Russell Wilson’s 97-yard drive in Chicago on Sunday and Seattle’s subsequent 16-13 win in overtime not only cost the Bears their hold on the NFC North but it put the Seahawks in the pole position for the final lap of the NFC Wild Card race.
Seattle, of course, will still be trying to make up the 1.5-game difference in the NFC West standings with San Francisco, but at the very least they now control their own playoff destiny. That’s because the other two teams that went into Week 13 with 6-5 records, the Buccaneers and Vikings, both lost to fall to 6-6. No tiebreaker necessary at the moment; the Seahawks have the #6 seed and will be guaranteed of at least that spot if they win out.
But, of course, winning out is a tall order, especially since the Seahawks have three more division games to play and they are currently 0-3 against their West opponents. All of the 6-6 NFC teams – a club that also includes Dallas and would grudgingly welcome the Redskins if they beat the Giants Monday night – have plenty of reason to believe they can make up that one-game difference and pass (at least) the Seahawks to get into the postseason.
The Buccaneers loss at Denver on Sunday obviously hurt them in the NFC race, but it was not as damaging as a loss to an NFC team would have been. If Tampa Bay can run the table against Philadelphia (3-9), New Orleans (5-7), St. Louis (5-6-1) and Atlanta (11-1 but potentially resting starters in Week 17), they would finish with a 7-5 conference record that might be good enough in any potential tiebreaker scenarios.
The Bucs’ loss and the Cowboys’ win over Philly did bring Dallas back into play for Tampa Bay, and not in a good way. The Cowboys have a head-to-head victory in hand against the Bucs and thus would not be a good team to be matched up against in a straight one-on-one tiebreaker. Of the three 6-6 teams, before Washington’s Monday-nighter, the Cowboys have the edge because their 5-5 conference record is superior, but the Bucs slot in ahead of the Vikings thanks to a head-to-head win.
While the Seahawks have obviously earned an edge, the race is simply too crowded between teams at 7-5 and 5-6 to predict who will come out on top. And history suggests it might not take a 10-6 record to claim a spot. The 2009 race in the AFC started from a similar point in the season’s final month. Denver and Jacksonville had 7-5 records, while the Jets, Ravens, Steelers and Dolphins were all 6-6. Neither the Broncos nor the Jaguars were able to hold onto their spots, as the Jets and Ravens took the two Wild Cards with 9-7 records and, of course, tiebreaker edges.
A similar scenario played out in the NFC in 2007, though with all the teams holding one less win. This time, the Vikings, Lions and Cardinals all sat at 6-6, with Washington a game behind at 5-7. But the Redskins ran the table to finish 9-7 and claim the final Wild Card berth.
Buccaneer players, of course, will continue to focus on one game at a time and avoid looking at the big picture. Still, there is a different energy about the team than there was in December a year ago, simply because the playoffs remain a very real possibility.
“It’s definitely a big difference,” said LB Mason Foster, comparing 2012 to his rookie season. “We’ve just got to continue to get better and keep working. Everybody on the team played their hearts out and played as hard as possible [in Denver], we’ve just got to make more plays and clean some things up.”