexpected Week 16 loss, the Rams become a troublesome three-way tie opponent. Specifically, in a three-way tie with Los Angeles and Arizona.

Here’s how it happens. The Rams beat Seattle in Week 16, and Arizona beats the 49ers — both of which are highly plausible. In Week 17, Los Angeles plays the Cardinals. Should Arizona win that final game, and New Orleans loses out while Tampa Bay wins out, we end up in the No. 7 seed.

Arizona eliminates the Rams with the division tiebreaker, and win the tiebreaker with New Orleans based on strength of victory. The Rams, who would have a conference record of 9-3, would edge out the Saints at 8-4 for the No. 6 seed.

Does the seeding past the first-round bye, with homefield advantage a moot point this year, matter that much? Not exactly. But should the Saints end at No. 7 in the above scenario, they then face a Tampa Bay team at home who lost to New Orleans twice, and are likely very unhappy about that. Even if the Saints make it out of that matchup, they then would immediately head to Lambeau Field, in January, in the second playoff round.

In this scenario, we would also be fairly demoralized with four consecutive losses, and would have to play our starters through Week 17 needlessly. Should New Orleans remain at No. 2, they would host the 7th seed, and wouldn’t face the Packers until the championship round — with a hopeful Week 17 “bye”. We don’t know when Michael Thomas is going to be fully healthy; as many weeks as we can give him, the better.


Path to the No. 1 Seed

After the Week 14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans lost control of their destiny and the No. 1 seed. Thankfully, as broken down in last week’s playoff picture, the Chiefs loss doesn’t matter that much in terms of seeding; it didn’t affect our conference record, and doesn’t change the need for a Green Bay loss.

It’s quite simple: New Orleans needs to win out for the No. 1 seed. It’s not a given, but it’s a possibility — one we’ll know by the end of Week 16 either way. With the Rams loss, there’s now only a feasible 12-4 three-way tie with Seattle. Technically, three teams could end at 11-5, but it’s more likely that any three-way ties don’t involve Green Bay implosions.

For the Saints to take back the No. 1 seed, the Packers have to specifically lose in Week 17 to the Bears; this factors into their conference record, which would give New Orleans the edge. If Green Bay loses to Chicago, and both the Saints and Seahawks win out, New Orleans ends in the No. 1 seed.

This would put the Saints at a 10-2 conference record, which is the highest record between the three teams. However, all of this is contingent on Seattle beating Los Angeles this week. If the Rams emerge victorious, then Week 17 frankly doesn’t matter for New Orleans — unless Green Bay loses to the Titans.

Should the Packers lose to the Titans this week, the Saints can retake the top seed with a consecutive Green Bay loss in Week 17 — if they win out. As discussed, banking on Green Bay to suddenly lose two back-to-back games isn’t a great strategy; it only matters if Los Angeles wins this week.

The primary goal is to beat the Vikings, for a myriad of reasons. Past that, the Seahawks-Rams game determines the path of the Saints playoff fate. If Seattle wins, we may see our starters play through Week 17 for that potential bye. If Los Angeles wins, then the outcome of the Packers-Bears game is irrelevant, unless Green Bay loses this week. We either end in the second seed, or depending on the NFC West champion in the end, could fall to No. 3 with a Week 17 loss.

At that point, the drop is negligible; losing out entirely, and ending up in the No. 7 seed, is both avoidable and necessary for morale alone. New Orleans either has fate decided for them by the NFC West this weekend, or we may be on the edge of our seats watching multiple games in Week 17. A familiar feeling either way.


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