NFC playoff seeding predictions

Nathan Jahnke breaks down the most likely NFC postseason scenarios with three weeks left of play.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

NFC playoff seeding predictions


We are 14 weeks into the NFL season, and the playoff picture is finally starting to clear up. It’s easy to look at the standings and see what the playoff picture looks like if the season ended today—but the season doesn’t end now.

Instead, we can predict how these next three weeks will go to figure out how the playoffs will likely look when Wild Card weekend actually hits. Here are the projected playoff seedings for the NFC, including the three biggest matchups that will impact the seedings.

1. Carolina Panthers

This is the most obvious selection of this group. The Panthers have already clinched a first-round bye, and it would only take two Carolina wins, an Arizona win and loss, or two Arizona losses for them to get the top seed. Two of their last three opponents come against bottom five defenses, with the Giants (28th) and Buccaneers (32nd), so even if the Panthers don’t pull off the perfect regular season, it’s only a matter of time before home field is locked up.

2. Arizona Cardinals

There are only two teams that could stop the Cardinals from getting a first round bye: the Seahawks and the Packers. The NFC East winner can’t catch Arizona, and even if the Vikings catch the Cardinals in record, Arizona owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. It would take the Cardinals losing out, the Seahawks winning out, and the Cardinals losing the strength of victory tiebreaker, which in itself is unlikely, for Seattle to overtake them. So, the division is practically the Cardinals’ at the moment. This leaves the Packers as the main threat.

A lot of this will come down to the Week 16 matchup, when Green Bay travels to Arizona. While the Packers’ defense has played well in recent weeks, they’ve only faced two top-13 quarterbacks all season. First was Russell Wilson before his hot streak, and then Cam Newton, who led the Panthers’ offense to a 37-point performance. Aaron Rodgers has already faced top secondary’s this year against the Broncos and Panthers—and posted -0.9 and -1.4 grades in each. While the Packers certainly have a chance, the Cardinals should be the favorite to win that game—and therefore get the first round bye.

3. Green Bay Packers

Barring a Packers’ upset of the Cardinals—or a dream scenario for an NFC East team—the third seed in the playoffs will belong to the NFC North champion. The Vikings travel to Green Bay in Week 17, and the winner of the game gains the tiebreaker over the other team. This means the Week 17 winner will likely get this third spot.

Two weeks ago, Sam Monson explained how Adrian Peterson is carrying the Vikings’ offense. Adrian Peterson is someone who has been very hot and cold at times this season. In his best four games, he has a combined PFF rating of +11.4; but in his worst four, he’s been at -7.5. The Packers were able to hold him to 45 yards on 13 carries in their first matchup. As long as the Packers don’t see Adrian Peterson at his best, they should get the win and the third spot.

4. Philadelphia Eagles

By far the most drama in the NFC remains in the NFC East, where three teams are tied at 6-7. Of the three, the Giants have the most difficult schedule, as well as the most problems. They face the Panthers and Vikings over the next two weeks. Odell Beckham Jr. might be the best offensive weapon in the division, but he is the only weapon the Giants have. Over the last three games, Beckham Jr. has PFF grades of +3.7, +3.0 and +3.0. However, they have two of the seven-lowest rated offensive tackles in football, with Ereck Flowers (33.8) and Marshall Newhouse (32.7). On defense, they have played poorly enough that they are still rotating linebackers and safeties to figure out their best grouping. While it’s possible Odell Beckham Jr. can single-handedly give the Giants a few more wins and get them into the playoffs, the path is more difficult than it is for their division rivals.

This leaves the battle between Washington and Philadelphia, which will likely come down to their Week 16 game. They played in Week 4, and the Eagles lost due mainly to poor offensive line play. Their offensive line’s pass blocking efficiency was 61.0 that week, which was second-worst in the league, but in all other weeks, they’ve been at 79.0, which is good for 11th best. It also helps that Philadelphia has been using more Ryan Mathews (71.1) and Darren Sproles (72.3), and less DeMarco Murray (52.9). With these improvements, the Eagles should get the victory. Even if Philadelphia doesn’t win either of their other games and end at 7-9, there is a decent chance they would still win the division.

