NFC playoff picture: Beyond Saints, everything's extremely fluid

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With three Sundays left in the 2019 regular season, there are just nine teams still alive in the NFC, and only one has clinched a playoff spot. That outfit, New Orleans, clinched a division title before December began -- and yet, due to the top-heavy nature of the conference, the Saints enter the month's ides as losers. They can thank the 49ers for that designation, after the two powerhouses went blow for blow at the Superdome last Sunday in a 94-point instant classic that ended with a San Francisco celebration. That result upended the playoff picture in the NFC. The Niners' victory coupled with a Seattle loss to Los Angeles later Sunday night catapulted San Francisco back to the top seed after a week's leave, sent Seattle down to the wild card and relegated New Orleans to, gasp, the No. 3 seed.

All these stations are temporary. Everyone's on to Cincinnati, or opponents of similar stature. After Week 14 provided three matchups between NFC playoff contenders, and six between legitimate postseason hopefuls league-wide, Week 15 offers less high-stakes competition. Only two NFC games -- Bears-Packers, Rams-Cowboys -- include two teams gunning for the postseason (and there might be only one eventual January jaunter among them).

The rest of the NFC's cream are taking a breather, not quite a bye week so much as a gap week, a time to learn about yourself before things get too serious and rent comes due. It's like in college football when Alabama plays Western Carolina, LSU draws Georgia Southern or Tennessee schedules Georgia State. (Wait, scratch that last one.) For San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle, Minnesota and Philadelphia, the goal is this: Don't slip on these sub-100 footballin' banana peels.

Playoff football is so close, you can taste it. Three teams can clinch playoff berths with wins (or wins and help) this week: San Francisco, Seattle and Green Bay. Such results would tighten the NFC race considerably. Alas, there's still a lot to wade through, assess and project. Before we dig into who has the edge in each of the conference's pivotal races, peep these standings:

CURRENT PLAYOFF TEAMS

1) San Francisco 49ers (11-2) -- ATL, LAR, at SEA (Strength of remaining schedule: .564)
2) Green Bay Packers (10-3) -- CHI, at MIN, at DET (.500)
3) New Orleans Saints (10-3, NFC South champions) -- IND, at TEN, at CAR (.487)
4) Dallas Cowboys (6-7) -- LAR, at PHI, WAS (.436)
5) Seattle Seahawks (10-3) -- at CAR, ARI, SF (.500)
6) Minnesota Vikings (9-4) -- at LAC, GB, CHI (.564)

IN THE HUNT

7) Los Angeles Rams (8-5) -- at DAL, at SF, ARI (.526)
8) Chicago Bears (7-6) -- at GB, KC, at MIN (.718)
9) Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) -- at WAS, DAL, at NYG (.282)

Wild card: Everyone except New Orleans and the NFC East

Aside from the NFC South champs (who, like other champs, are here) and the eventual NFC East un-loser, every other team is available for a wild-card berth, from the 49ers to the Bears. As mentioned above, San Francisco, Seattle and Green Bay are almost assured at least a wild-card berth with at least a win, and all can clinch this weekend -- the 49ers can do it all by them damn selves -- but none of those sides are gunning for mere playoff berths. For the four relevant teams (those three and Minnesota) currently in the playoff standings, the objective is to stay out of the wild card. For Los Angeles and Chicago, currently on the outside, the goal is to get in.

The Bears and Rams are dependent on outside factors to play January football, but need to handle their own business, as well. Chicago, with its league-high remaining SOS, probably won't do so and is teetering on the edge of elimination; a Bears defeat to Green Bay this week coupled with a Vikings or Rams win would knock Chicago out completely. The Rams, with two away games against contenders, are similarly imperiled; an L.A. defeat in Dallas accompanied by a Minnesota victory is close to a death knell. Odds are at this point that neither Chicago nor Los Angeles takes the place of the current quartet.

But things change quickly, and strange things happen in this league. There's a possibility that an 11-5 team (potentially Minnesota or even San Francisco) could be on the outside looking in come New Year's Eve. Talk about WILD card, #amirite?

