December 12, 2010

Falcons all but own NFC South title, Saints' schedule is tough

The Saints' victory over the Rams in Week 14 helped them keep pace with the Falcons, who beat up on division caboose Carolina 31-10 to move to 11-2. 

The Falcons are in the drivers seat for the #1 overall seed in the NFC, and the Saints control their own destiny in the wildcard race.

At 10-3, Sean Payton's team remains in the lead for a wild card berth in the NFC playoff picture.  The Saints remain ahead of the 8-4 Giants, 8-4 Eagles, 8-5 Packers and 8-5 Bucs for the 5th seed and the right to play their first playoff game on the road in the stadium of the NFC West divisional winner.

The Saints finished 3-1 against the NFC West, and with the title race still up in the air, no team in that division had a winning record.

The 11-2 Patriots are the first team to claim a playoff birth in the NFL with their win over the Bears today.

New Orleans faces a tough three-game finish to the season, three games that will make or break their season. 

In order to win the NFC South, the Saints would likely need the Falcons to lose two games.  Even if the Saints beat the Falcons, Atlanta can still claim the NFC South title and the NFC's top seed. 

Tie-breakers for the Saints-Falcons, both at 13-3, would be first be divisional record.  Both teams would finish tied at 5-1 in the division.  Then, conference record, and both teams would finish 10-2 in the NFC. 

The next tiebreaker would be common opponents.  Losses to Arizona and Cleveland earlier in the season hurt the Saints here, as the Falcons beat both of those teams.  The Falcons lost to the Steelers, who the Saints beat.  Atlanta would still win the common opponent record tiebreaker, 11-1 to 10-2.  

But lets not get ahead of ourselves - next week's bout in Baltimore is one of the toughest games on the Saints' 2010 schedule. 

The Falcons have also played and beaten the Ravens, so that loss would also deliver near-fatal blow to the Saints' NFC South title hopes.

In short, to open the door for the Saints, the Falcons would need a monumental collapse in winnable games against 6-7 Seattle or the hapless Panthers, in addition to losing to the Saints at home on Monday Night Football two days after Christmas.

The likely hope would be for the Saints to win the 5th overall seed, play the 4th seeded NFC West division winner in the wildcard round of the playoffs.  That would send them to 1st seeded Atlanta in the divisional round of the playoffs, unless the 6th seed upsets the 3rd seed.

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