After last night’s Seahawks victory, people started reporting that the Seahawks have clinched a playoff berth. However, there are more than enough teams who are capable of matching the Seahawks’ worst-case won-loss record of 11-5, and I couldn’t find anybody who had – in the words of math teachers everywhere – shown their work. So I decided to work it out myself, and either prove that the Seahawks did indeed clinch or find at least one scenario where they would not make the playoffs.
Starting with the fact that the Seahawks are guaranteed no worse than an 11-5 record, this limits the analysis to NFC teams whose won-loss records are 7-5 or better. Apart from Seattle, there are seven of these: Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Orleans, Arizona, and San Francisco.
We know that Seattle has not yet clinched the NFC West, because San Francisco is 8-4 and could finish 12-4. So it’s possible that Seattle would have to settle for a wild card spot. In fact, San Francisco could lose its final game to Arizona and still win the division, because if Seattle loses the rest of its games and the 49ers win all but the last, both teams are 11-5. Then the 49ers would win the tiebreaker based on having a superior division record (4-2 vs. 3-3). More on this later.
Now let’s go through the other divisions. The NFC North is easiest: Only the Lions can go 11-5, and if they do, they win the division and thus don’t compete for a wild card berth.
In the NFC East, both the Cowboys and the Eagles are 7-5. Either could go 11-5, but since they face each other in the final game of the season, if one goes 11-5, the other would be at best 10-6. In this case, the 11-5 team would win the division and the 10-6 team would fall below an 11-5 Seahawks team in the quest for a wild card berth.
In the NFC South, both Carolina and New Orleans are 9-3. Both have lost to the Seahawks, so they must go 12-4 to beat Seattle for a wild card berth. This is possible, since though they face each other twice, if they split those two games and each win their other two games, they’re both 12-4. One of them would win the division – I haven’t bothered figuring out who – and the other would take a wild card spot over an 11-5 Seahawks team.
So that leaves the NFC West: The 49ers, the Cardinals, and the Seahawks, with one wildcard spot guaranteed to be available to an 11-5 team. One scenario is that the 49ers win their remaining games and the Seahawks lose theirs. In this case, the 49ers win the division at 12-4, but in doing so they beat the Cardinals, who would be at best 10-6. So the Seahawks would get the second wild card berth at 11-5.
The second interesting scenario is where the Cardinals win all of their remaining games, the 49ers win all but the Cardinals game, and the Seahawks lose all of theirs. In this case, all three teams finish with 11-5 records.
Let’s go through the tiebreaker steps under this scenario:
- Head-to-head. All three teams are 1-1 against each other.
- Division record. Currently Seattle is 3-0, San Francisco 3-1 and Arizona 0-3. In this scenario, San Francisco would end up 4-2, and both Seattle and Arizona 3-3. San Francisco would win the division, leaving Seattle and Arizona to contend for the last wild card berth using the remaining steps.
- Record against common opponents. There are twelve of these for Arizona and Seattle. Arizona is 6-3 with three remaining and Seattle is 9-1 with two remaining. So both would end up 9-3.
- Conference record. Seattle is currently 8-0 with four remaining and Arizona is 4-5 with three remaining. So Seattle would end up 8-4 and Arizona would end up 7-5. Advantage, Seahawks!
There you have it! Even if Seattle doesn’t win another regular season game and every other playoff contender wins every game that it needs to, Seattle is guaranteed at least a wild card berth. And if they defeat the 49ers next Sunday, they clinch the NFC West and have only one remaining competitor (the winner of the Carolina-New Orleans game) for the top playoff seed in the NFC.