by Matt Karoly
Atlanta Falcons fans were treated to a relaxing weekend off this past Sunday, as the team had a mini-bye following their 20-17 win over the Saints on Thursday. However, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a reason to tune in to Sunday’s slate of games.
With the Falcons firmly entrenched in the NFC playoff picture, Dirty Bird Nation became fans of other teams, including even a division rival, for just one day in the hopes of making Atlanta’s path to the postseason as clear as possible. Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned and as a result, the NFC is as crowded as it ever has been.
After Sunday, 10 of the 16 teams in the NFC now have a record above .500, and eight of those teams are separated by only two games. Needless to say, there’s no breathing room for any of the NFC contenders in the final three games.
The good news is, if the season ended today, the Falcons would be the NFC’s sixth seed, thanks in part to the Jacksonville Jaguars beating the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Because the Carolina Panthers are the only wild card team at 9-4 (gross), and the Falcons own the head-to-head win over Seattle, that leaves Atlanta in sole possession of the final playoff spot…for now.
The easiest path to the playoffs, as is always the case, is for the Falcons to win out. If they can accomplish that, not only will they be in the playoffs, but they’ll have a home playoff game to boot by virtue of being the 2017 NFC South Champions.
However, with a return trip to New Orleans on the horizon, I don’t foresee that being the likeliest outcome. Call me crazy, but a split versus the Saints seems like a reasonable prediction in my book.
Therefore, that’ll leave the Dirty Birds with a win-and-you’re-probably-in finale at home versus the aforementioned Panthers. (Assuming they take care of business this coming Monday, of course.)
I say probably because that’s where all these playoff tiebreakers could get a little hairy. But before we get into that, let’s list out the eight NFC contenders separated by two games that the Falcons will be competing against over the final three weeks. For argument’s sake, the Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East Champs) and Minnesota Vikings (three game NFC North lead) were not considered.
- Los Angeles Rams (9-4): Current #3 Seed
- New Orleans Saints (9-4): Current #4 Seed
- Carolina Panthers (9-4): Current #5 Seed
- Atlanta Falcons (8-5): Current #6 Seed
- Seattle Seahawks (8-5): Current #7 Seed
- Detroit Lions (7-6): Current #8 Seed
- Green Bay Packers (7-6): Current #9 Seed
- Dallas Cowboys (7-6): Current #10 Seed
In addition, here are the remaining schedules for the above teams:
- Los Angeles Rams (LAR) – @ SEA, @ TEN, vs SF
- New Orleans Saints (NO) – vs NYJ, vs ATL, @ TB
- Carolina Panthers (CAR) – vs GB, vs TB, @ ATL
- Atlanta Falcons (ATL) – @ TB, @ NO, vs CAR
- Seattle Seahawks (SEA) – vs LAR, @ DAL, vs ARI
- Detroit Lions (DET) – vs CHI, @ CIN, vs GB
- Green Bay Packers (GB) – @ CAR, vs MIN, @ DET
- Dallas Cowboys (DAL) – @ OAK, vs SEA, vs PHI
The thing working in Atlanta’s favor at the moment is their head-to-head wins over each team currently listed below them. But here comes the bad news: none of that may matter.
According to the following tie-breaking procedure, the Falcons could get the shaft if three or more teams are tied for the two wildcard spots, two of which being Atlanta and one of its division rivals.
Apply division tie breaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants.
If, for instance, the Panthers/Saints, Falcons, and Seahawks are all tied at season’s end at 10-6 and the Panthers/Saints own the division tie-breaker over Atlanta, it won’t matter Atlanta beat Seattle according to the above rule.
And in case you were wondering, there is precedence for this particular tie-breaker. In 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the victim of this very same principle.
The Ravens, Steelers, Jets, and Texans all had 9-7 records that year, but since the Ravens had the division tie-breaker over Pittsburgh, the Steelers were eliminated from further playoff consideration.
The same fate could befall the Falcons, but a lot has to go wrong for it to become a realty.
For one, victories over Tampa Bay and Carolina would eliminate any possibility of Carolina owning the division tie-breaker over Atlanta. At that point, it wouldn’t matter what New Orleans did because the Falcons either wouldn’t be in third place in the division anymore or wouldn’t be in third place with the same record as the Panthers. Confused yet?
To make a long story short, as long as the Falcons DO NOT finish third in its division AND have the same record as the second place team in the NFC South, they will in all likelihood secure a postseason berth with a 10-6 record. That is the outcome Falcons fans need to be cheering for the rest of the way.
While the NFC has done them no favors, Atlanta has the NFL schedule makers to thank for giving it control of its own destiny. Now, all they need to do is take care of business in two of their final three games.