Let’s say the Saints win out.
The Saints have a fairly manageable final six games. They play two games at home vs. the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions, go on the road for games at Tampa Bay and Arizona, back home for another matchup with Tampa Bay, and finally off to Atlanta in Week 17.
Let’s say the Saints win out. It’s not impossible. The team is paradoxically playing its best football recently, despite what their two-game losing streak suggests. They’re heavy favorites against the Rams and matchup pretty evenly with Detroit, both of whom they play at home. Tampa Bay is on a two-game winning streak but hasn’t looked very dangerous this year. Arizona has been one of the most disappointing teams of the season, and the Saints nearly beat Atlanta earlier in the year without Delvin Breaux.
Six wins would put the Saints at 10-6. Is that good enough for the playoffs?
Their two victories over Tampa Bay would put them ahead of the Bucs.
The Panthers could, in this scenario, also win out. That would put them also at 10-6. Since the teams split their head-to-head matchups, the tiebreaker would come down to division record. And if the Saints do win out, that would put them at 4-2 in the division. The Panthers have already dropped three division games, so the Saints would be ahead of them.
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And then there’s the Falcons. A win in Week 17 would mean the Falcons would, at least, drop to five losses. They still have the Rams, the 49ers, and the Cardinals on their schedule, and it’s not hard to see them winning those three games. If they also beat the Chiefs and the Panthers, they would finish the season at 11-5. One game ahead of the Saints.
If, on the other hand, they lose any of those games, they’d be tied with the Saints at 10-6. If that loss comes against the Panthers, the Saints would own the division tiebreaker, and would win the NFC South. If that loss comes against another team, the winner would be determined by the win-loss percentage against common opponents. Much of that would come down to who the Falcons lose to.
And if, of course, they drop any two of those games, it’s the Saints division.
The Redskins and the Giants are currently the two wild-card teams. The Redskins are 6-3-1, and the Giants are 7-3. Both have fairly difficult schedules to close out the season.
The Saints would need either the Redskins to lose three games, or the Giants to lose four. Considering the Giants play the Browns next week, it’s safe to say they’d need to win only one game against the Steelers, Cowboys, Lions, Eagles, and Redskins.
The Redskins play the Cowboys, Cardinals, Eagles, Panthers, Bears, and Giants. If the Saints are making the wildcard, it’s probably going to be due to some Redskins losses.
But it’s a much easier path to the top of the NFC South than it is to a wildcard spot.