5. Seattle Seahawks

While it would take a lot of things outside of the Seahawks’ control to win the division, they have the inside track towards getting the fifth seed of the playoffs. They own the tiebreaker over Minnesota, thanks to the Week 13 victory over the Vikings. Their next two games are in Seattle against the Browns and Rams, which are expected to be victories. The main thing that could hold Seattle to the sixth seed is the Vikings winning the NFC North, since the Packers have a one-game lead over the Seahawks, and the tie-breaker.

Looking at the schedule, the big matchup left on the schedule is Week 17 against Arizona, but it’s entirely possible that by the time it gets to kickoff, neither team will have anything to play for. Seattle just needs to beat the two teams they should beat, and then everything else is left to fate.

6. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have a two-game lead over all other Wild Card potentials, and face the Bears and Giants over the next two weeks in Minnesota. The only other teams close are the NFC East teams, and it’s unlikely two teams get close to the Vikings record. Both Atlanta and Tampa Bay are 6-7—and each still has to play Carolina this season. This puts the Vikings in a comfortable position to make the playoffs. This also means the Vikings and Packers could play each other three times over the course of eight weeks.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • techvet

    In the playoffs, if the Packers beat the Vikings and then ARI while the Seahawks thrash the Eagles and hand the Panthers their first loss of the season, then the Packers would be hosting the Seahawks for the conference title game.

    • AJ

      Didn’t the Panthers already beat the Seahawks this yr at the Seahawks? And yet you expect the Panthers with home field and being just as hot as the Seahawks to lose? That’s homerism if I’ve ever heard it.

      • Darnell

        I don’t think he/he said that they are expecting it, just saying that that is the Packers path to hosting the NFCCG.

        Though Sea and GB winning at Car and AZ would be only slight upsets given the championship pedigree of each team. Sea-Car have played each other extremely close in both Sea and Car for a few years now.

      • GorillaWrrior Billy

        No but SEA is the only team that’s gone into CAR and beaten them over past few yrs. If any team can beat CAR at home in NFC, It’s only SEA & ARI – IMO . I can’t see MIN or GB doing anything significant in playoffs, and expect GB to lose to OAK and ARI still.

        • RSR1DRIVER

          Forget Seattle. Wilson is the most dangerous player to worry about. Their defense has been the legion of boom, they have been shredded by every elite quarterback they have faced this season and lost every game except the one to the Steelers and in that game they gave up over 500 yards.

          • digg88

            Shredded….? What do u consider getting shredded? The only qb to shred the secondary was Roethlisberger and even at that he still threw 3 picks. Rodgers and Palmer did decent but nothing spectacular.

      • GorillaWrrior Billy

        Not only that but every game Seattle has lost this year – they’ve been ahead by double digits in the fourth quarter. I would think that the last 2 teams in either conference that anyone would want to Face at the moment are SEA & KC (PIT too – If they get in.)

        • David Stinnett

          More importantly it was a close score at the finish of each. They are in every game. People act like they don’t have a chance. That’s silly, especially with the improvement after getting the O-Line straight and generally catching fire.

    • AKjester

      That sounds unlikely, but fun. It would be a good rubber match game after the last two games were won in the fourth quarter.

    • enai D

      The Packers won’t beat Arizona, its going to take Carolina or maybe Seattle to knock them off.

      • GorillaWrrior Billy

        Agreed

    • Wil Henderson

      Consider if Vikings are wildcard and they and Hawks win out , NFC play-offs in Seattle . Extreme long shot

  • Michael Woods

    You forget the the vikings are primed with the best back in the NFL. And when its snowing like crazy and you can’t throw the ball past 10 yards he will be plowing over you! I would love to see them finally get a ring but i still think if Palmer stays healthy they are winning it all.

    • Wil Henderson

      Rough guess is Vikings VS Packers .
      Question is has Rodgers ever been able to throw over 10 yards in the snow ?
      Uh , yeah