The Saints’ path to the playoffs

The Saints are sitting sadly at 4-6, with six games left to play in 2016. They’re not technically out of playoff contention. Yet.

The New Orleans Saints are currently 4-6, tied for the bottom of the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a game ahead at 5-5, and the division-leading Atlanta Falcons are 6-4. Who Dat Dish is here to help break down what needs to happen for the Saints to advance to the playoffs.

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?

Let’s see.

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.

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.

Wild Card

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.

Let’s say the Saints drop a game.

Pretty easy to see the Saints losing a game somewhere down their schedule. Obviously, their path then becomes much harder.

The Buccaneers and the Panthers would both need to lose two games. The Falcons would need to lose three games unless they beat the Saints in Week 17, in which case they’d need to lose four. With games against the Rams and the 49ers, that would likely mean they’d need to lose to one of the Chiefs, the Cardinals or the Panthers.

But the Saints are still alive if they lose a game. Their most important game in this scenario is clearly their matchup with ATL. If they can win in Atlanta, sweep or even split with the Bucs, and get a little help from the other NFC south teams, they’d have a shot.

Let’s say the Saints lose two games.

They’d still be at 8-8, an improvement over the last two years. But they’d have a tough road to the playoffs.

They’d need the Panthers to drop two, maybe three games, and the Bucs to drop three, maybe four.

The real problem, again, is with the Falcons. If the Saints lose two games, they’d need ATL to drop four games even if they beat the Falcons in Week 17. That would likely mean Atlanta losing to all of the Cardinals, Chiefs, Panthers, and Saints. And if the Saints don’t beat Atlanta, at 8-8, it’s hard to see them advancing to the playoffs. The Falcons would need to lose to both the Rams and 49ers, in the scenario.

Let’s say, finally, that the Saints don’t make it to .500, and finish at 7-9 for the third year in a row.

They’d need to lose three games between the Lions, Rams, Bucs, Cardinals, and Falcons to get to this point. Unfortunately, just as it’s possible that the Saints win out, this scenario is entirely conceivable. And Aa 7-9, the Saints wouldn’t realistically have a shot at the playoffs.

Let’s not even consider what the Panthers and the Bucs would need to do with the end of their season: the Saints would need a huge help from the Falcons to make 7-9 a playoff team.

Even if the Saints win their Week 17 matchup, they’d need the Falcons to lose to either the Rams or the 49ers, and then to the Chiefs, Panthers, and Cardinals. Not inconceivable, I know, but considering how the Rams and Niners are playing it’s not likely. And that only works for the Saints if they win at ATL, and sweep the Bucs.

If either of those things don’t happen, Atlanta would need to lose out. As much as I expect them to falter at the end of the season, I don’t see an 0-6 run from the Falcons here.

Nobody wants to see 7-9 again.

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