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Saints Nation: In Depth Look at the NFC Playoff Picture

With the bye week in full effect, I think there’s nothing better than a refresher on this weekend coming up as to where things stand so we all know what to root for. Fair warning: I’m going to dive into the NFC playoff picture pretty extensively here. The Saints sit atop the NFC South currently owning the tiebreaker over the Falcons and first and foremost we obviously want the Saints to keep hold of that division lead. Beyond that, here are how things shape up:

The Packers are 9-0 with 7 games left to play. They have a 3 game lead on the Saints in the loss column and they own the head to head tiebreaker. That means the Saints would need the Packers to lose 4 of their next 7 games to even have a chance at catching them, and that would also require the Saints winning out for the rest of the season. Not going to happen. The Packers have the 1st round bye all but locked up and they are competing with the 49ers for the top seed. The big question is: will they lose a game? Their remaining schedule is: vs. TB, @ DET, @ NYG, vs. OAK, @ KC, vs. CHI, vs. DET. So there’s a couple tough road games at Detroit and New York that are probably the toughest tests.

The 49ers are 8-1 with their lone loss coming to Dallas. Catching them will be…

extremely difficult for the Saints as well. This would require the 49ers losing at least 3 of their next 7 games, and again that assumes the Saints win out which is far from guaranteed. In addition, all 3 losses by the Saints come to NFC teams, so the 49ers would need at least 2 losses to come to NFC teams for the tiebreaking scenarios to play out. The toughest games the 49ers have left are at Baltimore and vs. Pittsburgh – both AFC opponents. While those could both easily be losses, the NFC opponents they have left are: vs. ARI, vs. STL, @ ARI, @ SEA, @ STL. That means the last 5 opponents for the 49ers have a combined 8-19 record and no one is better than 3-6. That’s the benefit the 49ers get from playing in a very weak division. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t lose 1 or 2 of those games, but they’ll gone in as major favorites in each. The 49ers have all but wrapped up their division.

Based on this, I think the Saints can pretty much kiss goodbye a chance at a 1st round bye in the playoffs. Catching either of these teams will require both a flawless run by the Saints, and an epic collapse by the 49ers/Packers. I just don’t see the stars aligning, though anything is possible. Realistically I do think the Saints need to aim for the 3 seed.

The Giants at 6-3 are half a game behind the Saints, and a full game ahead of the Cowboys at 5-4. The Lions and Bears are both 6-3 as well, but they’ll be battling for a wild card spots as they have little chance of catching the Packers. We won’t worry about the Lions & Bears for now since they are only a threat to the wild card spot and the Saints are in control of their division. The possible opponents for the Saints if they win their division in the first round of the playoffs would be the Lions, Bears, Falcons, Giants or Cowboys.  The Falcons are 5-4 as well and in the playoff picture.

I think it’s safe to assume the Eagles, Redskins, Vikings, Bucs, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams are all not going to make the playoffs. Each of these team would need to come close to winning out to do so. The Bucs at 4-5 have the best chance of these, but they are currently 2 games back of the wild card with 7 games to go. That’s a tall order.

The Giants are the #1 threat currently to the Saints’ grabbing that 3 seed. That 3 seed is very important because that means the Saints would travel to San Francisco in the playoffs instead of Green Bay (assuming Green Bay remains the 1 seed, and San Fran the 2 seed). I think we want to root for the Saints to avoid playing the Packers as long as possible. The Giants have lost to Washington, San Francisco and Seattle, so the good news is all three of their losses have come to NFC opponents as well. The Giants still must play the Cowboys twice, so that division is very much still yet to be decided. Their remaining schedule is: vs. PHI, @ NO, vs. GB, @ DAL, vs. WAS, @ NYJ, vs. DAL. That is an extremely tough schedule overall. Obviously the game against the Saints in New Orleans can go a long way towards securing that 3 seed for either team.

The Cowboys can climb back into their division by winning head to head with the Giants. Right now they are only one game back from the division tie, and the Cowboys have 2 losses to AFC teams so they own the tiebreaker for now. Their remaining schedule is: @ WAS, vs. MIA, @ ARI, vs. NYG, @ TB, vs. PHI, @ NYG. That is a much easier schedule than the Giants and right now I think that favors their chances of winning the NFC east. I think the Giants are going to need to sweep the Cowboys to hang on. The best thing that could happen to the Saints is for the Giants to take care of the Cowboys and for the Saints to beat the Giants. The Cowboys are dangerous because they have 2 AFC losses, which means they have a good in conference record which makes them tough in tiebreakers, especially considering the Saints have not lost an AFC game.

The Falcons have lost head to head against the Saints, so they sit 1.5 games behind them but down in the tiebreaker also. The Falcons have lost to Chicago, Tampa Bay and Green Bay as well, so all four of their losses are to NFC opponents. Their remaining schedule is vs. TEN, vs. MIN, @ HOU, @ CAR, vs. JAC, @ NO, vs. TB. That’s an incredibly easy schedule especially when you consider Houston no longer has Matt Schaub. I would not be the least bit surprised if the Falcons are 10-4 and on a 5 game winning streak coming into New Orleans in week 16.

The Saints have the following opponents left: vs. NYG, vs. DET, @ TEN, @ MIN, vs. ATL, vs. CAR. That’s a tough schedule. The good news is 4 out of those 6 games are at home. Still, I think based on the Falcons’ schedule the Saints will probably have to win 4 out of 6 in this stretch including the game against the Falcons to win the division.

Here’s the shakeup:

Division leaders:

Packers 9-0 (combined record of opponents coming up: 37-26)
49ers 8-1 (combined record of opponents coming up: 26-38)
Saints 7-3 (combined record of opponents coming up: 26-28)
Giants 6-3 (combined record of opponents coming up: 37-27)

Wild Card contenders:

Lions 6-3 (combined record of opponents coming up: 38-26)
Bears 6-3 (combined record of opponents coming up: 31-32)
Cowboys 5-4 (combined record of opponents coming up: 27-36)
Falcons 5-4 (combined record of opponents coming up: 30-35)
Buccaneers 4-5 (combined record of opponents coming up: 31-32)

So of all the teams, the toughest remaining schedules are for the Packers, Giants and Lions. The easiest remaining schedules are for the 49ers and Cowboys. The Saints, Bears, Bucs and Falcons are somewhere in the middle. It’s not impossible the 49ers could end up as the top seed and if that were the case, perhaps being the 4th seed would be ideal to the Saints. This weekend is simple – you’ll want to root against NFC teams that are in the playoff picture.

The Redskins upsetting the Cowboys in DC would be nice.
Tampa shocking the Packers would be good.
Arizona shocking the 49ers would be huge.
Tennessee upsetting Atlanta in the Georgia Dome would be huge.
Philadelphia upsetting the Giants would be great.

So this weekend you want to root especially hard for Washington, Tampa, Arizona, Tennessee and Philadelphia. Even if the Saints can get help from 2 of those teams that would be a bonus. Ultimately the Saints control their destiny as the 3 seed, so they can take care of their own business, but they’re on a bye week this week so you might as well root against the opposition.