By this time next week, the NFC playoff picture could look completely different. With two weeks remaining on the 2014 schedule, none of the conferences four divisions have been clinched, and only one team (Arizona) has locked up a postseason berth. It’s the complete opposite situation compared to the AFC, where three teams have already secured division crowns (New England, Denver, Indianapolis) and both wild card spots could go to the second and third place teams of the same division (AFC North).
As Week 16 revs up, a number of key matchups could upend the current NFC playoff picture. While trying to keep pace with Dallas, Philadelphia hits the road to face lowly Washington. Detroit is hoping to fend off Green Bay with a victory at Chicago, New Orleans can essentially dash Atlanta’s postseason hopes with a win at home, and Arizona can outright claim the NFC West with a victory over rival Seattle.
The NFC’s wild card picture is where things get very murky. In theory, the NFC East’s second place team should claim the top wild card spot, but Philadelphia (9-5) will need to win out and hope for losses by Green Bay and Seattle, who are both 10-4.
Let’s delve into each of the divisions, and the wild card to see which squad has the best chances to play in January, and which will pack up their locker rooms first. Should a tie arise, the NFL’s tiebreaker procedures start with head-to-head record, then go to record in common games, division record, and then conference record. Should two squads still be tied, then strength of victory and strength of schedule will likely be the deciding factors.
The Giants and Redskins are out, but each could play the spoiler role for first-place Dallas and Philadelphia. The Eagles missed an opportunity to sweep the Cowboys in Week 15, and now need to win at Washington and at New York in the final two weeks and at least one loss from Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay.
Seattle has the same division record (3-1) as Philly, but a better conference record (8-3). Green Bay is 4-1 against division foes and is 7-3 in the NFC. The Eagles are 5-5 in the NFC, meaning in order to make the postseason they’ll likely need to wrangle the division from Dallas.
The Cowboys control their own destiny, but have two difficult matchups ahead. They’ll play AFC South champ Indianapolis this week, then wrap up the season at Washington. But if they go 1-1 by winning their last division game against Washington, and both Green Bay and Seattle let their division records slip, there’s a chance Dallas grabs at least as a wild card spot.
Two teams, Minnesota and Chicago, are also out of the NFC North and playoff races, but it’s the Bears who could seriously foil Detroit’s postseason hopes. Assuming the heavily favored Packers beat 2-12 Tampa Bay on the road, Detroit will need to beat Chicago in order to stay in first place, which would push their division record to 5-0 and makes Week 17’s trip to Lambeau essentially the North title game.
Detroit’s one of only four teams in the entire NFL to have an undefeated division record, which will play a major role should tiebreakers ultimately decide who moves on. Green Bay’s 4-1 in the division and 7-3 in the conference, but Detroit is one game better in both categories.
Neither Detroit nor Green Bay is assured of winning out, but one will win the division and the other likely a wild card berth.
There is the Arizona factor to consider though. The Cardinals own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit after winning in Week 11 14-6, and if they lose their last two, home vs. Seattle and at San Francisco, they’ll slip out of the West lead. If Detroit also goes 1-1, with the loss coming at Green Bay, they could be bumped out of the division lead and the wild card despite an 11-5 record.
The South has already won the distinction of the worst division in football this season, but at least one team will make the postseason. After Atlanta fell to 5-9 with Week 15’s 27-20 loss to Pittsburgh, more than likely it will be either the New Orleans Saints or the Carolina Panthers. But the Falcons aren’t completely out of it because of their 4-0 division record.
Right now the Panthers are benefitting from their Week 6 tie with Cincinnati, since a tie is better than a loss, but a loss to Cleveland this week and a New Orleans victory over Atlanta gives the Saints the division.
However, should Carolina lose out and New Orleans goes 1-1, with the loss being to Atlanta this week, the Falcons would move into first place thanks to a season-sweep of the Saints.
San Francisco and St. Louis have both been eliminated due to their sub-.500 division records, but both Arizona and Seattle are in line for the postseason. Arizona’s assured of a spot, but its vying for the No. 1 seed in the conference with two very tough games vs. the Seahawks and at the 49ers in final week of the regular season.
A victory this week for Arizona will block the Seahawks out of the division race, and focus their attention strictly at the wild card. But if Seattle wins out, they’ll hold the head-to-head and division record tiebreakers over the Cardinals, who will then have to play on wild card weekend rather than getting an extra bye week off.
The Cardinals could go 1-1 and claim the division as long as they beat Seattle this week, but winning out locks up the No. 1 seed.
Seattle is also in play for one of the top two seeds. Right now they have an equal 8-2 conference record with Detroit, but its lone division loss to St. Louis hurts. Assuming the Seahawks win out, and Detroit goes 1-1 while claiming the North, Seattle could jump past them with a better conference record for the No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Here is where things get even trickier. With no division secured, Arizona, Detroit, Dallas, Seattle, Green Bay and Philadelphia stand to make up the two wild card spots. Since no South team can post a record better than .500, none can make the postseason as a wild card.
The Cardinals already know they will at least have a wild card spot, but that leaves five teams contending for either their respective division or the last remaining wild card.
Dallas or Philadelphia will claim the East, but if the Eagles are forced to drop back into the wild card fold they will have difficult time advancing. Dallas has a 7-4 conference record, and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Seattle, but the loss to Arizona in Week 9 could be a big factor as well.
The Eagles’ 5-5 conference record presents a major hindrance, as do their losses to both Seattle and Arizona.
The Packers didn’t face Arizona this year, but they’re opening week loss to Seattle could present a problem if they and Dallas wind up going 1-1. Dallas and Green Bay would have equal overall, division and conference records.
Detroit is already ahead of Dallas due to its 8-2 conference record, and would hold at least the No. 2 seed if it wins out. But if the Lions and Cardinals have equal records, Arizona takes the top seed by head-to-head record. The Lions could also clinch at least a wild card berth if Philadelphia loses this week.