A Wild Finish to the NFC West Playoff Race Last Season Came within 4 points, of an 11-5 team not Making the Playoffs for the First Time in NFL History

Note, a quick rundown of a fascinating end of season playoff race in the NFC West was originally part of a preamble to some interesting week 7 NFL picks. It arose from the fact that the Dallas Cowboys, widely expected to lose, defeated (and frustrated) the home field Seahawks in week 6, and looked like the better team in the process. And the fact that remarkably this upset didn’t just come on the heels of a 17-1 home record for the Seahawks under quarterback Russell Wilson, but on the hills of a 17-1 home record for Wilson over the course of the very first 18 home games of his NFL career – a career that also began with him as the starter from day one of his rookie year. And here’s where a fairly interesting story from late last season comes into play: That sole home loss by the Seahawks, for what up until Dallas had been the entire duration of Wilson’s 2+ year career, came in in week 16 last December to an Arizona Cardinals team playing hard under first year head coach Bruce Arians.( (discussed a recent post regarding the firing of Titans head coach  Mike Munchak, only to replace him with pre-Arians Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt). And it came in a very meaningful late season game.

Assured of a playoff spot (one of only 3 teams, along with San Francisco and Carolina, to have even clinched a playoff spot heading into the final week of the season), the Seahawks were still trying to clinch the division.

They did, however, have the upper hand: With a loss to the Cardinals, they would still clinch with a loss by the 49ers that same day (the 49ers however, predictably beat the struggling Falcons by 10 in a Sunday night game); a win the last week of the season against the St. Louis Rams; or even, once again, a 49ers loss in the last week of the season as well.

However, beating the Rams – who had played Seattle tough earlier in the season, and were coming off of two reasonably solid wins (including an 11 point victory over the New Orleans Saints, a strong team struggling to get into the playoffs, who still wound up with an 11-5 record) – was not a lock. And San Francisco was arguably one of the top 3 teams in the NFL – some argue top 2 – at the end of last season. And, their week 17 game did come down to the wire, the 49ers did win.

But while the game was meaningful for the Seahawks,  it might not have been as much as for Arizona, who was fighting to stay alive just for a for wild card spot, and would be far from assured of making it even with an upset of Seattle.  (Not only that, they were also far from assured of making it even with an upset of Seattle, and a win in their last week of the season, which would put them at 11-5.)

It was a wild, and confusing, NFC playoff battle all around last year. So much so that even some otherwise very helpful articles might have gotten one detail or another wrong as a result. For example, here’s an otherwise very informative article in the Washington Times asserting that the 10-5 Saints, even with a loss, would be in if either San Francisco or Arizona lost.

That sounds reasonable. But if the Cardinals won and San Francisco and the Saints both lost, the Cardinals and 49ers would both finish 11-5. for the last two wild card spots; while the Saints, regardless of their strong tie breaker edge, would be out at 10-6.

And the thing was, in that ensuing last week of the regular season, the 49ers were playing none other than these same Cardinals – who, by handing Wilson his first ever home loss in 15 tries, had now kept their playoff hopes alive. This means that if Arizona won, San Francisco would have to lose, and both would finish up 11 – 5. Meaning that the Saints (barring a fluke tie) had to win in week 17.

On the other hand, if Arizona and the Saints both won, the Saints, the Cardinals, and the 49ers would all be 11-5. And Arizona would be the odd team out. At 11-5.

In other words, while the Saints were assured of a playoff spot if they moved to 11-5 (they were playing a poor but rather unpredictable division opponent Tampa Bay Buccaneers team who had also almost given Russell Wilson that second home loss of his career – losing in overtime – several weeks earlier), the Cardinals were far from it.

The 49ers, in the meantime, were also playing for a lot. A wild card spot for an extra playoff game, and a likely trip (provided they kept winning) on the road. Or, instead number 2 or 1 seed, meaning only two playoff games en route to the Super Bowl, not three, and either home field up until the championship game, or including it.

The Seahawks had to lose, however, which would give San Francisco the tie breaker over them, and thus the division. And, at 12-4, also the No.1 seed. If the Carolina Panthers – who also hadn’t yet clinched the division, lost. (In fact, not a single NFC division winner had been determined heading into the last week of the season.)

Here’s where it gets really wild: Seattle held the tie breaker over Carolina.  So if both finished up 12-4 as division winners, Seattle would be the No. 1 seed. But Seattle loses the tie breaker to San Francisco, if both those teams finish 12-4, San Francisco would win the division.

And if Carolina also wins along with San Francisco, and also moves to 12-4 – even Seattle would be out anyway, even though Seattle beat Carolina early in the year and so holds the first tie breaker over them – because they would lose the tiebreaker to San Francisco for the division, so a San Francisco win knocks them to a wild card.  In which case, Carolina, which has the tie breaker over San Francisco, would be the number one seed.

In other words, if Carolina wins and Seattle loses, a San Francisco win is key for Carolina. Otherwise they are the number two seed with a win (or a Saints loss, since the two other divisions – the NFC East and NFC North, were well behind and bunched up, so, win or lose, Carolina would have at least the number 2 seed if they simply win the division.)

And, Carolina was playing the very same team in week 17 that the 49ers had to beat in week 16 to clinch a playoff spot and keep their division wins alive. The Falcons. As it turned out, Carolina went on to get a team record 9 sacks against Atlanta, and win. By 1 point.

A lot of confused outcomes were resting on the Arizona San Francisco game. Much of it was because of the unexpected upset, under first year head coach Arians, of Seattle by the Arizona Cardinals the week before – handing Russell Wilson his first home loss in his career, spanning a total of 15 games.

Thus in week 17 Arizona needed the Buccaneers to pull an upset as much as they needed to beat San Francisco. The Saints, in case they lost, needed Arizona to lose. Since Seattle held the tie breaker and they needed the Seahawks to lose their division, Carolina in turn needed Arizona to lose (and thus the 49ers win), to have a chance at the No. 1 seed. Seattle, unless they could finish out their season with a win, needed Arizona to win,

And San Francisco needed the win to not be a road team, have a chance at winning the division, being assured a number 2 seed (to Carolina) and a bye, and a chance at the No. 1 seed. (And which may or may not have ultimately cost them, as they lost a close game for the NFC championship in Seattle, who otherwise never would have been a home team, weeks later.)  But they also needed Seattle to lose.

Seattle didn’t, beating the Rams 27-9

Meanwhile, the Saints thrummoxed the enigmatic 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-17 that final week.

Yet the Cardinals, who fell behind 17-0, ultimately lost a hard fought and close game, 23-20, losing, in the process, not just to the 49ers, but again, to the very same team to eventually lose in the NFC Championship game to those same Seahawks, in what many have called the “real” Super Bowl.

Though disappointing for the Cardinals, their very close week 17 loss did avoid the unprecedented occurrence of an 11-5 team (10-6 is rare enough) flukily not making the playoffs for the first time in NFL history. And thus, the inevitable griping (and possibly even playoff system alteration) that would likely have followed about how some teams who were “better” than others – as will be the case with any playoff system – didn’t get in.

But while the Cardinals didn’t make it, those three teams from the NFC West put on quite a show last season.

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9 thoughts on “A Wild Finish to the NFC West Playoff Race Last Season Came within 4 points, of an 11-5 team not Making the Playoffs for the First Time in NFL History

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