NFL Playoff Projections: San Francisco’s Bracket-Altering Win

There’s some debate going on regarding the San Francisco 49ers’ wild 41-34 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, with the argument being whether it means more that the Niners got a win in Foxboro, or that they blew a 31-3 lead in the process and allowed the Patriots to the tie the game. To borrow a phrase from Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take, “Are you kidding me?!” The San Francisco win significantly altered the playoff bracket in both conferences and might well be the determining factor in who reaches the Super Bowl—on both sides. So what if they blew a lead?

San Francisco did what most defenses have failed to do against New England this year and it’s that they shut down running back Stevan Ridley early and built up the lead. Tom Brady led a furious rally because that’s what Brady does, but when the Patriots have to throw the ball 65 times, they aren’t going to win, and for the Niners, the win was a nice vindication of Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback over Alex Smith.

If you want to talk about what this win means as far as predicting a potential rematch in the Super Bowl, I’m skeptical about pulling too many conclusions. Every game is unique unto itself and certainly a rematch in New Orleans on two weeks’ rest would have an entirely different dynamic than a cold and rainy Sunday night in Foxboro. And frankly, why speculate about long-term implications when the short-term implications are so dramatic.

San Francisco’s win all but clinches the NFC West. Even if they lose at Seattle this coming Sunday night, the Niners would still hold first place and have the cushion of a Week 17 game against Arizona to lock it up. I’d been projecting Seattle to close strong and win this division. The Seahawks are still coming on strong and look like the best team in the NFC, but as I wrote last week, this is a team that would have a big threat out of the #2 seed. Not so much out of the 5-seed, where they would have to win three straight on the road. The Niners’ win in Foxboro might have knocked the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl.

The results from Sunday night also kept San Francisco in the lead for the #2 seed in the NFC, a race where Green Bay is in hot pursuit, only a half-game back. The Packers are a good news/bad news team. The offensive line problems and kicking game incompetence make it tough to believe they could win three games in succession. But give them a week off and a home game, then possibly a NFC Championship trip to Atlanta, a team they match up well against? The latter is a path Green Bay could navigate and the Frisco win reduced the Packers’ chances of making it to New Orleans.

Now let’s go over to the AFC. New England controlled its fate for the two-seed and a first-round bye, with only games against Jacksonville and Miami ahead of them, the latter at home. And if Houston just lost at Indianapolis in Week 17, the Patriots were poised to move to the top spot. Instead, the loss knocks them down into the #3 spot behind Denver, and with the Broncos playing home games with Cleveland and Kansas City, that isn’t going to change.

The Patriots are the kind of team that can come out of the first round and go the distance. But the problem here is that so are the Broncos. Brady & Peyton are on a collision course for a matchup in the second round, and the difference in the seeding is a week off—a significant issue for veteran teams—then playing at home. And while neither team would likely lose in the first round of the playoffs, you still have to give about 30-35 percent chance that an upset could occur.

Finally, let’s come to Houston. The Patriot loss all but secures the 1-seed for Houston—they do have to win one more game, but because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Broncos, the Texans now have room to lose either this coming Sunday at home to Minnesota or in the finale at Indy. I suppose it’s not unthinkable they could lose both of these games, but I’d hardly call it likely. Houston will now avoid having to play both New England & Denver on its road through the AFC playoffs.

So to sum it all up—the result of Sunday night’s game had a significant impact on the Super Bowl hopes of six teams—the two involved, along with Seattle, Green Bay, Houston and Denver. Yes, I think that’s more important than whether the Niners blew a lead in the process of winning.

Here’s how TheSportsNotebook’s NFL playoff projections are sitting right now. There’s one part that I feel requires some explanation, but I feel stupid even putting it down and that’s Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. I’ve got the Steelers beating the Bengals at home this week, while the Ravens lose to the Giants. Even though that game is in Baltimore and my recent projections have had Baltimore winning it, I was much more alarmed with Baltimore’s play last week than New York.

The Ravens seem to be a team in an irreversible free-fall, while New York just played a clunker of a game. Altering my pick on that game, and also pegging Cincy to beat Baltimore at home, opens the door for Pittsburgh to win over Cleveland in Week 17 and they would win the division under that scenario. I know the Steelers have done nothing to merit such confidence, but has anyone else in this division? Picking a New York win also bounces Chicago from the playoffs, and likely bounces Lovie Smith from a job. Still, keep in mind the Bears only have Arizona & Detroit ahead of them and one slip-up by New York lets them back into the postseason.

NFC EAST: Washington
NFC NORTH: Green Bay
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta
NFC WEST: San Francisco
Wild-Cards: Seattle, NY Giants
Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2)
1st Round Matchups: (6)NY Giants at (3)Green Bay, (5)Seattle at (4)Washington

AFC EAST: New England
AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh
AFC SOUTH: Houston
AFC WEST: Denver
Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Baltimore
Byes: Houston (1), Denver (2)
1st Round Matchups: (6)Baltimore at (3)New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Pittsburgh

If these exit polling numbers hold, I’d pick Denver to win the AFC title and probably lean Atlanta in the NFC. Combined with my preseason choices of Green Bay & Houston, that would keep me covered from every angle.