DeSean Jackson's circuitous route to the end zone on the final play of the Philadelphia Eagles' dramatic win over the New York Giants Sunday pretty fairly captured in microcosm the two teams' positions: The Eagles, having now all but sewn up the NFC East, will spend the next two weeks running out the clock on their victory while the Giants give futile chase.
The win, which came at the culmination of a 28-point outburst during the final seven-and-a-half minutes, gave Philadelphia a one-game edge with two to play and assured them of the tie-breaker over New York. Philly won both head-to-head games between the teams this season.
For the Giants, the hope of a playoff berth is not dead, but they must win next weekend to make that a reality. Read on for a look at the playoff picture after a wild week in the NFC.
Matt Ryan's Atlanta Falcons took care of business with a win over Seattle Sunday, giving them a two-game lead on New Orleans in the NFC South and a two-game cushion on Philadelphia for home-field advantage.
The Falcons play the Saints in Week 16 but have almost nothing to lose: They need only one win to lock down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and they play 2-12 Carolina in Week 17. Given their 6-0 home record this year, Atlanta promises to be hard to beat in the Georgia Dome come playoff time.
Jay Cutler and the Bears have every reason to play hard on Monday night in Minnesota. Though the field poses obvious injury risks, the Bears must be intense and fearless, because they have much to gain from a victory. The crumbling Packers give them some leeway within the division, but the team has upward mobility of which they ought to make use.
Winning out would guarantee Chicago a first-round bye. They beat the Eagles earlier this season, and so possess the potential tie-breaker if the two teams finish with the same record. The Jets pose a serious obstacle to that potential bye when they visit Soldier Field in Week 16, but the Bears control their own destiny. Making a statement would be nice, but the primary prerogative of coach Lovie Smith must be to get the Bears in and out of Minnesota with a win but without substantial casualties.
Matt Flynn just really isn't any good, and unfortunately, the Packers may pay for their myopia by missing the playoffs. The team has now lost two straight to drop to 8-6, with Aaron Rodgers sidelined for the last game and a half. Quarterbacking has not been the only problem, but it has been a big one. The Packers now trail the Bears by two-and-a-half games, and if Chicago wins on Monday night in Minnesota, the jig will be up for a potential division title.
The easier road to the playoffs is now directly in front of Green Bay. They play the Giants next week at Lambeau Field, where a win would tie them with New York for the sixth seed in the NFC and give them the tie-breaker. The Giants then play Washington in Week 17, while the Packers host Chicago. So the order is a tall one anyway, but they have a legitimate chance if they can just beat Eli Manning and company in the cold of Green Bay next week. Getting Rodgers back would help a lot.
The Saints just lost to Baltimore to drop to 10-4, and no team even in the hunt in the NFC has a tougher remaining schedule. Still, Sean Payton's team stands a very strong chance of reaching the playoffs in one way or another.
A division title is almost out of the question. New Orleans would need to beat the Falcons and upstart Buccaneers and have Atlanta lose its other game at home...to Carolina. If the Falcons do win the South, then, the Saints will focus on locking up the fifth seed. That should not hard. One win in the next two games will do the trick. Crucially, though, the Buccaneers would have the upper hand if they won both of their remaining games, and the Saints lost both of theirs. So New Orleans would be wise to get that win and not depend on getting help.
The Giants were seven minutes from a really good opportunity to win the NFC East and essentially closing the door on playoff hopefuls not already included. They flopped. The loss to Philadelphia is not important merely because it so damages momentum and morale going forward, but because it seriously imperils the Giants' playoff bid.
The critical nature of the team's Week 16 contest against the Packers has already been discussed. If they do lose, of course, they are not automatically eliminated. Green Bay could well lose to Chicago in Week 17, re-opening the door for New York. Even if they do, however, a pair of wins by Tampa Bay could push them over New York and into the playoffs, leaving the Giants out in the cold. Tom Coughlin's team should focus ferociously on beating Green Bay.
With home games against the Vikings and Cowboys left on their schedule, the Eagles should be able to finish at 12-4 and earn a first-round bye. They could even get to stay home throughout the NFC playoffs, though the Falcons need to win just once to make that possibility evaporate.
More realistically, the Eagles should be able to hold onto a bye as long as they take care of business against a pair of losing teams (though the hot Cowboys nearly knocked them off in Week 14 and would love to finish the job in Week 17). The Bears would need to win their final three games to steal that honor from Michael Vick and company, and they still have the Jets and Packers on their schedule.
Entering Sunday's action, the Bucs had every reason to feel good about themselves. They had managed to scrape out a win against a Redskins team that has played everyone tight this season, and the two losses that preceded that (to Baltimore and Atlanta) were hardly unexpected.
This one was. The Detroit Lions beat Tampa Bay in overtime, an embarrassing loss that puts the team's playoff hopes somewhere in the narrow margin between slim and none. Tampa Bay needs to beat Seattle at home, then knock off the Saints in Week 17 to even stand a chance. If that happens, they would still need a loss by the Giants and Packers or by the Saints to Atlanta in Week 16 to sneak in ahead of New York for the sixth and final spot.
Since these three teams do not deserve even the one playoff spot they will eventually earn, let us not waste time by breaking down each individually. This race will actually be somewhat less convoluted than the others, because the teams play each other enough over the final two weeks to sort it out pretty easily.
Here are the scenarios:
If the Rams win out, the division is theirs. They play San Francisco in Week 16 before closing out the season against Seattle. A loss to San Francisco would put the 49ers in the driver's seat, assuming the Seahawks lose to Tampa Bay in Week 16. A win eliminates San Francisco.
A 49ers win in that game leaves it up in the air entering the final week. St. Louis would need to win in Seattle and have the 49ers tumble against lowly Arizona to win the division, because the 49ers beat the Rams during their earlier matchup and would have the tie-breaker with a win Sunday. Seattle could take the division by winning out at that point, since the 49ers are already 5-9 and could not catch up to the Seahawks, who could finish 8-8.
Assuming a Rams win at home Sunday, the Seahawks would enter that Week 17 contest with an unarrested shot at the division, even in the event of a loss to Tampa Bay. On the fourth tie-breaker, conference record, the Seahawks would beat the Rams if the two finished with the same record.