The race for the bye week in the NFL playoffs is always fun, and in 2023, it’s shaping up to be exciting in both conferences. In the NFC, there are four teams still very much in play for the top seed, and Week 14 could see chaos erupt if the Dallas Cowboys do everyone in the picture a favor and knock off the Philadelphia Eagles.
With the assistance of the free PFN NFL Playoff Predictor, let’s examine the potential scenarios that could play out for the NFC’s No. 1 seed over the next five weeks. The Eagles, Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and Detroit Lions are all in the hunt, but other than the Eagles, each team needs some outside help.
1 p.m. ET Games Update Bears (5-8) defeated Lions (9-4)
4 p.m. ET Games Update
49ers (10-3) defeated Seahawks (6-7)
San Francisco is now the NFC’s No. 1 seed after Week 14
SNF Game Update
Cowboys (10-3) defeated Eagles (10-3)
Let’s start with the team that controls their destiny — the Eagles. Philadelphia’s path to the No. 1 seed is simple. Lose one fewer game than everyone else and nothing else matters.
Entering Week 14, the Eagles are 10-2 and one game ahead of the Cowboys, Lions, and 49ers. Philadelphia just has to simply match the record of the others over the next five weeks and the first-round bye will be theirs. Whether that’s going 5-0 or 1-4, as long as the Cowboys, Lions, and 49ers don’t finish with an additional win, the Eagles are golden.
However, that loss to the 49ers last week looms large in the proverbial rearview mirror. Lose again, and the Eagles put their fate in the hands of the NFL playoff tiebreakers. If they finish tied with just the 49ers, that head-to-head loss will give the top seed to San Francisco.
Where things get fun is if the Eagles tie with the Cowboys or Lions or both. Then we go spiraling down the tiebreakers looking at division record, conference record, common games, and potentially strength of victory, or strength of schedule.
That picture will become clearer over the coming weeks, but the Eagles currently have a slight advantage over both in all those various measures.
As things stand, the 49ers do not control their destiny, but they are one Eagles loss away from that being the case. San Francisco has head-to-head victories over both Philadelphia and Dallas, so whoever wins the NFC East cannot beat them on the first two-team tiebreaker.
Additionally, at 7-1, the 49ers’ conference record can only be matched by the Eagles. Even then, if it came to conference record to split a three-team tiebreaker, once the third team was eliminated, the 49ers would have the Eagles on head-to-head.
MORE: San Francisco 49ers Playoff Scenarios and Chances
San Francisco also currently has the advantage if we get as far as strength of victory or strength of schedule in a three-team scenario.
If the 49ers win out and the Eagles lose one game, their chances of clinching the top seed are high. However, for every loss the 49ers have, they need the Eagles, Lions, and Cowboys to have at least the same number — and in Philadelphia’s case, one more.
The 49ers could feasibly lose one game and still get the No. 1 seed, but they wouldn’t want to bank on it.
The Lions are in a tricky position with a 6-2 conference record, which puts them behind both the Eagles and 49ers, as things stand. They do not face either team this season, so a head-to-head situation would not come into play.
Before we go any further, Detroit needs Philadelphia to lose at least one more game than them the rest of the way for any of this to matter. If the Lions cannot better the Eagles’ record over the last five weeks, they cannot clinch the No. 1 seed.
Unfortunately for Detroit, they not only have the worst conference record right now, but they also have the lowest strength of victory and strength of schedule of those three teams.
The best-case scenario for the Lions is that they end up in a head-to-head tiebreaker scenario with the Cowboys, who they face in Week 17. Beat Dallas, and Detroit has a crucial head-to-head over them. However, the chances of that head-to-head coming to pass are somewhat slim.
Detroit will hope that they can just win out and that the Eagles drop two games, while the 49ers drop one. That is the simplest path for Detroit, and perhaps the only way they can realistically end up as the top seed in the NFC.
The common-game scenario would be intriguing with the 49ers’ loss to the Vikings and the Lions losing to the Seahawks, but there’s a lot to still shake out for that tiebreaker in the coming weeks.
If you thought things were complex for the Lions, then the Cowboys take it up a notch. To cut a long story short, they need to beat the Eagles in Week 14 and have Philly lose another game over the next four weeks before this even becomes a conversation.
To be the top seed in the NFC, first, you must win your division. To do that, the Cowboys cannot rely on tiebreakers, where the Eagles hold quite a few of the cards right now.
Therefore, Dallas needs this to become, at best, a three-way tie between themselves, the 49ers, and the Lions. The Cowboys and Lions play each other in Week 17, which could have a huge say in the conference seeding.
MORE: Can the Cowboys Usurp the Eagles for the Division?
It’s hard to see a realistic path for how the Cowboys can lose again and be the No. 1 seed. So let’s assume they’re 14-3 and beat the Eagles to the top spot in the NFC East with Philadelphia losing again between Weeks 15 and 18. That would also eliminate the Lions at 13-4, leaving the 49ers. San Francisco has the head-to-head tiebreaker and would take the top seed.
Essentially, if the Cowboys want to be the top seed in the NFC, they cannot afford another loss this season. There is a way they could potentially lose to the Miami Dolphins, beat the Eagles and Lions, and Philadelphia gets upset by the New York Giants. This would be a three-team tiebreaker with Detroit and San Francisco.
Unfortunately, with three losses already in the conference and a very weak strength of victory, there aren’t many tiebreaker scenarios that suit the Cowboys. Dallas almost certainly has to finish alone atop the NFC, based on winning percentage, if they want to have a first-round bye this season.