Though the Green Bay Packers suffered a demoralizing loss in Buffalo on Sunday to the Bills, Packers fans can rest easy knowing that Mike McCarthy's team still can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs by winning its next two games.
Yes, even though the Packers sit in sixth place in the NFC as of the end of week 15's games, two more wins will seal up at least the second seed in the playoffs, regardless of any other results from around the conference. Let's break it down.
First, here are the playoff standings as they currently sit. Note that the Lions of course overtook the Packers as NFC North leaders, thanks to their narrow victory over Minnesota and the Packers' loss in Buffalo. Also of note is the fact that the Carolina Panthers somehow lead the NFC South at 5-8-1 - however, the Saints can take the lead at 6-8 with a win in Chicago on Monday Night Football this evening. (Bonus fun fact: the only way the NFC South winner can finish with a .500 record is if the Saints win out.)
Here are the standings:
|1||Arizona Cardinals||11-3||NFC West leader|
|2||Detroit Lions||10-4||NFC North leader (head-to-head tiebreaker over GB)|
|3||Dallas Cowboys||10-4||NFC East leader|
|4||Carolina Panthers||5-8-1||NFC South leader (Saints would lead if they win on Monday Night)|
|5||Seattle Seahawks||10-4||Head-to-head tiebreaker over GB|
|6||Green Bay Packers||10-4|
|In the hunt||Philadelphia Eagles (9-5), New Orleans Saints (5-8), Atlanta Falcons (5-9)|
At first glance, it may look like a daunting task ahead of the Packers, as they would have to pull ahead of three other teams with equal records. However, it is the divisional structure and the tiebreakers that make all the difference here.
Of course, the first task is actually winning out. The Packers first travel to Tampa Bay for a date with the 2-11 Buccaneers in Week 16. However, the true test comes in Week 17 against the Lions at home. If the Packers win both games, they will finish at 12-4, and at least one game ahead of the Lions for the top spot in the NFC North. Obviously, the train wreck that is the NFC South would not be in contention for the second seed, so that makes the winner of the NFC East the only other team that could earn a bye.
The Cowboys now have the lead in that division and could also finish 12-4 by winning their final two games - however, a 12-4 Packers team would hold the tiebreaker. If the Cowboys end up 12-4, their 8-4 conference record would lose out to the Packers' (9-3), giving Green Bay the edge.
Then there is the possibility of earning the top seed. It is unlikely that the Packers would still have an opportunity to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, though it is mathematically possible. This would require the Packers to win out (of course), but also these results to go their way: the Arizona Cardinals would have to lose both of their next two games (at home against Seattle and on the road in San Francisco) and the Seahawks must lose at home to the St. Louis Rams in week 17. Again, though it's possible, it's tough to imagine a Rams team that is out of the playoffs beating a Seahawks squad playing for home-field advantage in CenturyLink Field.
Ultimately, the Week 17 game against the Lions was always one the Packers have needed in order to earn a first-round bye. The loss to the Bills does not change that, as the Packers still control their own destiny if they want a free pass to the Divisional Round instead of fighting to advance the week prior.