Well, no one expected that.
Seattle absolutely torched New Orleans on Monday night, blasting the Saints 34-7 in Seattle and sending New Orleans skidding into its key game with Carolina Sunday.
The Saints and Panthers now have identical 9-3 records entering the Sunday night game at New Orleans. Here are the full NFL standings. New Orleans would still win the division if the playoffs started today because it holds the tiebreaker edge.
How can Carolina get by the Saints and win the NFC South and the automatic home playoff game that goes with the title (as well as a likely first-round bye)? Two ways:
1) Beat the Saints twice. That head-to-head advantage would guarantee the Panthers a home playoff game no matter what the results of the two teams' other games were. With the Saints on a "short" week and somewhat beaten up by the physical Seahawks, this is at least possible, although playing in New Orleans is a rigorous test. Here's my column about the New Orleans "sandwich."
2) Split with the Saints and.... win against Atlanta and the N.Y. Jets, and hope New Orleans loses once more in its other December games at St. Louis (5-7) and home vs. Tampa Bay (3-9). In that case Carolina would finish 12-4 and New Orleans 11-5.
So what happens if both teams finish 12-4 and tied in the NFC South by splitting against each other and each winning their other two games? That is a pretty likely scenario, and in that case New Orleans would be the NFC's No.2 playoff seed (with a first-round playoff bye) and Carolina would be the No.5 seed and have to travel for a first-round playoff game (likely to Dallas, Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia).
The reason: New Orleans would win the fourth tiebreaker after the first three failed to break the tie. That relevant tiebreaker -- best NFC record -- would go to New Orleans (10-2 vs. 9-3 in this hypothetical) because the Saints' two other losses this season were to AFC teams and Carolina lost to Arizona, an NFC team, along with Buffalo. Both, of course, lost to Seattle. (The head-to-head, division and common opponent records would all be tied in this scenario). So the Panthers' best bet, by far, is a sweep of the Saints.
-- One interesting side note to Monday night's game: it gave me a strong sense of deja vu from the biggest game I ever saw in person in Seattle. That was the Panthers' 34-14 loss to Seattle in the 2005 NFC title game.
Like New Orleans, Carolina seemed totally discombobulated early in that one. Both teams fell behind the Seahawks by scores of 17-0, 27-7 and 34-7. It was really over by halftime in both cases. Ed Hochuli even was the head official in both games, for gosh sakes. In both cases, the Seahawks crowd was a huge factor. The only real difference was that Carolina scored a late meaningless TD to make it sound more respectable, and New Orleans didn't. The Saints, incidentally, gave up more points to Seattle in 13 minutes than Carolina did in 60 in the 2013 season opener.
And the Saints' defense really looked vulnerable to the pass, if Cam Newton can be anywhere near as accurate as Russell Wilson was Monday. The New Orleans offensive line also looked vulnerable as Seattle got more pressure on Drew Brees than I have seen in a long time. It makes Carolina's 12-7 loss to Seattle look a little better, although of course Seattle is a totally different team on the road.