TEMPE, Ariz. — Playing out playoff scenarios has been the rage ever since the NFL reached the midpoint of the season. But with the calendar turning to December and just four games left on every team’s schedule, it’s time to look at those scenarios in earnest for the Cardinals, even if the team isn’t looking that far ahead.
“There’s too many things going on,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We can’t worry about the playoffs. They’ll take care of themselves.”
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For purposes of this analysis, we’re writing off the Bears (6-6), who have a dreadful conference record, a dreadful defense and a tough schedule to finish the season.
That leaves the Eagles, Cowboys, 49ers and Panthers in the mix, with one of the former two likely winning the NFC East and removing themselves from wild-card contention.
TWO STRIKES AND THEY’RE OUT
Let’s start by agreeing that if the Cardinals lose two of their final four games, they’re done. Assuming the Seahawks (11-1) win the NFC West (a safe assumption), the Cardinals are in a battle for a wild-card spot.
Two losses would mean they would either need Philadelphia or Dallas to go 1-3, because the Cards lose tiebreakers with both clubs. They would also need San Francisco (8-4) to go 1-3 in its final four games and then lose a tiebreaker to the Cardinals (those dire scenarios will be discussed below), or Carolina (9-3) would have to go 0-4 and finish in a tie with the Cardinals, who would win that tiebreaker based on a win over the Panthers in Week 5 (the last time Carolina lost).
But since Carolina and San Francisco both have Atlanta (3-9) and Tampa (3-9) left on their schedules, we don’t see this happening.
If the Cards go 4-0, they would make the playoffs if the 49ers lost another game (probably to the Seahawks) besides the season finale in Glendale, allowing the Cardinals to finish with a better record, or if Carolina lost two games and finished with the same record as Arizona.
The Cardinals would beat out the NFC East competitor in that scenario, because either Philadelphia or Dallas has to lose (or tie) when they play each other, giving one team at least one fewer win than the Cards and the other the division title.
WOULD GOOD BE GOOD ENOUGH?
But what if the Cards go 3-1 down the stretch? Do they still have a shot? That probably won’t be good enough to catch the Panthers, who would need to go 1-3, but it would be enough to pass an NFC East team that goes 2-2.
Would it be good enough to catch the 49ers, provided that one loss is not to San Francisco?
Let’s say the 49ers and Cardinals both lose to the Seahawks and win their other games (the Cards play the Rams and Titans). If Arizona were to beat San Francisco in the final game of the season, both clubs would have 10-6 records.
The first tiebreaker for an NFC wild-card spot between teams in the same division is head-to-head play. The teams would have split those two games. The second tiebreaker is division record. The Cardinals would be 2-4, while the 49ers would be 3-3, giving the 49ers the final spot.
LITTLE MARGIN FOR ERROR
There are, of course, no guarantees that the games play out as we guessed, but the best scenarios for the Cardinals are either going 4-0 down the stretch (obviously) or somehow being tied with the 49ers heading into that final game so that if they win, the wild-card spot does not come down to a tiebreaker.
Oh, and we haven’t forgotten about the Saints possibly being a wild-card team if the Panthers win the NFC South (the teams play twice in the final four weeks). But with a two-game lead on the Cardinals in the standings and an edge in tiebreakers, the Saints essentially have a three-game lead in that theoretical race with just four to play. Even with two New Orleans losses to Carolina, that’s not a scenario that would play out in Arizona’s favor.