While the AFC is Nearly Set, the NFC’s Playoff Field is a Mess
The Sixteenth Week of the 2010 NFL season decisively settled just one major part of the playoff picture. The San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs entered play with similar likelihoods of making the playoffs and winning the AFC West division, with the Oakland Raiders still alive as a playoff longshot.
The Raiders needed, among other things, a highly improbable Chargers loss in one of the last two games of the season. With the hapless Denver Broncos coming up next week, the Chargers faced a mildly difficult task with an offensively competent Bengals team, but if they had gotten by, 10-6 could be taken for granted. The Raiders were eliminated by the kickoff of the late game by the Chiefs win over the Tennessee Titans, but because of the Bengals signature victory, the Raiders would have been able to position themselves as the second place team in the AFC West with a win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts’ ground game success exemplified just how important a piece of the Raiders resurgence DT Richard Seymour — an impending free agent — really is, and behind that success on the ground, the Colts victory would have made the Raiders an afterthought anyway.
The Chargers’ loss ended up being a belated Christmas gift for the Chiefs. While the Chiefs had been in the win-out mindset since a 31-0 loss to the Chargers in Week 14, they clinched the division with the San Diego loss. The opportunistic Chiefs did not prove themselves conclusively better than either the Raiders or the Chargers this year, but they had less week-to-week performance variance than the rest of the division, which matters most in a year where they played four games against the hapless NFC West (Chiefs 4-0; Raiders, Chargers 2-2). Though non-conference games have no bearing on the NFL tiebreaker system, those two wins were the difference. Undoubtedly, every one of those 12 games was more than winnable for the AFC team, but the Chiefs won on the road against it’s most inferior opponents, while the Raiders and Chargers did not.
That division was solved, completely, due to outcomes of this Sunday’s games. The AFC South was complicated going into the week, with Tennessee still alive, while Jacksonville and Indianapolis competed with each other for the division title. The Jaguars lost to the Redskins, while the Colts beat the Raiders. This changed nothing in the division pecking order. Jacksonville was eliminated from wild card contention with the loss. The Colts are just a week closer to finishing flawlessly, and clinching the division next week. Jacksonville needed help coming into the week. They still need just as much help. All they’ve lost is a week. Jacksonville’s loss to the Redskins may be meaningless, but the Colts defense has stepped up it’s game, particularly against the run, and it sure doesn’t look like any help is coming for the Jaguars. A 9-7 finish is important for the franchise to show that it’s clearly the second best team in the division, but without that 10th win, the outcome will likely be empty in terms of playoff games.
The Jaguars loss clinched a playoff berth for the New York Jets. This isn’t really news. Had the Jets lost last week to a better Steelers team on the road, and had fallen for a fourth time in a row this week, we’d be talking about a sixth seed in the AFC that is a mess, with the Chargers and Jaguars still a threat. But New York had this sewn up last week. The Jaguars just made it official.
The above is why the AFC playoff field falls under the umbrella of stuff we know. We know who the six playoff teams are, barring the Colts suffering a collapse against the Titans next week. The AFC North title is still a big deal, but the Steelers have as much of a stranglehold there as the Colts do in the South. Only a Browns upset win over the Steelers can give the Ravens an opportunity to win the division and get a first round bye.
The NFC is a mess. We know that the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will play next Sunday night to decide the NFC West division. That’s simple. We know that if Atlanta doesn’t clinch over the New Orleans Saints tonight, they get to do so against the Panthers next week. The Bears and Eagles have clinched their respective divisions, which may have surprised pre-season prognosticators, but was all but a certainty at this time last week. The seeding is much more debatable than in the AFC, but there are no tight division races outside of a NFC West championship game where the loser is going to finish with a losing record.
New Orleans may not be a realistic contender for their division, having only the ability to prolong Atlanta’s destiny for one more week, but a win clinches the 5th seed, and allows them to watch the St. Louis-Seattle game with the knowledge that they get to travel to play the winner in the postseason, making their last game meaningless. But should the Falcons prevail at home, the Saints are in a little bit of hot water. They then need to beat the Buccaneers in order to make the postseason. The last thing the Saints want to do is give the Buccaneers control of their own destiny.
The way the NFL tiebreaker system works, division ties are always broken before other wild card ties, as an order of operations. The fact that all ties will be broken in the NFC South before the rest of the conference means that if the Saints and Bucs are tied (and the Bucs hold the common opponents tiebreaker with the Saints), the Saints CANNOT make the playoffs until the Bucs are in. The Bucs cannot hold the tiebreaker with the Giants, and they are unlikely to hold that tiebreaker with the Packers. The Saints would, under normal tiebreaker rules, hold the tiebreaker over the Giants.
In other words, lets say the Falcons and Bucs beat the Saints, leaving the Bucs and Saints at both 10-6. Lets also suppose the Giants beat the Redskins, finishing 10-6, but that the Packers lose to the Bears and are eliminated from playoff contention. You would have a common opponents scenario where the Saints>Giants>Bucs>Saints>…normally the NFL would have to move to the next tiebreaker to get the first wild card team. But the division tiebreakers rule says this: the Bucs get 2nd, the Saints get 3rd. Now you would tiebreak the 10-6 Giants and the 10-6 Bucs, giving the Giants the 5 seed. That makes the Bucs the 6th seed, and the Saints are out.
For the Saints, any win puts them in, and for the Bucs, a loss to the Saints leaves them out. That’s the simple part. A Saints win over the Bucs makes the Packers’ win over the Giants the final tiebreaker between those two teams. At 10-6, the Packers would be the sixth seed. The Packers get hurt by a three (or four) way tie for the last wild card spot. The Packers are still likely to win any tiebreaker on Strength of Victory, at least with a win over the Bears. At 9-7, it’s a little less certain, but the Packers still should hold all relevant tiebreakers to the Giants.
That means your NFC playoff pecking order, in case of all wild card ties, would be Packers>Giants>Bucs>Saints. The Saints can lose back to back games and still make the playoffs…if the Packers and Giants both lose. It also means that Packers are in a win and in situation against the Bears. Their most likely playoff match-up with a win is…the Bears. The Giants need to take care of their own business in Washington, then they need help from the Bears (against the Packers) OR help from the Falcons and the Bucs (against the Saints). The Bucs need to get help from 2 out of 3: Falcons (tomorrow), Bears or Redskins (next week).
The smart money picks would have to be the Saints to get to ten wins, and then the Giants to beat the Redskins, making the Packers and Bears the decisive game at Lambeau. The Packers are the sixth seed with a win, and even though they avoid mathematical elimination with a loss, they’re done if they don’t win. I’ll bet on the Saints and Packers to round out the NFC playoff field.
I’ll be in Kansas City next week to take in the completely meaningless Raiders-Chiefs game. In my defense, what were the chances of that?