NFL playoff picture: Washington Commanders Wild Card Watch, Week 12

I intend to publish the Wild Card Watch as a weekly series for as long as Washington has a reasonable chance of earning a playoff spot.

A total of 9 losses on the season by Washington at any point will probably bring the series to an abrupt end.

Until then, I’ll keep my eye on the playoff prize and ignore the 2023 draft for as long as there’s a chance at the postseason.

If you aren’t interested in this kind of article, now would be a good time to return to the front page and look for something less optimistic to read.

The thoughts in this article are my own, and do not represent the views of Hogs Haven, its other writers or its managing editor.


NFC Conference overview

Let’s start with a review of the NFC standings as of today (before the Thanksgiving Day games are played).

The four divisional leaders are circled in blue, and would be seeded 1 – 4 if the playoffs were set based on today’s standings. Under these seedings, the Eagles would get the bye for the wildcard round and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Vikings, Niners and Buccaneers would play the 5th thru 7th seeded wildcard teams.

Again, if the playoffs were to be seeded based on current records, that would put the Cowboys, Giants and Seahawks into the playoffs as the wildcard teams.

The Wildcard weekend would see the following matchups:

  • Dallas at Tampa Bay
  • NY Giants at San Fancisco
  • Seattle at Minnesota

As you can see, Washington is currently a half-game out of the 7th seed, having played (and lost) one more game than the Seahawks.

With the Giants playing in Dallas on Thursday afternoon, barring an unlikely tie game, it is guaranteed that one of those two teams will win, moving to 8-3, while the other will lose, falling to 7-4, and creating opportunity for Washington to move up into a wildcard seeding over the course of the final 6 games of the season.

A series of “must win” games

For Washington to make up ground in the playoff hunt, the Commanders must continue to win games. The team has already beaten the Packers and the Bears, basically eliminating them as competition for the 7th seed. Getting a win against the Eagles two weeks ago added an NFC win to the Commanders’ tally, which creates an advantage in a key tie-breaker for any wildcard seeding.

The two remaining non-divisional NFC opponents are the Falcons and 49ers, with Atlanta coming to FedEx Field this Sunday.

The Commanders need to beat the Falcons for three important reasons:

  1. The Commanders need the win to stay alive in the race for a wildcard seeding.
  2. A loss by Atlanta would drop them 2 games behind based on overall record, but the Commanders’ head-to-head win would create a practical 3-game lead over the Falcons, which will likely be insurmountable with just 5 games remaining.
  3. Beating the Falcons will add another NFC conference win, which is a critical part of the tie-breaking formula.

Losing to the Falcons would be bad for the opposite of these three reasons, hurting the Commanders overall record, pulling the Falcons even on record but with a head-to-head advantage, and adding a loss to Washington’s conference record, all of which would be difficult to overcome in the final 5 weeks of the season.

Let’s assume that the Commanders do what they need to do and get the win at home on Sunday. What would that mean for the team’s playoff chances?

Current Competition – projection model

I don’t pretend for a moment that I can predict wins & losses for a half-dozen teams over a two-month period, but I think that it’s worth having a model that can be used from week to week to chart a path to the playoffs for the Commanders.

And that’s what you’ll see below — a model that is designed to show, not how the Commanders will fail to make it, but a model that shows what seems to be a reasonable path to the postseason.

In this model, the division champs for the North, East and South are presumed to be the Vikings, Packers and Eagles. The NFC West is a bit different; I have shown three teams here, and one of them will go to the playoffs as the division champ. As you can see, I am projecting that to be the 49ers.

With the wins & losses that I have projected here, this is what would happen for the wildcard seedings:

5th seed

The 5th seed would go to the Dallas Cowboys as the only non-division champion to win 12 games.

6th seed

The 6th seed would go to the Seattle Seahawks as the only remaining team to have more than 9 wins.

7th seed

In my model, three teams finish with 9-8 records: the Commanders, Giants and Cardinals.

Tie-Breaking Step 1

Based on NFL tie-breaking procedures, because the Commanders & Giants are from the same division, they would go through the divisional tie-breaking procedure first.

  • Head-to-head competion – in this scenario, the teams split their two games, so this tie-breaker has no resolution.
  • Division record – in this scenario, the Commanders finish 3-3 in the division while the Giants finish 1-5. Washington wins this tie breaker, meaning that the Giants are eliminated.

Tie-Breaking Step 2

  • Head-to-head competion – The only two teams remaining are the Commanders and Cardinals. They did not play each other in the regular season, so this tie-breaker does not apply.
  • Conference record – in this scenario, the Commanders finish 6-6 in the conference while the Cardinals finish 5-7. Washington wins this tie breaker, meaning that the Cardinals are eliminated, and Washington earns the 7th seed.

Obviously this is just one hypothetical path to the playoffs. Again, I have purposely structured it to create a 3-way tie (different from the one I showed last week) in order to explain NFL tie-breaking rules by way of example.

A week ago, I said that I thought the Commanders had about a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs. Having beaten the Texans on Sunday, I’m prepared to move my personal odds up a bit to 55/45. As always, Washington’s playoff hopes rely on the team continuing to win. They lost too many games early in the season to have any wiggle room remaining at this point. The 7th seed is likely to be filled by a team with 9 or 10 wins, which means that the Commanders need another 3-4 wins, with most of them coming against NFC teams, if they hope to make it into postseason play. It’s a tall order for a team playing in the toughest division in the NFL.

This week’s rooting guide

If you want to know who to root for in this weekend’s games, here’s a handy rooting guide aimed at maximizing Washington’s chances of earning a wildcard seeding:

Thursday

Giants at Cowboys
There’s really no bad outcome here, as the two teams have identical records and currently sit 1.5 games ahead of the Commanders in the playoff race (and the ‘race’ for the division title, for what that’s worth).

