TL;DR While the Seahawks’ season-ending game against the 49ers is the most significant factor by far in who will win the NFC West, if you’re a Seahawks fan, you should be rooting this weekend and next for Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia to win and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose.
It’s time for my late autumn foray into NFL playoff mathematics.
It is well established that the season-ending game between San Francisco and Seattle at CenturyLink Field will in all likelihood decide the championship of the NFC West division. While both teams have clinched playoff berths, the winner of the NFC West will hold at least the third seed in the conference, which guarantees hosting at least one playoff game. This winner also has an excellent shot at either the first or second seed, which would give them a first-round bye. The runner-up would at best earn the fifth seed, meaning no bye and an extremely slim chance of hosting a playoff game. So these teams’ regular season finishes matter a lot.
[N.B. For the purposes of the following discussion, I am ignoring the possibility of tie games.]
Both teams currently sit at 11-3 with two games remaining, and Seattle holds the tie-breaking edge over San Francisco because of its victory in their first matchup last month. As a result, if Seattle defeats San Francisco in their December 29th rematch, Seattle wins the NFC West, regardless of what happens this weekend. For example, in the case where Seattle loses and San Francisco wins this weekend, both teams would finish 12-4, and Seattle would win the NFC West by virtue of a 2-0 record in their head-to-head games.
If either Seattle loses or San Francisco wins this weekend (or both), and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17, San Francisco finishes at least one game ahead of Seattle and claims the NFC West with a 12-4 or 13-3 record.
This leaves one remaining scenario: Seattle wins and San Francisco loses this weekend, and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17. Both teams would finish 12-4, and would have split the season’s head-to-head series. Determining the NFC West winner in this situation requires diving deeply into both other teams’ records and the NFL’s tiebreaking rules.
This scenario also raises the following question: Is it possible for Seattle to clinch the NFC West this weekend, irrespective of the outcome of its rematch with San Francisco? The fact that it’s not mentioned in the coverage of this weekend’s games suggests that the answer is no, but since it’s not addressed explicitly, I decided to analyze it myself.
Since we’ve already determined that Seattle and San Francisco have matching won-lost and head-to-head records, we look at the division record tiebreaker: Both teams would be 4-2. Next up is won-lost percentage in common games, where both teams would be 9-3, and then conference record, where both teams would also be 9-3.
The next tiebreakers are strength of victory and then strength of schedule, where things get considerably more unpredictable, so buckle up.
To calculate the strength of victory, you can exclude the teams that both Seattle and San Francisco defeated and their victories against each other, which collectively account for nine of their twelve victories. This leaves the following six teams to consider: Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia for Seattle, and Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington for San Francisco. Currently that totals to 22-20 for Seattle and 25-17 for San Francisco. While that seems like a significant margin in San Francisco’s favor, it could break either way, from Seattle finishing with a 28-20 vs. 25-23 edge to San Francisco finishing with a 31-17 to 22-26 edge. (Incidentally, only one of the remaining games, Green Bay at Minnesota this Monday night, involves two of the above teams.) More relevant to this discussion, even if all of this weekend’s games break in Seattle’s favor, the two teams’ strength of victory calculations would be an identical 25-20, so there’s no way that Seattle could take the insurmountable lead in strength of victory required to clinch the NFC West prior to Week 17’s games. Alas, we conclude that even with help from other teams, there are no NFC West-clinching scenarios for Seattle this weekend.
In the rare event that Seattle and San Francisco end the season exactly tied in strength of victory, the strength of schedule tiebreaker favors Seattle. The NFL’s scheduling formula dictates that any pair of teams in the same division have exactly two games with non-common opponents: This season, they’re Minnesota and Philadelphia for Seattle and Green Bay and Washington for San Francisco. Currently this gives Seattle a 17-11 to 14-14 edge, so with the right combination of outcomes in this weekend’s games, Seattle could attain an insurmountable margin in strength of schedule. This is useful, because the next several tiebreakers after strength of schedule are based on differentials in points scored which, due to Seattle’s predilection for winning close games, gives San Francisco a huge advantage.
What all of this means is that if you want Seattle to have the best possible chance to win the NFC West, you are rooting for Atlanta, Minnesota and Philadelphia to win both of their remaining games, and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose both of their remaining games. The one additional complication is that if you want to maximize Seattle’s chances of getting the top playoff seed in the NFC, you want Green Bay and New Orleans to have identical records — I’m not going to explain why here — which means that if New Orleans defeats Tennessee on Sunday, you might want to root for Green Bay to defeat Minnesota on Monday.
Or you can ignore all of this and focus your energy on rooting for Seattle to win its remaining two games.