If it’s December, it’s time to take a look at who’s where in the playoff picture. Everybody has 3 games left, and to be in the wild-card picture, a team has to be able to finish at least 8-8 and finish no worse than 6-6 in the conference (the worst that the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals can do) to make it through the tiebreakers. The St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins can’t make it to 8-8, while the Chicago Bears can’t finish better than 5-7 in the conference. That leaves 11 teams for 6 spots, with 2 already claimed.
In the playoffs
New Orleans Saints (13-0, 9-0 NFC, 1st in the NFC South) – The Saints, who have already claimed the NFC South crown and a first-round bye, are in the driver’s seat. However, unlike the also-undefeated Indianapolis Colts, they do not yet have home-field advantage locked up. In fact, if they and the Minnesota Vikings tie, the Vikings would win the tiebreaker based on a better conference record. The magic number for home-field advantage through the playoffs is 1.5 (any combination of Saints wins or Vikings losses, with a tie counting as a half). Given the schedule of the Dallas Cowboys (8-5) on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-12) on 12/27 and the Carolina Panthers (5-8) on the road on 1/3, it is at least even money the Saints will finish 16-0.
Minnesota Vikings (11-2, 8-1 NFC, 1st in the NFC North) – The Vikings have not yet locked up the NFC North crown, but they do have at least a wild-card berth locked up. They can win the NFC North with a win or a Green Bay Packers loss (or two ties between the two teams) as they swept the Packers. Assuming they win the NFC North, and they and the Arizona Cardinals (who beat the Vikings) do not both finish 11-5, their magic number to lock up a first-round bye is 1.5 (any combination of Vikings wins or Philadelphia Eagles losses, with a tie counting as half). They have the Carolina Panthers (5-8) on the road Sunday, the Chicago Bears (5-8) on the road 12/28 (so much for ESPN’s hope that game would mean anything), and the New York Giants (7-6) at home on 1/3.
In the driver’s seat
Philadelphia Eagles (9-4, 8-2 NFC, 1st in the NFC East) – The Eagles already swept the New York Giants, beat the Atlanta Falcons, and would hold any tiebreakers involving the Minnesota Vikings (conference record) and/or the Arizona Cardinals (common opponents). They can get two more head-to-head tiebreakers and the three-way East tiebreaker with games against the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. A win against the Niners (6-7) at home on Sunday (or a tie by either team in any remaining game and a tie/loss by the Giants, or one win in their other two games) gets them into the playoffs. If necessary, a win at the Cowboys (8-5) on 1/3 gets them the division crown based on winning either the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cowboys (division record) or a three-way against the Cowboys and the Giants (games against each other). Beyond that, the magic number for the division is 2.5 versus the Cowboys and 0.5 versus the Giants. Sandwiched between the two games with possible playoff implications is a game against the Denver Broncos (8-5) on 12/27.
Arizona Cardinals (8-5, 6-3 NFC, 1st in the NFC West) – They blew a chance to clinch the NFC West last night by getting swept by the San Francisco 49ers. However, they did beat the Minnesota Vikings, so they do have a theoretical shot at a first-round bye (it requires a two-way tie; the Cardinals would lose in a 3-way tie with the Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles). Their magic number to clinch the NFC West is 1.5 (any combination of Cardinals wins or Niners losses, with ties counting for half), as they swept the Seattle Seahawks, though a three-way tie would give the NFC West to the Niners based on games against each other. On the wild-card end of things should they degenerate to that point, their magic number is 3 against the Dallas Cowboys, 2 against the Atlanta Falcons, and 1 against the Carolina Panthers. They also hold head-to-head tiebreakers over the New York Giants (by win) and Cowboys (common opponents), and have to play the Green Bay Packers (9-4) on 1/3, but lose head-to-head tiebreakers to the Eagles (common opponents) and the Panthers (by loss). They also would have the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Falcons (6-7) via conference record unless they both finish 8-8 and the Falcons win their remaining conference game; in that case, the Falcons would take it based on the record against common opponents. Their other games are at Detroit (2-11) Sunday and against St. Louis (1-12) 12/27.
Green Bay Packers (9-4, 7-3 NFC, 2nd NFC North, 1st wild-card) – The Packers still have a theoretical chance to take the NFC North crown, but since they got swept by the Minnesota Vikings, it would take a total collapse (outlined above). They hold head-to-head tiebreakers against the Dallas Cowboys (by win), San Francisco 49ers (by win) and Atlanta Falcons (conference record), and have to play the Arizona Cardinals (8-5) 1/3, but lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to the New York Giants (common opponents). Their magic number is 1 over both the Cowboys and Giants. Their other games are at the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) Sunday and against the Seattle Seahawks (5-8) 12/27.
