No one expects the myriad of NFL playoff possibilities that get released by the league each week to make sense. Not with the prospect of ties and tiebreakers relying on strength of schedule and all the other variables that often lead teams to have a laundry list of ways to clinch a postseason berth while only playing one game. What would the fun of that be?
But one of the better quirks in recent playoff possibilities memory is unfolding this week, heading into the first-ever Week 18 in NFL regular-season history.
In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles sit in the No. 7 and final playoff position, having punched their ticket to the postseason Sunday night with the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
That’s all fine and good, but sitting in the No. 6 seed position, with the same record as the Eagles, are the San Francisco 49ers. And despite that same record and higher seeding after 17 weeks, the 49ers have not officially clinched a postseason berth.
We can explain.
It’s all about the tiebreakers, and the 49ers are lacking in the critical category
As the league enters Week 18, the 49ers and Eagles are both 9-7, and the only team with an 8-8 record is the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles were able to clinch a playoff berth on Sunday night when the Vikings lost, dropping them to 7-9 and out of playoff contention. The Saints could tie the Eagles at 9-8 with a victory over the Falcons on Sunday and an Eagles loss to the Dallas Cowboys, but the Eagles would win the tiebreaker between the two based on Philadelphia’s Week 11 victory over New Orleans.
That is the key element that the 49ers are lacking in the same scenario. If San Francisco loses to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday and the Saints beat the Falcons, they would also both have 9-8 records. But in this scenario, the Saints would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 49ers based on conference record, 7-5 to 6-6.
And if all three teams finished tied with 9-8 records, the 49ers would again be the odd team out, also based on conference record. In any of these scenarios in which the 49ers are eliminated, the Eagles would move up to the No. 6 seed, and the Saints would slot in as the No. 7.
The 49ers clinch a wild card with a victory over the Rams and can upend the Rams’ seeding
The 49ers can avoid any doomsday scenarios simply by beating the Rams, clinching the No. 6 seed. But in a quirky twist of fate, that could set the 49ers up for a much more difficult Wild Card Round matchup. The Rams are the only team among the current top four seeds not to have clinched its division. The Cardinals, by virtue of their win over Dallas on Sunday, are poised to capitalize if the 49ers were to knock off the Rams in Week 18.
Los Angeles is currently 12-4 and leads the Cardinals (11-5) by a game in the NFC West. But a Rams loss to San Francisco and an Arizona victory over the Seattle Seahawks would give the division title to the Cardinals, based on better division record. That would plunge the Rams down to the fifth seed and would likely result in either the Cowboys or Tampa Bay Buccaneers occupying the No. 3 seed and hosting the 49ers in the Wild Card Round.
That would mean the 49ers, who with a victory over the Rams on Sunday would be 2-0 against them this season, would not get a third chance to face them. Instead, it would open up the possibility of drawing the Cardinals, who have beaten the 49ers twice this season.
The Eagles could have a quick reunion with their Week 18 opponent
The Eagles take on the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday in Philadelphia, and regardless of the outcome, there’s a decent chance the Eagles and Cowboys will meet once again in the Wild Card Round in two weeks, only this time in Dallas.
If the Rams lose to the 49ers on Sunday, not only would that lock the Eagles into the No. 7 seed regardless of their outcome Saturday, but it would also open the door for the Cowboys (11-5), should they beat the Eagles, to leap from their current position at No. 4 all the way up to No. 2.
The Cowboys would move past the Rams and the Buccaneers (12-4), provided Tampa Bay also loses on Sunday, because of a better conference record in what would be a three-way tie at 12-5.
That would create a 2-7 matchup between Dallas and Philadelphia. But the most likely matchup for the Eagles is the Buccaneers, who beat the Eagles 28-22 back in Week 6.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference