I’m a huge baseball fan, so that whole season is my favorite time of year. But second comes the final few weeks of the NFL season, and when the Saturday games start, that’s the time when they’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. Today is the first batch of Saturday games, and all three of them have some sort of playoff implication (unlike the remaining Monday night games.) For all the things the NFL is, they are the worst prognosticators of what teams will be in the hunt at the end of the season, so it seems like in the last several years they’ve had some real stinkers for MNF at season’s end.
And there’s something that really fascinates me about the math and gymnastics the NFL does to break ties in the standings. They set the schedule in a rigid fashion so each team plays the same number of division games, conference games, and a set number of common opponents for each team in a particular division. It’s rare that they have to go beyond the third stage of tiebreakers to determine playoff teams and scheduling position for the next season. The only time the tiebreakers get to the esoteric stage (like coin flip) is for things like draft order (which is based on standings in reverse order, except the Super Bowl teams draft last regardless of standing.)
But today is the first batch of Saturday games and they’re really all pretty good. So I’ll be sitting slack-jawed looking at the TV most of the day. First up:
Tampa Bay (9-4, 1st in NFC South) at New England (8-5, 1st in AFC East) (1:30 p.m., FOX)
What this game means:
For Tampa Bay, they can maintain their NFC South lead with a win regardless of what the Carolina Panthers do against New Orleans. If both teams win out, Tampa Bay would win the NFC South based on division record (5-1 vs. Carolina’s 4-2.) The loss to Atlanta last week hurt the Panthers badly, while the loss to Tampa Bay 2 weeks ago enabled the Buccaneers to split the season series.
For New England, a win and they’re in the playoffs as the AFC East champions. Despite it being possible to match New England’s overall record, Miami could not beat the Patriots in the next tiebreaker (division record, New England’s worst possible 4-2 vs. Miami’s best possible 3-3.) The Patriots would also maintain what is basically only a mathematical chance of getting a bye through the first week of the playoffs with a win, while a loss would end that possibility. (The top two teams in each conference get to skip to the second round of the playoffs.)
Other teams rooting for Tampa Bay:
Miami, because a win by Tampa Bay helps keep their flickering hopes of winning the AFC East alive for at least another day (the Dolphins host the 3-10 New York Jets tomorrow.)
Denver and Cincinnati, because a loss by New England helps their playoff chances by improving their seeding. Assuming they win their divisions, they can be no worse than a #3 seed, while the AFC East champion (with a New England loss) would be #4.
Other teams rooting for New England:
Carolina, because of the tiebreaker noted above.
Kansas City (8-5, 2nd in AFC West) at New York Giants (9-4, 1st in NFC East) (5 p.m., CBS)
What this game means:
For Kansas City, they can stay in the hunt for the AFC West title with a win, while a loss and a Denver win tonight would end their title hopes. It also puts pressure on San Diego (who plays at 13-0 Indianapolis tomorrow) and Pittsburgh (who plays at 8-5 Minnesota tomorrow,) both of whom share Kansas City’s 8-5 record as they fight for one of the two wild card berths.
For New York, a win keeps them on pace to win the NFC East title, as one of their closest two pursuers would be eliminated tomorrow (Dallas plays at Wahington, the loser would be out of the title hunt if New York wins.)
Other teams rooting for Kansas City:
Dallas and Washington, because a loss by the Giants helps their chances at the NFC East title. In fact, Washington needs the Giants to lose to either Kansas City or Oakland (in the season finale) to have a chance for the title. With a win, Dallas moves back into a tie for the division lead at 9-5.
Seattle, because a loss by the Giants brings them one step closer to a first-round bye – they could be no worse than a #3 seed and with more help this weekend they can be #2 or #1 seed.
Minnesota, because a loss by the Giants and beating Pittsburgh tomorrow puts them ahead of the Giants in any tiebreaker (they beat the Giants earlier this season.)
Other teams rooting for New York:
San Diego and Pittsburgh: both are in the 8-5 group with Kansas City fighting for an AFC wildcard.
Denver: (see below)
Denver (10-3, 1st in AFC West) at Buffalo (4-9, 3rd in AFC East) (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
What this game means:
Denver can clinch the AFC West title with a win in this game, coupled with an earlier win by the New York Giants over Kansas City and an Indianapolis win over San Diego tomorrow. But simply winning assures them a playoff berth, as that would eliminate Pittsburgh in a tiebreaker (at worst an 8-4 conference record compared to Pittsburgh’s best possible 7-5.) San Diego and Kansas City play next week, thus one of them could finish with no more than 10 wins and be eliminated from a possible tie with Denver.
Buffalo is playing for pride, they’ve been eliminated from the playoff race.
Other teams rooting for Denver:
Miami and the New York Jets: Miami would finish no worse than second in the division, and the Jets would have more of a chance to get out of last place in the AFC East. It’s down to pride now for them.
Other teams rooting for Buffalo:
San Diego, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh: all need a Denver loss to improve their division title or playoff chances.
Cincinnati: a loss by Denver would enable the Bengals to pass Denver for the #2 seed and first-round bye. Both have a 10-3 record but Denver currently holds the tiebreaker for conference record (best possible 10-2 for Denver vs. best possible 9-3 for Cincinnati.)
Rooting for weather.com to be right:
Me, because it’s fun to watch games played in the snow and the prediction for Buffalo is 1-3″ today with more snow showers tonight up to 1″. Too bad Buffalo plays on artificial turf, it’s even better when snow games are played on natural grass.