Scrambling to get in
Dallas Cowboys (8-5, 6-3 NFC, 2nd NFC East, 2nd wild-card) – The formula is deceptively-simple – win out and they’re in as NFC East champs by virtue of sweeping the Philadelphia Eagles (9-4). Unfortunately, not only do they have a horrid December record over the last several years, they also don’t have the tiebreaker against the Packers (lost to them) or the Giants (got swept by them). They did, however, beat the Eagles once (they play in Dallas on 1/3), the Falcons, the Panthers and the Seahawks, and hold the tiebreaker over the Niners (common opponents). Besides the Eagles to close the season, they get the New Orleans Saints (13-0) on the road Sunday and the Washington Redskins (4-9) on the road 12/27.
New York Giants (7-6, 5-4 NFC, 3rd NFC East, 3rd wild-card) – Their chances took a body blow when they got swept by the Philadelphia Eagles, but things could get very interesting in a 3-way tie in the NFC East. Outside of that, they do hold head-to-head tiebreakers over the Green Bay Packers (common opponents), Dallas Cowboys (swept them), Atlanta Falcons (beat them), and Seattle Seahawks (common opponents), have to play the Panthers (5-8) at home 12/27, and would lose the tiebreaker to the Arizona Cardinals (lost to them). Sandwiching the Panthers game are trips to the Washington Redskins (4-9) Monday night and the Minnesota Vikings (11-2) 1/3.
On life support
San Francisco 49ers (6-7, 5-4 NFC, 2nd NFC West, 4th wild-card) – They do hold all the tiebreakers against their NFC West foes (swept the Arizona Cardinals, have a better division record than the Seattle Seahawks, and have the best record against each other). They also would have the tiebreaker against the Dallas Cowboys (conference record), and have to play at the Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) Sunday, but would lose the tiebreaker to the Green Bay Packers (lost to them), Atlanta Falcons (lost to them) and Carolina Panthers (conference record). After Sunday’s game, they get Detroit (2-11) at home 12/27 and St. Louis (1-12) on the road 1/3.
Atlanta Falcons (6-7, 5-6 NFC, 2nd NFC South, 5th wild-card) – Atlanta holds only the head-to-head tiebreaker against the San Francisco 49ers outright by virtue of beating them, while they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, and would lose the tiebreaker to the Carolina Panthers (split, but the Panthers would have a better record against common opponents). Also, there is one and only scenario where they would have the tiebreaker over the Arizona Cardinals – they both finish 8-8 and the Falcons win their remaining conference game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-12) 1/3. Before then, they play the New York Jets (7-6) on the road Sunday and the Buffalo Bills (5-8) at home 12/27.
Being fitted for a toe-tag
Carolina Panthers (5-8, 5-4 NFC, 3rd NFC South, 6th wild-card) – First, they have to beat the Minnesota Vikings (11-2) on Sunday, the New York Giants (7-6) on the road 12/27 and the New Orleans Saints (13-0) on 1/3. Next, they must have the Giants (who they would have beaten), Atlanta Falcons (6-7, with whom they split), Dallas Cowboys (8-5, who beat them) and San Francisco 49ers (6-7) end up with at least 8 losses, with the Niners and/or the Giants (and/or the Arizona Cardinals if the Niners go 8-8 to win the NFC West) ending up at 8-8 along with them and the Cowboys. If that happens, no matter what the combination is, the Panthers would be in the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks (5-8, 4-6 NFC, 3rd NFC West, 7th wild-card) – The good news is getting to 8-8 is easier for the Seahawks, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-12) on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers (9-4) on the road 12/27, and the Tennessee Titans (6-7) on 1/3. The bad news is they do not win any division tiebreakers nor any head-to-head tiebreakers with teams that can finish 8-8. The only possible way for them to make the playoffs is if neither the Carolina Panthers (5-8) nor the San Francisco 49ers (6-7) get 8 wins, if the Dallas Cowboys (8-5), New York Giants (7-6) and Atlanta Falcons (6-7) finish 8-8, AND the Falcons win their remaining conference game to create a 3-way conference record tie between the Falcons, Giants and Seahawks, AND THEN it depends on strength of victory (which doesn’t look good for the Seahawks, seeing three of their victims have a grand total of three wins).