With two regular-season games left on the NFL schedule, the NFC South is as up for grabs as a Brett Favre pass (no offense Brett, but your 336 interceptions are the most ever by an NFL quarterback). The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are tied at 10-4 and both have work to do.
If the season ended today, the Saints would have the NFC’s No. 2 seed while the Panthers would own the No. 5 seed. New Orleans would win the NFC South. But that scenario could change after the Saints travel to Carolina in Week 16 to face the Panthers for the second time in three weeks.
If the Panthers defend their home turf and hand the Saints a loss, they’ll move up to the No. 2 seed, demoting New Orleans to the No. 5 seed. If the Panthers won in Week 17 against the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans could do nothing to move up and overtake Carolina.
If the Saints lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after losing to Carolina, they could actually drop out of the playoffs.
While a 2013 playoff bracket without New Orleans seems unimaginable, it’s a definite possibility. To ensure that the Saints are postseason-bound, they must win at least one game over the next two weeks. For the best opportunity to thrive in the playoffs, the Saints really need to win both of their remaining games.
Since we’re talking scenarios, let’s look at a few different paths to the Super Bowl the Saints could take.
|2||New Orleans Saints||10-4|
|6||San Francisco 49ers||10-4|
In the scenario that’s accurate as of right now, New Orleans would get a first-round playoff bye as the No. 2 seed and then face the winner of the Philadelphia-San Francisco game in the Wild Card Round. The Saints haven’t played Philadelphia this season, but they took care of the 49ers in Week 11 at home, 23-20.
Neither opponent would be a pushover, but the Saints would have to be favored against either team.
If Carolina beats New Orleans, however, and holds on to the No. 2 seed, the path for the Saints becomes much more difficult.
|5||New Orleans Saints||11-5|
|6||San Francisco 49ers||11-5|
If the Saints and Panthers swapped playoff seeds, New Orleans would be the No. 5 seed and travel to Chicago to face the Bears in the Wild Card Round. The Saints took care of the Bears on the road already this season, winning a Week 5 contest in the Windy City 26-18.
But beating Chicago would only be the first step. The next opponent would be the Seahawks on the road, and no one can forget how Seattle dismantled the Saints in Week 13.
After that, if the Saints found a way to beat the Seahawks, they’d have to go play either the Panthers or the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, or host the 49ers if San Francisco upset the Eagles and the Panthers.
This isn’t a favorable scenario for the Saints, but it’s easier than if the Saints were the No. 6 seed.
|5||San Francisco 49ers||11-5|
|6||New Orleans Saints||10-6|
There’s a scenario out there where the Saints could enter the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. They’d have to lose both of their remaining games, and bubble teams like Arizona and Detroit would have to fall off.
This would push New Orleans on the road against Chicago, then possibly Carolina and Seattle in subsequent weeks, just like the scenario with New Orleans as the No. 5 seed. But what if Chicago wasn’t the No. 3 seed?
What if the Lions won out and landed in the No. 3 spot? Sure, the Saints would travel to Detroit and enjoy a domed playoff game, but the Lions pose a much different threat to the Saints than Chicago would. The same could be said for Philadelphia. What if the Eagles were the No. 3 seed?
The worst part of being the No. 6 seed is that New Orleans would never have a chance to play at home, no matter what happened in the other NFC playoff games.
The idea here is that New Orleans doesn’t really care who it plays, as long as the Saints are at home in the Superdome as long as possible.
Brees on #Saints road record "we're kind of proving you guys right, right now. The record doesn't lie, we have to play better on the road."— Mike Nabors (@MikeNabors) December 16, 2013
This season, the Saints are 7-0 at home and 3-4 on the road. If the home-road splits aren’t bad enough just by record alone, examine how efficient and powerful the offense and defense is in the Superdome versus on the road.
At home, the Saints score 32.9 points per game on average and allow opponents just 15.4 points per game. Their point differential is plus-122. On the road, New Orleans scores just 18.4 points per game and allows teams 23.1 points per contest. They’re actually being outscored on the road to the tune of 162-129 (minus-33).
That’s enough to scare the bejesus out of any Saints fan. But it’s still not the worst of the playoff woes for New Orleans.
Bengals: 0-5 all-time in road playoff games, tied with Saints for worst road record in postseason history— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 4, 2013
Since the Saints first took the field in 1967 they’ve never won a road playoff game. In five tries, New Orleans is 0-5 on the road in the postseason. At home, New Orleans is 5-3 during the playoffs with a Super Bowl title in 2009 (the final game of that run was a neutral-site Super Bowl XLIV win in Miami Gardens, Fla.).
So, the Saints stink on the road this year, and they’re historically bad on the road in the playoffs.
New Orleans needs to win out and hold onto that No. 2 seed. It's the only likely way the Saints have a shot at playing in the Super Bowl.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.