NFC Playoff Movement in Week 18
With the NFL expanding the regular season to 17 games and 18 weeks, last week set up plenty of scenarios with potential seeding movement before the playoffs begin.
The movement in the NFC is easier to understand than the AFC this season with only 32 combinations of game results affecting playoff seeding. There are two teams fighting for one spot, with six teams having clinched through week 17. Those teams are the 8-8 New Orleans Saints and the current six seed 9-7 San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco plays the 12-4 Los Angeles Rams on the road on Sunday at 3:25 p.m. Earlier this season, the 49ers crushed the Rams 31-10 at home in week 11 on Monday Night Football. San Francisco has had the Rams number in recent years, winning the last five matchups against their NFC West rival, including sweeps in each of the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Saints fans will hope that Los Angeles can avoid a third straight year without a victory against the 49ers.
Even though the Green Bay Packers sealed up the top seed and a first-round bye after eliminating the Minnesota Vikings in week 17, the Rams still have something to play for against San Francisco. Because the Arizona Cardinals took down the Dallas Cowboys last week, the NFC West Division Title is still in contention.
Los Angeles split their season series with the Cardinals, but Arizona has a better divisional record at 4-1 than the Rams who are 3-2. If the 11-5 Cardinals beat the Seattle Seahawks, a Rams loss to the 49ers puts them at the fifth seed with Arizona winning the West and hosting a wild card playoff game.
The Rams can potentially eliminate San Francisco by beating them in week 18, but the Saints need to take down their archrival Atlanta Falcons on the road. That game is set for 3:25 p.m. on Sunday as well.
For New Orleans, it's easy. Win, and you have a chance to make the playoffs as the seven seed if San Francisco loses. This is because the Saints own the tie-breaker over the 49ers due to having a better conference record.
However, the 7-9 Falcons have a chance to play spoiler by beating the Saints again in the 2021-22 regular season. New Orleans lost at home to Atlanta 27-25 in week nine, sparking their five-game losing skid.
The good news for Saints fans is that they have a better record on the road this season, winning five of their eight games away from the Superdome. Meanwhile, the Falcons are only 2-5 in Atlanta.
If the Saints beat the Falcons in Atlanta and the Rams beat the 49ers in Los Angeles, New Orleans would be matched up with Los Angeles as the two seed vs. the seven seed matchup on wild card weekend. The Saints can't finish higher than seventh because even if the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles were to lose their final regular season game at home to the Cowboys, the Eagles own the tie-breaker over New Orleans with a head-to-head 40-29 win in week 11.
The Packers have the top seed clinched, but the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys can finish anywhere from the 2-4 seeds, depending on their own results and what happens with the Rams and Cardinals.
The Buccaneers play the 5-11 Carolina Panthers, and, if they were to be upset in that game, they would finish with the fourth seed if they enter a three-way tie at 12-5 with the Cowboys and Rams. Dallas would be the two seed in that scenario. Tampa Bay can finish with the two seed if they beat Carolina and Arizona wins the West. However, the easiest scenario is Los Angeles wrapping up the two seed with a 13-4 record by beating the 49ers.
So, to sum things up in the NFC, there's one division title still in contention, and that's the NFC West. If Arizona clinches the West title, it means that Los Angeles lost and San Francisco will make the playoffs with that victory. If the Rams claim the West with a win, the Saints sneak into the NFC playoffs by beating Atlanta to finish the 2021 regular season. Saints fans can thank Arizona for taking down Dallas in week 17 to prevent the Rams from clinching the West Division title before their season finale.
If you want to see what games affect the playoff standings, you can make picks on ESPN's Playoff Machine.