NFC Wildcard Race Analysis: Who’s in and Who’s out?

Justin Jefferson's Slow Start: Cause for Concern?
Sep 26, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

This season is crazy. It’s absolutely insane.

Nothing exemplifies that insanity better than looking at the NFC Wildcard race, where seven teams sit within a game of the #7 seed. Seven teams. Of the 16 teams in the conference, 14 have a competitive chance at a Wildcard berth or better heading into Week 13.

We may think we know which teams are taking those Wildcard positions in the NFC, but there is absolutely no predicting with certainty how this season will play out.

For Minnesota Vikings fans, the primary focus, of course, is on the team’s chances of extending their season.

Minnesota currently holds the #8 seed in the NFC, which would be very unfortunate if the season ended today.

Luckily for the Vikings, the season does not end today, and the battle for the wild card spots is only just beginning.

Here we see the current NFC playoff picture, with Washington Football Team nudging ahead of the Vikings, Falcons, and Saints via tiebreaker.

Following that group of 5-6 teams, we have the Eagles and Panthers both sitting at 5-7, half a game back from the mess that is the #7 seed. Then finally, we see the Giants and Bears are both a full game back in the playoff picture, but with six games left for both squads, they are absolutely within striking distance.

Adding to the intrigue of this playoff race are the recent struggles for the Los Angeles Rams. Once a strong contender for the #1 seed in the conference, losing three straight has virtually ended their dreams of home field in the playoffs and even brought into doubt their security for the post-season. If the Rams continue to collapse, this NFC Wildcard race will become even more interesting.

Since there are so many teams within striking distance of these Wild Card spots, I will not waste my time predicting final results.

Instead, I will organize the teams in the Wild Card race into three separate tiers based on their record, schedule, and the strength of each team.

Tier 1: Playoff Favorites

Los Angeles Rams

San Francisco 49ers

Despite the Rams recent struggles, they remain in the driver’s seat in the race for Wild Card supremacy. The San Francisco 49ers also join this tier after their somewhat convincing win over Minnesota and given they are the only team outside of the Rams in this Wild Card chase that holds a record above .500. Both of these teams possess the inside track for the playoffs, and it would be surprising if either of them were to end up eliminated.

Tier 2: Playoff Hopefuls

Washington Football Team

Minnesota Vikings

Philadelphia Eagles

While Washington is the team currently in playoff position, they are likely the weakest of the three teams in this group, with a below-average offense, and surprisingly – given expectations coming into the season – one of the worst defenses in the NFL. In addition to their weaknesses, Washington also has a somewhat brutal schedule coming up, with a matchup against Vegas and four consecutive divisional games alternating between the Cowboys and Eagles as opponents.

Minnesota and Philadelphia are both substantially better based on all prevailing metrics, with EPA/play rankings putting them around average both offensively and defensively, and both teams boast a significantly better point differential than Washington’s negative 53.

This tier will be the most exciting to watch going forward, as the team currently in playoff position stands the worst chance of making the playoffs, and the battle between the next two teams is bound to be fascinating and full of drama.

Tier 3: Would be better off tanking

New Orleans Saints

Atlanta Falcons

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

New York Giants

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Saints being in prime position to secure a wildcard position and practically wrote them into the playoffs. Since then, this Saints team has lost their quarterback Jameis Winston and four consecutive games, demolishing their chances for any type of a playoff run.

The Atlanta Falcons may look like an exciting and flashy team on the surface and are only a tiebreaker away from being in playoff position. But records and surface analysis lie, and in the case of the Falcons, this is a colossal lie. Despite sitting only one game below .500, the Falcons boast an impressively dreadful negative 103 point differential and are a bottom-five team based on EPA/play analysis. These wins the Falcons have been getting might provide some enjoyment for Atlanteans, but all they are doing is harming the draft position for Arthur Smith’s squad.

We round out our analysis of this bottom tier, looking at the Panthers, Bears, and Giants, and trust me, these teams aren’t going anywhere this season. The issue with these teams is their inconsistent and inefficient offenses are paired with defenses that are not good enough to win games on their own. While all three of these teams are within striking distance of the playoffs, they just aren’t good enough to pose a realistic threat to the more dangerous teams in this Wild Card battle.

So while the Wild Card race looks awfully confusing and difficult to evaluate on the surface, an in-depth evaluation shows that in the end, it’s basically five teams fighting for three spots, with two of the five teams holding a significant edge over the other three. That doesn’t mean a team from the lowest tier couldn’t make a crazy run, but don’t count on it.

As for Vikings fans, the most crucial thing for Minnesota to do over these next few weeks is just win their games. Minnesota’s schedule gets very easy here with three straight matchups against opponents that are not only below .500 but have been playing even worse than their record in recent weeks.

Philadelphia’s upcoming schedule may scare us, but the Eagles loss on Sunday showed that they could lose any of these games. Minnesota just needs to take care of its business, and they will find themselves with a playoff berth at the end of it all.