As the NFC playoff tree comes into shape, there’s a theory making the rounds that perhaps the team on track for the No. 3 seed would prefer to drop a spot.
The Rams, if they win on Sunday against the 49ers or if the Saints lose to the Buccaneers, will be the No. 3 seed. If the Rams lose and the Saints win or Panthers win, the Rams will be the No. 4 seed.
Under either scenario, the Rams will host a wild-card game before hitting the road for a divisional round game (if, of course, they win in the opening round). But who they play will hinge on where they land. And some think the Rams would prefer the path that comes from being the No. 4 seed.
If the Falcons beat the Panthers on Sunday, the Panthers will be the No. 5 seed and the Falcons will be the No. 6 seed. The thinking is that Rams coach Sean McVay prefers to face the Panthers over the Falcons in the opening playoff game. (Consider what Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50, when Phillips was running the Denver defense.)
Then, if the No. 3 seed beats the No. 6 seed, the Rams (with a win) would head to Philadelphia instead of Minnesota for the divisional round. Though both teams beat the Rams, the thinking is that the Eagles are far more vulnerable.
Earlier this week, McVay addressed the difference between being the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in explaining his then-tentative plan to rest some starters this weekend.
“I think really what we’ve discussed is when you really take into consideration that there’s four potential teams that we can play,” McVay told reporters. “All of them are very, very good football teams and however it plays out you’re going to be on the road the following week. When you look at getting guys healthy, knowing that you are going to be able to play a home playoff game and then you think about kind of the risk-reward, we feel like that’s probably going to be the best decision, is to rest some of those guys for our team. Make no mistake about it, the guys that we are going to go forward with, we’re going to do everything in our power to compete to go win a football game. But everything we do, like we’ve said, is intentional. I think that’s served us well up to this point. You don’t take anything away for what this game means to us this coming week, but when you say, knowing that you do have the opportunity to play that home playoff game the following week and is it a three [seed], is it a four [seed]? How does that really alter and affect compared to some of things that could potentially occur, that’s more than likely the approach that we’re going to take.”
In other words, McVay factored his team’s path to the Super Bowl into his decision on whether to risk falling from No. 3 to No. 4. He may indeed realize that he’s better off one spot lower. And he may actually be.
The only potential problem with that strategy, of course, comes from the possibility that the No. 3 seed and No. 4 seed are left standing at the end of the divisional round, forcing the Rams to go on the road when they could have hosted the NFC title game.