My feeling is that the Giants are the more vulnerable, and Washington has two remaining chances to inflict losses on them. While you can follow your heart here, I think Washington’s postseason opportunities are optimized by a Cowboys victory that continues the Giants’ tail spin. Go Cowboys.

Bills at Lions
At 4-6, the Lions are barely alive in the wildcard race, but they hold the head-to-head advantage against Washington, so we want to see some nails in the Detroit coffin. No doubt about this one — Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!

Patiots at Vikings
The Vikings have a 2.5 game lead on Washington and hold the advantage in the head-to-head tie-breaker. It’s unlikely that Minnesota and Washington will end up in a tiebreaking situation for a wildcard spot, but on the long-shot possibility, the default position is to root for the AFC team, so, on a low-key basis…Go Pats…

Sunday

Packers at Eagles
The Packers are 2 full games behind the Commanders, and Washington has the head-to-head advantage, so it’s unlikely that Green Bay can pass Washington with just 6 games remaining. The rational thing to do here, however, is to back the Eagles to win.

That won’t sit well with many Washington fans. I’ll tell you what — a Packers win here is unlikely to end up costing the Commies a playoff spot, so if you have to follow your heart and root against Philly, God bless you.

My logical brain will be cheering for the Eagles, but my lizard brain will be secretly hoping for a Packers upset in this game where the Eagles are favored by 6.5 points according to DraftKings.

Raiders at Seahawks
It seems unlikely that the Las Vegas Raiders are gonna suddenly find their mojo, but they just beat the Broncos for the second time this past Sunday, and Derek Carr’s emotional on camera “breakdown” may have been the spark the team needed. What the Commanders need is for the Seahawks to lose this game where DraftKings says they are 3.5 point favorites.

Everybody together now: “Let’s go Raiduhs!”

Saints at Niners
At this point, I’m operating on the theory that the SF 49ers are most likely to win the division, so I’d rather one team in the West run away with it and inflict losses on the other teams rather than having them trading wins & losses for the next 6 weeks and keeping 3 potential wildcard contenders hanging around.

I suggest rooting for the Niners to drop the Saints to 4-8, crushing out most of the remaining hope that New Orleans might have for staying in the playoff hunt.

Rams at Chiefs
We’ve got a lot of NFC-AFC matchups this week. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Rams don’t seem to have much of a shot at making the postseason. Still, they’re not dead yet, so let’s all prepare to do the tomahawk chop. Goooooo Chiefs!

Chargers at Cardinals
The 4-7 Cardinals aren’t dead yet. Let’s root for the Chargers to put an end to Arizona’s playoff hopes this week. Go Bolts!

Bears at Jets
The Bears are pretty much out of contention for a playoff spot, and Washington has the head-to-head tie breaking advantage, but root for the AFC Jets on general principle. J-E-T-S, Jets!

Broncos at Panthers
Panthers aren’t really a playoff threat, but root for the AFC Broncos.

Buccaneers at Browns
Tampa Bay has not locked up the division title by any means. Root for the AFC Browns.

NFC East considerations

Washington is 4 games behind the Eagles in the loss column, meaning that if the Commanders win out (which is very unlikely to happen) they would need the Eagles to go 3-4 in the final 7 games of the season just to get to a potential tie-breaking possibility. If Washington were to go 4-2 in it’s final 6 games, then the Eagles would have to finish 1-6 for Washington to have any shot at the division title.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.


Until the situation becomes much more favorable than that, I won’t be discussing potential paths to a division championship for the Commanders.

There’s a reason why the title says “Wildcard Watch”.


Here are the tie-breaking procedures:

To Break A Tie Within A Division

If, at the end of the regular season, two or more clubs in the same division finish with identical won-lost-tied percentages, the following steps will be taken until a champion is determined.

Two Clubs

  • Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  • Strength of victory in all games.
  • Strength of schedule in all games
  • Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best net points in common games.
  • Best net points in all games.
  • Best net touchdowns in all games.
  • Coin toss

Three or More Clubs

(Note: If two clubs remain tied after one-or-more clubs are eliminated during any step, tiebreaker restarts at Step 1 of two-club format. If three clubs remain tied after a fourth club is eliminated during any step, tiebreaker restarts at Step 1 of three-club format.)

  • Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games among the clubs).
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  • Strength of victory in all games.
  • Strength of schedule in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best net points in common games.
  • Best net points in all games.
  • Best net touchdowns in all games.
  • Coin toss

To Break A Tie For The Wild-Card Team

If it is necessary to break ties to determine the three Wild-Card clubs from each conference, the following steps will be taken.

– If the tied clubs are from the same division, apply division tiebreaker.

– If the tied clubs are from different divisions, apply the following steps.

Two Clubs

  • Head-to-head, if applicable.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  • Strength of victory in all games.
  • Strength of schedule in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best net points in conference games.
  • Best net points in all games.
  • Best net touchdowns in all games.
  • Coin toss.

Three or More Clubs

(Note: If two clubs remain tied after one-or-more clubs are eliminated during any step, tiebreaker restarts at Step 1 of two-club format. If three clubs remain tied after a fourth club is eliminated during any step, tiebreaker restarts at Step 2 of three-club format.)

Apply division tiebreaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tiebreaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants.

  • Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.)
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  • Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  • Strength of victory in all games.
  • Strength of schedule in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.
  • Best net points in conference games.
  • Best net points in all games.
  • Best net touchdowns in all games.
  • Coin toss

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