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NFL playoff picture: Falcons on verge of being first elimination

By Joe Ferreira | Special to CBSSports.com

ATLANTA is hanging by a thread to playoff contention life after losing to New Orleans in Week 12 and watching both Carolina and Arizona win on the weekend. Here is why Atlanta is still alive:

  • The best Atlanta can be is 7-9 overall and 6-6 in the conference. The Falcons can't win the division since they can't catch New Orleans and Carolina, so they must be able to secure a wild-card spot.
  • Since Arizona is 7-4 and not leading its division, Atlanta must have Arizona lose its remaining games to have a shot. Also, Atlanta lost to Arizona head to head so it can't be matched up directly with the Cardinals.
  • If Arizona loses out to get to 7-9, that gives wins to Philadelphia (7 wins then), St. Louis (6 wins then) and San Francisco (7 wins then).
  • We'll get to Philadelphia later since the Eagles can still win the NFC East.
  • Arizona losing out forces San Francisco to lose the rest of their games since it would be at 7 wins. The 49ers losing out (other than their win over Arizona) gives a win to St. Louis (now at 7 wins in this scenario).
  • Now St. Louis at 7 wins needs to lose out (other than wins over San Francisco and Arizona) and that gives wins to New Orleans and Seattle, which is OK for Atlanta since the Falcons can't catch them anyway.
  • So now we have a three-way tie at 7-9 in the NFC West between Arizona, San Francisco and St. Louis. Atlanta beat St. Louis and will beat San Francisco in this scenario on Week 16, but lost to Arizona. In the three-way tie, Arizona would drop out of the pack as it would have been swept head to head by both St. Louis and San Francisco in this scenario and both St. Louis and San Francisco are 3-1. In the two-way tiebreaker between St. Louis and San Francisco, the two teams would tie in head to head (1-1), division record (3-3), common opponents (5-7) and conference record (4-8). It would then come down to strength of victory and St. Louis would likely win that based on who it is beating. But regardless, Atlanta would have a conference record advantage over either team (6-6 vs. 4-8) and would have beaten both St. Louis and San Francisco head to head in this scenario, so Atlanta is OK on that front for now.
  • As for Philadelphia, since the Arizona lose-out gave the Eagles their 7th win and the Eagles play Detroit (6 wins), Chicago (6 wins) and Dallas (6 wins), it appears it is easiest for the Falcons to have Philadelphia win out and claim the NFC East title. If that occurs, you need to look at Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay and even the Giants at or below the 7-win threshold (other than one team winning the NFC North).
  • With Dallas at 6 wins and assuming it loses to Philadelphia in Week 17, the Cowboys still play Chicago and Green Bay and already have 6 conference wins (matching Atlanta ... Atlanta and Dallas did not play each other). For arguments sake, I'll give Dallas a loss to Chicago (as I would like to see Chicago win the NFC North as it plays Dallas, Philadelphia and Green Bay) and have Dallas tie Green Bay next week. If Dallas loses the rest of its games, it would end with a 6-9-1 record which would be below Atlanta at 7-9. The Giants could lose out except for beating Detroit (Week 16) and splitting with Washington to finish 6-10. Washington would split with the Giants in Week 13 and 17 and beat Dallas in Week 16, but it would lose to Atlanta in Week 15 in this scenario as well as to Kansas City on Week 14, and finish either 6-10 (if it beats San Francisco on Monday night) or 5-11 (if it loses to San Francisco).
  • So we got the NFC East down to just the division champion in Philadelphia, but how does that effect the NFC North? Detroit and Chicago have 6 wins and Detroit swept Chicago, so they dont play again. I already gave Chicago a win over Dallas and it can either lose or win against Philadelphia. Let's give the Bears a win over the Eagles and a win against Green Bay, getting them to 9 wins at least and winning the NFC North.
  • Green Bay already has a tie against Dallas above, which -- when added to the Minnesota tie this week -- gives the Packers 6 wins. They will lose to Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburgh in this scenario, which leaves just the Detroit game next week. Let's get back to that in a second.
  • As for Detroit, the Lions are at 6 wins, and we have them losing to Philadelphia, the Giants, Baltimore and Minnesota, leaving just the Green Bay game.
  • The easy way for Atlanta to get rid of Detroit and Green Bay is to have them tie that game and both end at 6-9-1, which would not match the Falcons at 7-9. Or, we could have Green Bay win that game at Detroit and Atlanta would have head to head over Green Bay and a better conference record (6-6 vs. 4-6-2, which is same as 5-7).
  • So we have Carolina at the No. 1 wild card at 8-8 or better. Philadelphia wins the NFC East, Chicago wins the NFC North and New Orleans wins the NFC South. For the No. 2 wild card, Atlanta would be matched up with either St. Louis or San Francisco from the West at 7-9 and either Green Bay at 6-8-2 (7-9) or no one from the NFC North if Green Bay and Detroit tie in the scenario above. Regardless, Atlanta has a better conference record than each of those teams AND would have head-to-head wins against St. Louis, San Francisco and Green Bay. So Atlanta would go in as the No. 6 seed.
  • Which brings us to Monday night. If San Francisco wins or ties against Washington, that forces the winner of the San Francisco-Arizona game in Week 17 above the 7-win barrier Atlanta needs. Even if the San Francisco-Arizona game ends in a tie, Arizona would be at 7-8-1 which would beat Atlanta at 7-9.
  • So Atlanta is eliminated from playoff contention this week with a San Francisco win or tie.
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