The NFC playoff race is a mess.
In other words, it is a wildly entertaining time for fans who prefer the NFC to the AFC, a conference much less interesting entering Week 17, minus a race for the No. 6 seed.
Things are sexier in the NFC, where two games to close the season will act as division championships, all crowns are up for grabs and both wild-card spots are at stake.
For the teams still eligible for the playoffs, Week 17 is do-or-die time.
|1||x - Seattle Seahawks||12-3|
|2||x - Carolina Panthers||11-4|
|5||x - San Francisco 49ers||10-4|
|6||New Orleans Saints||10-5|
|9||Green Bay Packers||7-7-1|
z=Clinched Division, x=Clinched Playoff Berth
This is especially the case for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, as both sides will meet from Solider Field to decide the NFC North champion. The loser will miss the postseason.
Chicago won this matchup at Lambeau Field in Week 9 via a 27-20 outcome, but the Packers are back to full strength with quarterback Aaron Rodgers set to make his return, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Aaron Rodgers getting cleared changes the outlook for Sunday's game vs. Bears as well as the NFC playoff picture.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 26, 2013
Chicago's Jay Cutler seemed nonchalant about what could be game-altering news, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Jay Cutler’s response to Aaron Rodgers playing this Sunday: “(Shrugs) I play offense. So Lance and those guys will worry about it.” Classic.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 26, 2013
But the Bears and Packers are not the only teams playing in a division title game. This is also the case for the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, two teams that will meet on the year's final edition of Sunday Night Football to determine the NFC East champion—the loser also misses the playoffs.
It's exciting to be back and we're going to go out there and play our game. We feel like we're confident and ready for this spot. Now we have to go out and do it, and play Eagles football, play for each other. That's what we intend to do.
The simplicity of the NFC ends there.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal sums up the situation best:
NFL in nutshell: 49ers could still be anywhere from No. 1 seed to out of playoffs.— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) December 23, 2013
The Seattle Seahawks currently lead the NFC West and can clinch with a win over the St. Louis Rams or a loss by the San Francisco 49ers.
But about those 49ers that Rosenthal alluded to—a win over the Arizona Cardinals and a Seattle loss would give the 49ers the NFC West. But add in a loss by the Carolina Panthers, and the 49ers steal the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Speaking of those Panthers, Cam Newton and Co. can clinch their first playoff berth in five years and grab the NFC South title with a win over the Atlanta Falcons or a loss by the New Orleans Saints.
Those Saints sit at the No. 6 seed and need a win over the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the 49ers to beat the Cardinals to ensure they make the postseason. However, the Saints are nearly unstoppable at home and need a loss by the Panthers to steal the NFC South crown and get a bye and home-field advantage.
Finally, the unfortunate 10-win team currently on the outside looking in is the aforementioned Cardinals. Not only do they have to knock off the 49ers, the Cardinals also must pray the Saints lose their first home game of the season, which would allow the Cardinals to slip into the postseason.
While rather complicated, the last week of the season will be a wild one for the NFC. As is always the case, the teams fortunate enough to make it in can put together an epic run to win it all, so momentum gained is just as important as getting to the postseason itself.
Note: All playoffs scenarios courtesy of the league's official website.