NFC Playoff Picture Still in Flux

Usually, Week 17 of the NFL’s regular season is mostly meaningless. The teams with nothing left to play for usually play out this last game as nothing but a formality, while those teams in contention have usually solidified their spots in the postseason race.

However, heading into Week 17, while we do have a good idea of who’s most likely to be in this year’s NFC playoffs, there’s still plenty at stake for the participants to play for, and fans of those teams to watch for.

The Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, and New York Giants have all clinched postseason berths. We know that the Cowboys have secured the top seed in the conference, meaning they’ll have home field advantage for any game leading up to the Super Bowl. We also know that the New York Giants have secured the fifth seed (the top Wild Card spot), meaning they’ll play against the division winner with lowest win-loss percentage in the playoffs.

But after that? It’s all up in the air.

With the Detroit Lions losing to Dallas on Monday evening, the two biggest “must watch” games for Week 17 are the Washington Redskins hosting the New York Giants, and the Green Bay Packers traveling to Detroit; the latter game was flexed into the Sunday Night prime time spot, due to the playoff implications of the game. If Washington wins, they’ll almost automatically clinch the last playoff spot (the #6 seed). The only scenario in which the Redskins win and still get left out of the playoffs is if the the Lions-Packers game ends in a tie; more on that in a second. But for all intents and purposes, Washington is pretty much in a “win and in” situation.

The interesting wrinkle to the Redskins-Giants affair will be whether the Giants decide to rest their starters in the game. New  York can do no better or no worse than the fifth seed in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of the game, so it bears watching as to whether they’ll still have their star players — like Odell Beckham Jr., among others — participate in this meaningless match up.

If Washington wins, the game between Detroit and Green Bay will not only bear the implications of the NFC North division winner, but will also be a “loser goes home” scenario. Midway through December, Detroit had a 9-4 record. But after losing their last two games, combined with the hard-charging Packers currently riding a five-game winning streak, the Lions grasp on the NFC North title is tenuous at best. But, in an interesting twist, the Lions and Packers can actually both make the playoffs if their game ends in a tie. If that happens, the Packers would win the NFC North, and the Lions would get the last playoff spot in the NFC, as they would have the same record as the Redskins but own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The other two games that could potentially alter the NFC playoff landscape involve the Atlanta Falcons hosting the New Orleans Saints, and the Seattle Seahawks playing the San Francisco 49ers in the Bay area.  The Falcons presently hold the second seed in the NFC playoffs, meaning they’d get the highly valuable first-round bye and host the playoff semi-final game. However, if Atlanta loses to New Orleans and Seattle beats San Francisco, then Seattle would secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs. But, both the Falcons and Seahawks will be favorites entering the game, so it’s hard to see the current seeding of both teams changing.

With Green Bay entering the game as three point favorites over the Lions and Washington entering their game against New York as eight point favorites, if we assume that the Packers, Redskins, Falcons, and Seahawks all win in Week 17, we would have the Cowboys with the top seed in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons with the second seed, and the Redskins taking on the Seahawks as well as the Giants traveling to Green Bay to take on the Packers in the NFC playoffs.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]



About Rajan Nanavati

Rajan Nanavati is a professional sportswriter with over 15 years of experience covering the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college football, and fantasy football. His work has been featured on ESPN and the Washington Post, among other publications. He runs a successful sports podcast with several hundred listeners per month at http://www.hailtothedistrict.com/.