While the Saints have won three out of their last four games, they can blame many close losses for their current position in the standings. At 7-6, the Saints are last in the division and 11th in the NFC.
The Saints play the Bears Thursday night. This game will go a long way in determining the Saints' playoff fate. Win and the Saints stay alive. Lose and they can all but kiss their playoff dreams goodnight.
In recent years, 9-7 has been good enough in the NFC. With all of the quality teams in the conference this season, it is very likely that the wild card teams will have at least 10-6 records.
All of the following playoff speculation assumes the Saints win their remaining three games.
New Orleans Saints eliminated from division crown
1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs)
Saints and Panthers would split the season series.
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
Saints and Panthers would both be 3-3 in the division.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
The two teams play 12 common opponents (not including head-to-head match-ups). Both teams will finish 8-4 against common opponents (2-2 against the division, 3-1 against the NFC North, and 3-1 against the AFC West).
4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
Both teams will finish 7-5 in the NFC.
5. Strength of victory.
Strength of victory is your record against teams you have beaten. A 10-6 Panthers team will have a greater strength of victory as long as the Cardinals and 49ers don't tie with 8-8 records at the end of the season.
But if it does happen...
6. Strength of schedule.
Saints can finish higher than the Buccaneers if...
They finish 9-7. Even if the Bucs lose to Atlanta, Tampa Bay will hold a better conference record than New Orleans.
Saints can finish higher than the Falcons if...
The Falcons finish 10-6 or worse. If the Falcons lose to Tampa Bay, they will have a worse division record than the Saints.
If the Falcons lose to Minnesota, the Falcons will lose the 'strength of victory' tiebreaker because the Saints beating San Francisco than the Falcons beating St. Louis.
Saints vs. the rest of the NFC wild card contenders
If the Saints beat the Bears, all of the other wild card contenders reside in the NFC East. To finish ahead of those teams, the Cowboys would have to lose two games, and the Eagles and Redskins would have to lose one game each.
Remaining NFC East games with wild card implications:
The only game that I see going in the Saints' favor is Giants at Cowboys.
Week 16: Ravens at Cowboys and Eagles at Redskins
Ravens have a decent shot at beating the 'Boys and Eagles/Redskins is a virtual elimination game.
Week 17: Cowboys at Eagles and Redskins at 49ers
Redskins are sliding and are facing a 49er team that is playing tough for Coach Singletary. The loser of the Cowboys/Eagles is likely out of the playoffs.
There you have it. While the Saints have a snowball's chance at making the playoffs, anything is possible on any given Sunday.
Moral of the story: Win the close games. Had the Saints beaten the Redskins or Vikings-- two games in which the Saints held a fourth quarter lead-- and the Saints would control their playoff destiny.