As Chicago Bears defensive end Shea McClellin broke toward Aaron Rodgers rolling out of the pocket just three minutes into Monday night’s Bears-Packers showdown, he probably wasn’t thinking about altering the landscape of the entire NFC playoff picture. But as he connected with Rodgers and took him to the ground, that’s exactly what he did.
Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone that could cause him to miss three weeks, maybe more. It’s not over for the Cheeseheads, of course, just as it wasn’t over for the Bears when Jay Cutler went down, just as—paging the late John Belushi—it wasn’t over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.
Instead, it simply seems an already tight NFC race just got tighter. As it stands, the Bears, Packers and Detroit Lions all sit at 5-3, tied atop the NFC North.
In the South, the New Orleans Saints (6-2) appear playoff-bound. Over in the West, the Seattle Seahawks (8-1) and San Francisco 49ers (6-2) look like postseason locks. With division winners from the East and North, just one wild-card spot remains in play.
That means, come January, one of the North’s 5-3 teams will be on the outside looking in. Actually, that may be presumptuous. At this point, with injuries piling up for the Bears and Packers and a surging Carolina Panthers team joining the fold, there’s no guarantee that the North sends a second representative to the playoffs.
Eight weeks remain in the season, and the landscape may very well shift again. But for now, check out where the Bears and other playoff hopefuls stand and see their chances of scoring a postseason berth.
Chicago Bears (5-3)
Playoff Chances: 35%
A week ago, it looked like the Bears were done. Decimated by injuries and scrambling to fix a defense in disarray, no one saw them climbing back into the playoff picture. But after a 27-20 win over Green Bay, here they are, a tiebreaker away from the NFC North's top spot.
There is no shortage of winnable games remaining on Chicago's schedule, and it’s worth noting that the three toughest matchups (Detroit, Green Bay and Dallas Cowboys) all occur at home.
Still, it won’t be an easy road to nine or 10 wins, mostly because, of all the teams in the wild-card hunt, the Bears may have the most significant deficiency. Since losing defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins early in the season, the defense simply can’t stop the run. For the Bears to make the playoffs, that aspect has to improve.
Detroit Lions (5-3)
Playoff Chances: 75%
The NFC North crown could hinge upon whether Rodgers is back in the lineup for the Thanksgiving Day showdown between the Lions and Packers. Then again, it may not even matter. Six of Detroit’s final eight games are against teams below .500. With the Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson connection rolling and the defense showing signs of life, there doesn’t appear to be much standing in the way of a playoff berth.
Ten wins and a division title looks like a strong possibility for the Motor City.
Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Playoff Chances: 40%
To stay in the hunt, the Packers have to figure out a way to win at least a game without Rodgers. That should be possible with the Giants (2-6), Vikings (1-7) and Falcons (2-6) on their schedule over the next five weeks. If the Packers can enter Week 15 with six or seven wins and Rodgers back in the lineup, don’t bet against them beating the Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Bears to finish 9-7 or 10-6.
However, winning a game or two without Rodgers is not a given. Since losing defensive anchor Clay Matthews to a thumb injury Week 5, the Packers had been counting on the offense to carry them. Under backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, that hardly seems like a viable plan. The good news for Packers fans is that Matthews may return to the lineup Week 11.
Carolina Panthers (5-3)
Wild-Card Chances: 35%
No one thought much of the Panthers back in mid-October. Well, actually, there was one person who saw their rise to relevance coming. Now 5-3 and boasting a 12.3 scoring margin—the top mark in the NFC—Carolina provides one of the more intriguing storylines in the NFC playoff race. With a dominant defense and a quarterback capable of providing offense on his own, the Panthers are a team with few weaknesses.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re playoff-bound. Their schedule the rest of the way is absolutely brutal. Six of their next eight games are against teams .500 or better. For a team that has played only one winning team thus far, this next stretch will determine if the Panthers are contenders or simply beneficiaries of weak first-half competition.
They’ll have to win two of those tough games and take care of business against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8) and Atlanta Falcons (2-6) to finish with nine wins. That’s doable for a team that appears on the rise.
Arizona Cardinals (4-4)
Wild-Card Chances: 5%
With a 27-13 win over the Falcons Week 8, the Cardinals climbed back to .500 and into the playoff picture. The Cardinals have played one of the tougher schedules in the NFL, so there’s no inflation with their four wins. They’ve beaten the Lions (5-3) and Panthers (5-3), and their only bad loss was to the St. Louis Rams (3-6) way back in Week 1.
With winnable games in the next two weeks against the Houston Texans (2-6) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-8), Arizona could easily see its record climb to 6-4. The problem lies in the last six games of the season. The Cardinals would have to find three wins against a group of opponents that boasts a combined 31-20 record. With a struggling offense, they’re more likely to hit the wall at eight wins.
Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
Playoff Chances: 45%
Wild-Card Chances: 5%
At 5-4, the Dallas Cowboys have a head start in their division, but don’t expect that lead to last through next week. While they’re traveling to New Orleans to take on the 6-2 Saints, division rival Philadelphia will fly into Green Bay to take on a Packers team without a viable quarterback.
With a high-powered offense and struggling-but-capable defense, every game on the Cowboys’ remaining schedule is winnable. The most important game, however, will come Week 17 against the Eagles. The winner of that matchup may very well take the NFC East crown.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-5)
Playoff Chances: 40%
Wild-Card Chances: 4%
After the Bears and Lions, it may be the Eagles who benefit most from the unfortunate injury to Rodgers. The superstar’s Week 10 absence turns a would-be loss for the Eagles into a probable win. For a division that will likely see three teams finish with seven to nine wins, a one-game swing like that is huge.
Expect the Eagles to move into a tie for first place next week, and if the rest of the way they can win their three most favorable matchups—against the Redskins (3-5), Cardinals (4-4) and Minnesota Vikings (1-7)—they’ll be sitting with eight wins entering their Week 17 showdown with the Dallas Cowboys.
Washington Redskins (3-5)
Playoff Chances: 15%
Wild-Card Chances: 2%
A 30-24 overtime win against the San Diego Chargers kept the Redskins’ season alive. With eight games remaining, including four divisional games, there’s still time for the Redskins to make a move. In fact, if they can reel off wins in the next two weeks against the Vikings (1-7) and Eagles (4-5), they’ll be 5-5 and right back in the NFC East race.
Considering what happened in 2012 (the Redskins won their last seven games of the season to steal a playoff berth) and the continued improvement of Robert Griffin III, divisional rivals Dallas and Philadelphia can’t like the fact that Washington is still hanging around.
A playoff run is possible for the Redskins, especially considering it might only take eight or nine wins to top the NFC East, but with very difficult games remaining against the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, the Redskins’ margin of error is very slim.