The Los Angees Rams’ decimation of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15 has them inches away from their first playoff appearance since 2004. I went in depth on potential playoff scenarios for the Rams back when they were 8-3, so it’s about time we revisit potential playoff scenarios. Let’s do this:
Can the Rams still get a first round bye?
Yes, but it would require the Minnesota Vikings to lose out. Since Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles both beat the Rams, the Eagles have already clinched a bye. The Vikings would clinch with one more win. Minnesota faces the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears to close out the season. The Packers will be a tough out if the team plays Aaron Rodgers, but I can’t imagine the Vikings blowing a first-round bye. They should handle the Bears in Week 17.
The good news for the Rams is that they hold the tie-breaker over both the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers.
Wait, the Rams haven’t clinched the NFC West? How do they clinch?
The Rams took a commanding two-game lead over Seattle on Sunday, but the division is still up in the air. If the Rams lose out and the Seahawks win out, the Seahawks would claim the division with a 5-1 record in the NFC West.
The path to clinching is easy for the Rams. The Rams need to win or tie either of their final two games. It’s hard to imagine them losing to both the Tennessee Titans and the San Francisco 49ers. Even if they somehow drop both games, one Seattle loss would also give the Rams the division title. The struggling Seahawks have a tough matchup against the returning Ezekiel Elliot in Dallas this week. The Rams have climbed the ladder and grabbed a hold of the belt, they just need to take it.
If they lose the division, can they still get a wildcard?
The teams the Rams would have to contend with for a 10-6 wild card berth are Atlanta, Carolina, and Detroit. Dallas is very much in the wild card mix. However, for the Rams to lose the division, the Cowboys would have to lose to Seattle. Losing to Seattle means the Cowboys could finish no better than 9-7. Meanwhile, the Rams would lose the tie-breaker to both Detroit and Atlanta. They would sneak in over Carolina if both teams implode thanks to a better conference record.
Yes, the Rams could get a wildcard spot at 10-6, but let’s not think about that.
Assuming they win the NFC West, will the Rams be a 3 or 4 seed?
Thanks to owning tie-breakers with the Saints and Panthers, the Rams control their own destiny to the No. 3 seed. Should the Rams finish 11-5, they would win a tie-breaker with the Saints and lose a tie-breaker with the Falcons. The Panthers are where it gets interesting.
If the Rams and Panthers win their respective divisions at 11-5, the tie-breaker would depend on which game the Rams lose. If they lose to the Titans, they will be the No. 3 seed thanks to a better conference record. If they lose to San Francisco, the Panthers would earn the three seed thanks to strength of victory. This scenario is highly unlikely to happen, but it is in the realm of possibility.
Here’s a question nobody is asking: “What if the Rams win the division at 10-6, and the Falcons, Saints, and Panthers also all finish 10-6?” The Falcons would get the 3 seed and the Rams would get the 4 seed.
Who are we most likely to play in the first round?
The most likely scenario is that the Rams are the No. 3 seed. Assuming that, let’s rank all possible opponents based on likelihood:
- Atlanta – If Atlanta splits their games with the Panthers and Saints, and we assume Tampa Bay doesn’t win another game this year, Atlanta is the six seed. They win the tie-breaker over every team competing for the spot thanks to what would be a 9-3 conference record. This seems like the most likely matchup to happen.
- Carolina – Atlanta winning out and Tampa Bay losing out would pit the Rams against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
- Detroit – Should Atlanta play itself out of the playoffs, or if they play themselves in and Tampa Bay pulls off a miraculous upset or two, Detroit holds the tie-breakers. In that case, the Lions should be in a tie with either NFC South team and either Dallas or Seattle. However, they would lose the tie-breaker if they are tied with just an NFC South team. They face Cincinnati in Week 16, but a matchup with Green Bay in Week 17 could knock them out of the playoffs if Aaron Rodgers is still on the field.
- Dallas/Seattle – If the same scenario happens for Detroit to make the playoffs, and Detroit drops one of their final two games, the winner of Week 16’s Dallas/Seattle game may find themselves in the postseason. Dallas seems like the favorite to win this matchup, but they have a much tougher Week 17 matchup due to a trip to Philadelphia. I’m not banking on either of these two teams to make the playoffs at the moment.
- New Orleans – The Saints are much more likely to make the playoffs than every team on this list, but their path to the 6 seed is incredibly unlikely. They would need to lose out and have any of the following scenarios happen:
- If Atlanta wins the division, the winner of the Dallas/Seattle game would need to win in Week 17, and Detroit would have to lose.
- If Carolina wins the division, they would need both Dallas and Seattle to finish 9-7.
Let’s just say the Saints do split their final two games. They would finish in the No. 4 spot and almost certainly play the middle team out of the three NFC South teams, which will most likely be Carolina or New Orleans. For the Rams to play a non NFC-South team in the four spot, they would need Atlanta to win their division, Tampa Bay to win out, and both Detroit and Dallas/Seattle to win out.
What other games should I be watching over the next two weeks?
There are a few games of note: Atlanta vs. New Orleans has pivotal NFC South implications, Seattle vs. Dallas is a win or go home matchup that could give the Rams the NFC West, and Green Bay vs. Detroit could be a preview of the Rams playoff opponent if things shake out well for Detroit. But if you watch one game besides the Rams, make it the Week 17 matchup between Atlanta and Carolina.
Here is how important this game could be to playoff seeding:
- If Atlanta and Carolina both win in Week 16, the winner of this game will win the NFC South, and the loser will be the six seed assuming New Orleans takes care of Tampa Bay.
- If Atlanta loses and Carolina wins in Week 16, its most likely a win or go home game for Atlanta. A win would give them the six seed, and a loss would send them packing should either Detroit or Dallas/Seattle win out.
- It gets more complicated if Atlanta and Carolina both lose in Week 16. Then the Saints would clinch the NFC South, and the playoffs will get a whole lot more interesting. The winner would make the playoffs as the five seed. Atlanta would miss the playoffs with a loss if either Detroit or Dallas/Seattle get to 10 wins. Carolina would miss the playoffs with a loss if both Detroit or Dallas/Seattle get to 10 wins, or if just Dallas/Seattle get to 10 wins. If Detroit and Carolina are alone tied for the 6 seed, Carolina would still sneak into the playoffs.
Is that all? Can you just tell me how to feel?!
Faaaaantastic. FiveThirtyEight has the Rams at a 99% chance of a making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning the Super Bowl. Could you imagine somebody telling you that at the beginning of the season?! Fans should be preparing for the Coliseum to host a Rams playoff game for the first time since 1985.
Steve Rebeiro is a staff writer and podcast host for Rams Talk. He graduated from Marquette University in 2016. For more of his opinions, follow him on Twitter here.