NFC East: Cowboys vs. Eagles

Tied atop the division at 6-7, Dallas and Philadelphia are currently separated only by their head-to-head matchup: the Cowboys' Week 7 win over the Eagles at Jerryworld. And their head-to-head record at season's end will surely play a role in deciding the NFC East champion. Regardless of what happens this weekend, when Philly visits Washington and Dallas hosts the Rams, the winner of Cowboys-Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 16 will have a leg up in the division. Because of Dallas' superior division record (4-0 vs. 2-1) and conference record (5-4 vs. 4-5), the Cowboys have the higher probability of winning the division. Out of the 32 scenarios in which the final three weeks play out with no ties, Dallas wins the NFC East in 19 of them. (Thanks for the chart, @MitchGoldich!) However, considering the Eagles' remaining strength of schedule is the lowest in the league, Philly stands a good chance of cashing in on one of the other 13 scenarios.

NFC West: 49ers vs. Seahawks

As in the NFC East and North, the fate of the division likely lies in the result of one game -- 49ers-Seahawks in Week 17 -- but could be decided one week earlier, when San Francisco hosts Los Angeles on Saturday in Week 16. (The Rams, though they can win out to reach 11-5, cannot win the West.) One game behind in the division, Seattle currently has the head-to-head advantage from its Week 10 win over San Francisco. The Niners have the lead in conference record, but the two share the same division record. San Francisco can clinch the division as early as next week, if the Niners beat the Falcons and Rams and the 'Hawks lose to the Panthers. However, Seattle cannot clinch the division until Week 17 -- and according to the New York Times' Upshot tool, the Seahawks only have a 1 percent chance of taking the West if they win in Weeks 15 and 16 but lose the all-important season finale. One week after losing by 16 to the Rams, the Seahawks are now rooting hard for their Hollywood rivals to help Seattle secure a playoff game at the CLink.

NFC North: Packers vs. Vikings (vs. Bears)

Currently the No. 2 seed, Green Bay is one game up on Minnesota and owns the tiebreaker from its Week 2 win at Lambeau Field. The Packers also have the advantage in division record (3-0 vs. 2-2). The two meet again in Week 16 on Monday night in a game that will decide the NFC North. Independent of other outcomes, a Packers victory in Minneapolis would give them a 99 percent chance to take the division, according to NYT's Upshot tool; a Vikings win gives them a 41 percent chance. Though Green Bay has played ugly down the stretch, the Pack further benefit from getting to play familiar division opponents over the last three weeks. Meanwhile, the Vikings play the unpredictable Chargers in Carson on Sunday. If Minnesota is to lose one game the rest of the season and still win the division, this would be the one to lose, as it doesn't affect their division record. But any loss is obviously detrimental to the Vikes' division hopes. Don't think I forgot about the third team still alive (barely) in this race -- a.k.a., the reigning champs. How unlikely is a Chicago repeat? For the Bears to win the division, Green Bay would first need to lose out against three division opponents -- which while possible, seems unlikely, given, well, David Blough. Plus, Chicago would have to win out against the strongest remaining schedule of opponents among contenders. Hibernation is nigh.

First-round bye and home-field advantage: 49ers vs. Packers vs. Saints vs. Seahawks vs. Vikings

I mean, even with three weeks remaining, it feels far too early to even think about who will be hosting playoff games on the second weekend of January. Don'tcha think? As things stand, according to the New York Times' Upshot tool, only one team has more than a 65 percent chance to earn a first-round bye: the 49ers -- and they could still miss the postseason. Hell, only one team will even have secured its division leading into Week 16. Check this space in a week's time for a deeper read on the situation. Baby steps, people.

NFC Games of the Week (in order of significance ... TO ME)

1) Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys
2) Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
3) Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins (I guess)

As mentioned before, this week is weak overall, with the howitzers due to drop in Week 16. That Dwayne Haskins and Bill Callahan are earning near-top billing as potential spoilers in deep December is an indictment of the scheduling gods. But Rams-Cowboys edges Bears-Packers for me as the weekend's most interesting matchup because it features the best (and hottest) team of the bunch in my eyes (Los Angeles) and sets up two fascinating matchups the following week (Rams-Niners, Cowboys-Eagles). Also, a rule of thumb in this household: The less Mitchell Trubisky, the better.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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