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NFC Playoff Picture: Vikings clinch, but bye not assured yet

Right now, the Vikings are at #2, but there’s a lot that could change in the next two weeks

This post is now, officially, updated with all of Week 15’s results.

With all of the Week 15 action in the books, the Minnesota Vikings are one of only five teams in the NFL that are absolutely locked into a playoff spot, and one of only two in the NFC. As things stand right now, they are in first-round bye territory, but there’s a lot that can change over the course of the next couple of weeks depending on how the ball bounces.

One important thing that I want to emphasize in this is that the Vikings, from this point forward, can only be involved in ties with other division champions. So, I want to go through some of the potential tiebreaker scenarios for the Vikings. Any of these tiebreakers would involve the Vikings splitting their final two games to end up at 12-4 on the season. If the Vikings win their final two games, there are no tiebreakers to deal with as the Vikings would finish 13-3.

  • If Minnesota, New Orleans, and Carolina were to all end up with the same record to finish the season, the tie for the NFC South division champion would be broken first. In that case, the Saints would win that tiebreaker because of a head-to-head sweep over Carolina, and would be declared the NFC South winners. At that point, the tie between the Vikings and the Saints would be broken, and that would go to the Vikings because of their head-to-head win over New Orleans in Week 1.
  • If Minnesota, New Orleans, and Los Angeles were to all end up with the same record, as they’re all division champions, the tiebreaker would go to head-to-head matchups. As the Vikings have beaten both New Orleans and Los Angeles head-to-head, they would end up getting the highest seed of those three teams. Los Angeles would then win the tiebreaker over New Orleans because of their head-to-head win over the Saints.
  • If Minnesota, Carolina, and Los Angeles were to all end up with the same record and New Orleans were to fall to 11-5 and out of first place in the NFC South, then according to ESPN’s Playoff Machine, the Vikings would still end up with the #2 seed. I’m not sure of all the mathematics behind that at this point, but that’s what the Playoff Machine tells me. If you want, you can click on that link and play with all the scenarios that you’d like.

According to the folks from 538, the Vikings now have a 91% chance of getting a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. They could still lose that spot, but it’s going to take a lot of things falling just the right way in order for it to happen. With that, let’s take a look at the playoff field.

#1 seed - Philadelphia Eagles (12-2, NFC East Champions)

With their win over the New York Giants today, the Eagles can now be no worse than the #2 seed, meaning that they have locked up a first-round bye. In order for them to not be the #1 seed, the Vikings will have to win out while the Eagles go 0-2 in their final two games. (Correction: I mistakenly said earlier that the Eagles had to go 1-1 or worse to give the Vikings a chance at the #1 seed, but they would have to lose both while the Vikings win both of their games.) Their final two games aren’t exactly tough, but they do have to face Dallas at home with Ezekiel Elliott, and I’m sure that Dallas would love nothing more than to screw things up for the Eagles if they can.

Remaining schedule: vs Oakland, vs Dallas

#2 seed - Minnesota Vikings (11-3, NFC North Champions)

Winning one of their final two games should be sufficient to get the Vikings a first-round bye, per the scenarios that were outlined above. Of course, winning both of them and putting some heat on the Eagles for the top seed would be better. The Vikings will have to play a Green Bay team that may or may not trot Aaron Rodgers out there on Saturday night. . .as if it matters. . .but should be able to get a win in the regular season finale if they absolutely have to have it.

Remaining schedule: at Green Bay, vs Chicago

#3 seed - Los Angeles Rams (10-4, NFC West Leaders, at #3 due to head-to-head win over New Orleans)

The Rams appear to have put an emphatic end to the idea that Seattle could overtake them for the NFC West title, going into Seattle on Sunday afternoon and absolutely laying waste to their opponents. The folks from 538 now have the Rams as a 98% favorite to win their division, meaning that a lot of things would have to go wrong in order to prevent that from happening.

Remaining schedule: at Tennessee, vs San Francisco

#4 seed - New Orleans Saints (10-4, NFC South Leaders, at #4 due to head-to-head sweep over Carolina)

The Saints had a tough one with the New York Jets on Sunday, but still did enough to walk out with a victory. To make things easier for the Vikings. . .and as nauseating as the idea of cheering for the Saints is. . .it’s probably in the Vikings’ best interest for the Saints to remain on top of the NFC South to make the tiebreakers easier for Minnesota. However, they’ve got a tough one coming in Week 16 against an Atlanta team that just beat them in Week 14 and will likely still be fighting for their playoff lives.

Remaining schedule: vs Atlanta, at Tampa Bay

#5 seed - Carolina Panthers (10-4, Wild Card #1)

The Panthers effectively ended Green Bay’s season with their victory in Carolina this afternoon. As we’ve pointed out numerous times in this space, they do have the disadvantage of having already been swept by New Orleans, so their hopes of winning the NFC South hinge on the Saints losing one of their final two games while the Panthers win out.

Remaining schedule: vs Tampa Bay, at Atlanta

#6 seed - Atlanta Falcons (9-5, Wild Card #2)

The Falcons still occupy the #6 spot in the playoffs at this point, and they get to take on Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football. If they win that one, they’ll have a full game lead on the #6 spot. If they lose, they will fall into a four-way tie with the Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Dallas Cowboys. As emphasized up at the top, we will update this post after Monday Night Football to reflect the most current playoff picture.

Remaining schedule: at New Orleans, vs Carolina

Outside Looking In

#7 seed - Detroit Lions (8-6, at #7 based on better conference record than Seattle and Dallas)

#8 seed - Seattle Seahawks (8-6, at #8 based on superior strength of victory to Dallas)

#9 seed - Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

Officially Mathematically Eliminated

#10 seed - Green Bay Packers (7-7)

#11 seed - Washington Redskins (6-8, at #11 based on head-to-head win over Arizona)

#12 seed - Arizona Cardinals (6-8)

#13 seed - Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9, playing Monday night)

#14 seed - San Francisco 49ers (4-10, at #14 based on head-to-head win over Chicago)

#15 seed - Chicago Bears (4-10)

#16 seed - New York Giants (2-12)

That’s a quick look at the NFC Playoff picture as things stand right now. We will be updating this a couple of times as the last couple of Week 15 results come in so that everyone can be completely up to date on everything.