After a wild and crazy Week 16, the NFC's playoff picture came into a bit more focus with just one game remaining before the postseason tournament begins.
The Seattle Seahawks were the only NFC team that had clinched a playoff berth heading into the action on Dec. 22, but the Carolina Panthers clinched a playoff spot after beating the New Orleans Saints 17-13 at home.
Heading into Week 17, there is still plenty of maneuvering left to be done, as pointed out by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:
In NFC: Seahawks & Panthers in playoffs. Eagles, Bears, 49ers, Saints, Cardinals, Cowboys and Packers in the mix #madness.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 23, 2013
Here's a look at the NFC playoff picture, followed by a closer examination of what's at stake in Week 17:
|5||San Francisco 49ers||10-4|
|6||New Orleans Saints||10-5|
|9||Green Bay Packers||7-7-1|
With Arizona's impressive 17-10 win in Seattle, the San Francisco 49ers have a shot to claim the division.
The 49ers will be in the desert for a matchup with the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, and it's possible both teams will be playing for their playoff lives. If the 49ers win and the Seahawks lose to the St. Louis Rams, then San Francisco will finish atop the division (provided the team wins on Monday Night Football against Atlanta).
Conversely, Seattle needs to simply win at home against the Rams to clinch not only the NFC West but also a first-round bye plus home-field advantage, as pointed out by the Seahawks on Twitter:
Seahawks can still clinch NFC West + 1st round bye + home-field advantage with a win next week. #STLvsSEA— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 23, 2013
The Carolina Panthers took a huge step toward claiming the NFC South crown by beating the New Orleans Saints in Week 16, 17-13.
Cam Newton hit Domenik Hixon on a 14-yard touchdown strike with 23 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to improve to 11-4 on the season, going up by one game over the Saints with one game left to play.
After the game, Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer pointed out the Panthers can clinch the division with a win over Atlanta in Week 17 and/or a loss by New Orleans to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Panthers clinch first playoff berth in 5 years, and can clinch NFC South win a win at ATL or a loss by Saints vs. Tampa Bay.— Joe Person (@josephperson) December 22, 2013
SI.com's Doug Farrar believes the Panthers are a team nobody wants to face this postseason:
If everything goes their way from here on out, they’ll have the NFC’s second seed, they’ll get a first-round bye, and even if they have to head to Seattle at some point in the postseason, they can be satisfied in that they’ve established themselves as the team no NFC opponent wants to face.
The Chicago Bears led the NFC North by one-half game heading into Week 16, but they are currently getting hammered 21-0 by the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football.
Should the Eagles hang on to win, then the Bears will fall to 8-7 on the season. The loss would mean Chicago would be playing for the NFC North title in Week 17 when they host the Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Soldier Field.
The Detroit Lions had a shot at sneaking into the title with two wins and some help from the Packers and Bears.
However, a devastating 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants in Week 16 was the final straw in Detroit's season, as pointed out by ESPN, which also lamented the fact that Calvin Johnson won't be playing in January:
The Lions have been eliminated from playoff contention … tough for Detroit fans. No Megatron in January ... tough for all fans.— ESPN (@espn) December 23, 2013
The Dallas Cowboys barely hung on to beat Washington in Week 16, 24-23, thanks to a brilliant fourth-quarter performance by Tony Romo. With the win, Dallas improved to 8-7 on the season.
Should Philadelphia continue dominating the Bears on Sunday night, then the Eagles will improve to 9-6 on the season. That said, it won't matter if the team wins or loses—the division will be settled in Week 17 when the Eagles head to Dallas.
The reason for this is the Cowboys' perfect 5-0 record within the division. Should the Cowboys win at home in Week 17, then the Eagles will watch the postseason from home.
As pointed out by ESPN's Chris McKendry, history suggests the Eagles will have a good shot to advance:
Cowboys 8th "win-or-go-home” game in Week 17 or playoffs w/Romo starting QB. 1-6 overall & 0-3 in those games played in Week 17. #Eagles— Chris McKendry (@CMCKENDRY_ESPN) December 23, 2013
There are currently five teams that could make it into the playoffs as the NFC's wild-card teams.
If Seattle clinches the NFC West with a win over St. Louis, then it's possible for the Cardinals and 49ers to get in as wild-card teams. All it would take is this: The 49ers beat Atlanta on Monday Night Football to close out Week 16, then Arizona beats San Francisco in Week 17, while the Saints lose to Tampa Bay.
Seattle would lose the division to San Francisco if the Rams beat the Seahawks and the 49ers win in Arizona. That would mean Seattle (12-4 with a loss) would claim the No. 5 seed, with the final spot coming down to the Cardinals, Saints and Panthers—depending on how things shake out for all three teams.
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