In a league where 16 games comprise the entire regular season it is fairly obvious to say every game counts a great deal. Comparatively, Major League Baseball has 162 games and the National Basketball Association has 82. That means a single game in MLB holds roughly .6% weight, an NBA game holds roughly 1.2% weight, and an NFL game holds 6.25% weight. That’s a sizable difference!
The NBA and MLB each have 30 teams. The NBA advances 8 of the 30 into the playoffs (27% advancement rate) while MLB now advances 10 of the 30 teams (30% advancement rate). The NFL only advances 8 out of 32 teams giving it a paltry 25% playoff advancement rate.
Not only are the consequences of each game more severe (as illustrated by the 6.25 per game weight) but it’s considerably less likely to advance to the playoffs in the NFL (25% advancement rate). It’s a bit of an understatement to say simply, each game in the NFL is important, but we can go out on limb and say while all are important, some games are more important than others. Objectively qualifying the added value of some games vs. other games might not be entirely agreeable but recognizing the “more important” games is certainly possible.
In order to win the Super Bowl you must advance to the playoffs first. The surest way to advance to the playoffs is to win the division. Every division winner is promised a playoff spot. Beyond winning the division you are made no more promises. In 2010 the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West and advanced to the postseason with a 7-9 record. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each finished the season at 10-6 but since they didn’t win their respective divisions and were beaten out for the 2 wildcard spots, they did not advance. When you fail to win the division you need to claim a Wild Card Seed to advance to the playoffs. The Wild Card teams are determined by selecting the top two non-division winners in each conference. In this case (2010), The Saints (11-5) and the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers (10-6) were the Wild Card winners. Despite having the same regular season records, Green Bay advanced over the Bucs and Giants because they won the Wild Card tiebreaker.
The intricacies of the tie breaker can be overwhelming but they are very important to understand as they become the deciding factor for many postseasons. For determining division standings and a two-team Wild Card tiebreaker, the head to head matchup is the most important. After the head to head results, the deciding tiebreakers change based on 2-way or 3-way ties within the division and 2-way or 3-way (or more) ties in the conference. Since it’s impossible to go through every scenario this early in the season we will solely focus on the most common and most powerful controllable tiebreaker: the head to head matchup.
If the Cowboys do not win the division they will need to hold either a better record than the other second class teams or own the tiebreaker. Let’s look at the NFC divisions and try to predict who the contenders are.
Arizona (4-0) may have the best record in the division but San Francisco (3-1) is widely considered the best of the division. Seattle sits at 2-2 and already owns the tiebreaker over the Cowboys. St Louis is simply not a contender.
Atlanta is the cream of the crop at 4-0 and looks primed to take the division and possibly the #1 seed in the NFC. The other teams in the South have no more than 1 win each and don’t currently appear to be contenders. The winless Saints are last in the division but do hold some potential for a late season rally and Wild Card contender (albeit a longshot).
The Vikings are currently number one but the Packers are clearly the best of the division. They will soon be laying claim to the division forcing the Vikings, Lions, and Bears to fight for second place. Every team in the North should be considered a contender at this point.
The Eagles are in first at 3-1 followed by the Cowboys and Giants. The Redskins are in last and while probably not contenders this year, they do have the ability to upset anyone in this division. If the Eagles win this division, the Cowboys will be fighting the Giants for second place (or if the Giants win the division, no doubt the Cowboys will be close to the Eagles for second place). Either way, it is a very likely scenario the Cowboys will not win the division and will have to rely on a Wild Card spot to make the playoffs.
Assuming the Cowboys are fighting for 1 of 2 Wild Card spots, they will be fighting the Cardinals (4-0 and not on the schedule), Seahawks (2-2 with Seattle owning the tiebreaker), Saints (0-4 and will play 12-23), Vikings (3-1 not on the schedule), Lions (1-3 not on the schedule), and Chicago (1-2 scheduled tonight). These head to head matchups grow even more important than a just a regular game. Division wins obviously remain the most important games because winning the division is the best way to ensure a postseason appearance and a home playoff game. But these NFC contender matchups should not be overlooked. They are clearly more important than a game against the Steelers (12/16) or Ravens (10/14) because they have direct tiebreaker implications in addition to the standard win-loss implications.
That’s why this game against the Bears is (or “was” depending when you read this) so important. This could be the reason we do or don’t make the playoffs this year. In a league where every game counts more and playoff seeds are harder to come by, this singular game against the Bears is more important than you may think.
Note: In the 2010 Green Bay example, a head to head sweep involving all three teams was required for a head to head record to be considered. Green Bay did beat New York head to head but that was disregarded since Tampa did not also play them in head to head matchups. Since the three teams were tied but didn’t all play each other, a head to head sweep was impossible. Green Bay technically won the last Wild Card spot tiebreaker by Strength of Victory.
For the full tiebreaker rules follow the link here.