NFC playoff picture
1. Atlanta (11-1)
At Panthers (3-9)
At Lions (4-8)
2. San Fran. (8-3-1)
At Patriots (9-3)
At Seahawks (7-5)
3. Green Bay (8-4)
At Bears (8-4)
At Vikings (6-6)
4. N.Y. Giants (7-5)
At Falcons (11-1)
At Ravens (9-3)
5. Chicago (8-4)
At Vikings (6-6)
At Cardinals (4-8)
At Lions (4-8)
6. Seattle (7-5)
At Bills (5-7)
7. Washington (6-6)
At Browns (4-8)
At Eagles (3-9)
At Cowboys (6-6)
8. Dallas (6-6)
At Bengals (7-5)
At Redskins (6-6)
9. Tampa Bay (6-6)
At Saints (5-7)
At Falcons (11-1)
10. Minnesota (6-6)
At Rams (5-6-1)
At Texans (11-1)
The New York Giants’ and San Francisco 49ers’ losses Sunday put a first-round playoff bye into play for the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
A couple of weeks ago, Atlanta (now 11-1) and the 49ers (8-3-1) were clear front-runners for the first-round playoff byes that go with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeding in each conference. Then the New York Giants jumped into contention with a win over the Packers a week ago followed by the 49ers’ overtime loss to St. Louis this past Sunday.
But then the Giants lost Monday night at Washington, which dropped them to 7-5, and suddenly the Packers and Bears (both 8-4) are tied for No. 3 in the NFC this week, only a half-game behind San Francisco for the second spot.
So who has the best shot at the No. 2 seeding with four games left in the season? One scout with an NFC team said he thinks the 49ers still are the best team in the conference, ahead of Atlanta despite the Falcons’ superior record. He said the Rams’ defense, with linebackers who are especially good playing against the run, match up well with the 49ers, which accounts for their win and tie in their two games against San Francisco.
“The Rams play San Francisco well,” the scout said, “so I’d expect San Francisco to rebound. (San Francisco) is a legitimate team when it comes down to it.”
Of the four teams (the 49ers, Packers, Bears and Giants) likely in the running for the No. 2 seeding, the Packers and Bears have the most favorable schedules. Each has only one game against a team that’s better than .500, and that game is their head-to-head match-up at Chicago on Dec. 16.
The 49ers and Giants, on the other hand, have two games remaining against above-.500 teams, and both are on the road. The 49ers’ are at 9-3 New England (Dec. 16) and at 7-5 Seattle (Dec. 23); the Giants’ are at Atlanta (Dec. 16) and at 9-3 Baltimore (Dec. 23).
Also, just as it looked a month ago, the Packers-Bears match-up in two weeks will go a long way toward determining the NFC North champion, because the winner will pick up a game on the loser. But it’s interesting that the Packers essentially would retain the edge in tie-breakers either way.
If the Packers win, they would have the tie-breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series.
But if the Bears win, Chicago still would need to finish with a better record than the Packers to win the division. In essence, and not taking into account the possibility of ties, if the Bears defeat the Packers, the Packers still would win the tie-breaker if both teams finish 11-5, 10-6 or 9-7 based on either a better division record or better record against common opponents.
This gets a little complicated, but following are the reasons, and remember, it’s all based on the assumption that the Bears beat the Packers in two weeks, so the first tie-breaker (head-to-head record) doesn’t break the tie:
The other three games for both teams consist of two against the other teams in the NFC North and one against a common opponent (the Packers play Tennessee; the Bears play Arizona). The tie-breakers after head to head are division record and then record against common opponent. The fourth tie-breaker is conference record, but that would never come into play.
So assuming the Bears beat the Packers in two weeks, the head to head is 1-1 (the Packers won in Week 2). Going to the next tie-breaker, both teams would have one division loss (i.e., to each other). On the third tie-breaker, they both have three losses to common opponents (the Bears lost to Houston, San Francisco and Seattle; the Packers to San Francisco, Seattle and Indianapolis).
For both teams to finish 11-5 — again, also assuming the Bears beat the Packers — the Packers would have to win their other three games, and the Bears would have to lose once. That Bears’ loss would have to come to a division opponent or a common opponent, because that’s all that’s left on their schedule.
If it’s a division opponent, the Packers win the second tie-breaker, because they would have only one division loss, and the Bears would have two. If the Bears’ loss were to Arizona, then the Bears and Packers would have the same division record (one loss, to each other), but the Packers would win the third tie-breaker, because the Bears would have a fourth loss to a common opponent, compared to the Packers’ three.
Similarly for 10-6 and 9-7. Without going through each possible outcome, it’s based on a schedule that has both teams playing two division games and one non-division common opponent in their other remaining games. Starting with the assumption that the Bears beat the Packers, if both finished 10-6 or both finished 9-7, the Packers would either win or tie the division tie-breaker. And under every scenario in which they tie the division tie-breaker, the Packers would win the common-opponent tie-breaker.
Here are a few other playoff possibilities heading into the last month:
■Atlanta needs to win or tie only two more games to clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seeding. Or, the Falcons can clinch the No. 1 spot this week with a win or tie, and a 49ers loss plus a Packers loss or tie plus a Bears loss or tie.
■Ties are rare in the NFL, so the 49ers’ tie this season makes it highly unlikely they will be in a tie-breaker. If they win out, they’ll be seeded No. 2, assuming Atlanta doesn’t lose at least three of its last four games.
■If the Giants and Packers tie for the No. 2 seeding, the Giants win the tie-breaker because they defeated the Packers. If the Giants sweep their final four games, to win the No. 2 seeding they’d also need the 49ers to lose at least twice and the Packers and Bears at least once.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.