I was staring at my computer screen Monday night when I felt a sudden urge to emulate that mythic figure of Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by grabbing the nearest sharp object and stabbing my eyeballs out.
NFL tiebreaking procedures, you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood.
After hours of poring over the NFL’s standings and schedules, trying to unravel all of the Seattle Seahawks’ various playoff scenarios, I thought my head was going to spin itself right off my neck.
With two games remaining in the regular season the Seahawks are 11-3 and tied for first place in both the NFC West and the conference as a whole. While Seattle has already booked its spot in the postseason, trying to figure out the Seahawks’ playoff fate based on all possible permutations is a riddle even the Sphinx would have trouble unraveling.
So with that disclaimer, here’s my best attempt at figuring it all out:
What is the Seahawks’ easiest path to the NFC West title?
This one is simple. Beat the 49ers on Dec. 29 and the title is theirs.
Seattle and San Francisco are tied atop the division, with the teams squaring off at CenturyLink Field on the final day of the regular season. It doesn’t matter what happens in the teams’ games this week — the Seahawks host Arizona, the 49ers host the Los Angeles Rams — if Seattle beats San Francisco it will be division champion. Even if the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals and the 49ers beat the Rams, a Seattle victory on Dec. 29 would leave the teams tied at 12-4, and the Seahawks would hold the tiebreaker based on head-to-head results, having also beaten the 49ers in their 27-24 overtime classic on Nov. 11 by the Bay.
Can the Seahawks clinch the division title this week?
I’m pretty sure they can’t.
A Seattle win and San Francisco loss would give the Seahawks a one-game lead in the division, but the 49ers could still catch up by winning in Seattle. In that scenario the teams would again be tied at 12-4, but this time having split the season series, throwing it to the second tiebreaker. However, each of the next three tiebreakers — division record (4-2), common games record (9-3), conference record (9-3) — would be deadlocked. Therefore, it would move to the fifth tiebreaker, strength of victory, which is the combined record of the teams they’ve beaten. That won’t be determined until every NFL game is completed, so there will be no banner raising next week.
But is it possible for the Seahawks to lose to the 49ers and still win the division?
I actually think this can happen, but it’s the longest of shots.
For this to happen Seattle needs to beat Arizona and San Francisco has to lose to L.A., meaning the 49ers win over the Seahawks on the last day of the season would leave the teams tied at 12-4 and sending the tiebreaker all the way to strength of victory. If we eliminate the Seahawks’ and 49ers’ victories in common, then Seattle is left with Atlanta, Philadelphia and Minnesota, which have a combined record of 22-20, while San Francisco has Washington, Green Bay and New Orleans, which have a combined record of 25-17. For Seattle to catch up in strength of victory, its trio (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Minnesota) would have to be at least three games better than San Francisco’s trio (Washington, Green Bay, New Orleans) over the final two weeks. Possible, but not likely. However, the Seahawks would only need the strength of victory to pull even. That’s because if things go to the sixth tiebreaker, strength of schedule, then Seattle would take it on the basis of having faced Philadelphia (7-7) and Minnesota (10-4), which are a combined three games better than Washington (3-11) and Green Bay (11-3), and that advantage would hold if results forced things to the sixth tiebreaker.
What about getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs?
First off, that would require Seattle winning the division. As determined previously, that can happen by finishing either 13-3 or 12-4.
Secondly, getting a first-round bye means being one of the top two division winners in the conference. The other teams that could finish 13-3 or 12-4 and win their division are Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North and New Orleans in the NFC South (the NFC East dumpster fire need not apply).
Seattle currently is in a three-way tie with Green Bay and New Orleans, but the Seahawks hold the No. 1 seed. That’s because the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results, is thrown out since Green Bay and New Orleans don’t face one another this season; the second tiebreaker, which is conference record, eliminates New Orleans as the Seahawks and Packers are tied at 8-2 while the Saints are 8-3; and the third tiebreaker, which is common games, favors Seattle over Green Bay as the Seahawks are 4-0 in common games (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Carolina) while Green Bay is 2-2. Therefore, if all three teams finish 13-3, Seattle retains the No. 1 seed and a bye in the first round. Indeed, if the Seahawks win out, they’ll receive a bye, though they could lose the No. 1 seed if they finish in a two-way tie with New Orleans, as the Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, having beaten Seattle in September.
The only way Seattle could win the division, but conceivably not receive a bye, is if the Seahawks finish 12-4 and in a two-way tie for the No. 2 seed with New Orleans, Green Bay or Minnesota. In those circumstances Seattle wins the head-to-head tiebreaker with Minnesota, but loses it with New Orleans. If both the Seahawks and Packers finish at 12-4 it again goes down to the common games tiebreaker, which the Seahawks would still hold no matter what Green Bay does in its final game against the Vikings. Therefore, the only way Seattle wins the division, but doesn’t get a bye, is if Green Bay wins its final two games to finish 13-3, while New Orleans splits its final two and finishes tied with the Seahawks at 12-4.
Anyway, that’s my best interpretation of the tiebreaking procedures. I think I need to lie down for a moment.
But my plea to the Seahawks is: “Please, just win out, win the division and earn a bye!” That would save us all from any more playoff-scenario headaches.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.