Given that the Atlanta Falcons aren’t assured of winning the NFC South — they’re ahead of Tampa Bay via the record-against-common-opponents tiebreaker — this might seem like cart-before-horse stuff. But let’s be honest: The Falcons, who are 8-5, have three games remaining, two at home, none against a team that can finish with a winning record. If they don’t win the division, it’s their own darn fault.
At this moment, both the Falcons and Buccaneers would qualify for the playoffs. The difference between qualifying as division winner and wild card is that the division champ gets to start the postseason at home, which is a big deal. But there’s an even bigger deal in play.
At this moment, the Falcons are the NFC’s No. 4 seed. Unless it loses its next three games, Dallas will finish as the No. 1 seed. At 9-4, Detroit holds the No. 2 seed, but its grip — no pun intended — is tenuous: Matthew Stafford tore a ligament in the middle finger of his throwing hand Sunday and the Lions must finish against the Giants, the Cowboys and the Packers. The first two of those games will be on the road.
At 8-4-1, Seattle is a half-game ahead of the Falcons. The Seahawks’ remaining games: Home against Los Angeles and Arizona, then at San Francisco. The Rams are terrible. The 49ers are worse. The Cardinals are 5-7-1.
Seattle has been two teams this season. It’s 6-0 at home, 2-4-1 on the road. In three road games, it hasn’t managed a touchdown. On Sunday in Green Bay, it managed one — to cut the Packers’ lead to 31-10. The Falcons know what can happen at the end of a game at CenturyLink Field, having been undone by the no-call on Richard Sherman on Oct. 16. Take the 12th Man out of the equation and Seattle is nothing special. If the Falcons are the No. 2 seed, they wouldn’t be headed to CenturyLink. The Seahawks would have to play here.
It’s hard to imagine any circumstance in which Seattle loses to the 49ers, even on the road. It’s impossible to envision the Seahawks losing on Thursday to the Rams, whom we just watched fall to the Falcons 42-14 after trailing 42-0 on a day when Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu didn’t play. The only real hope that Seattle will lose is the Cardinals’ game on Christmas Eve. The two tied 6-all in October, but that was in Phoenix.
If Seattle somehow does slip and the Lions wobble enough to lose twice, the Falcons would be the No. 2 seed, which comes with a Round 1 bye. That’s provided they win out, which they should. (Games remaining: 49ers here, Panthers there, Saints here.) And since you asked: Even if the Falcons and Bucs both finish 11-5, the local team will get the seeding nod on the common-opponents deal.
This is heady stuff, yes. Now for the sobering part: Had Sherman been flagged and had Eric Berry not scored on his pick-two, the Falcons might well be 10-3. Meaning they wouldn’t just be playing for the No. 2 seed; they’d have a real chance at No. 1.