NFC Playoffs: It's Gut Check Time

Pro Football NYCSenior Writer IDecember 15, 2008

When it gets near the holidays, that means one thing for NFC teams: all hell is about to break loose.  This is the time of year where the men are separated from the boys; the Eagles win out and the Cowboys begin to swoon.

Well, one of those things is happening. The Eagles (7-5-1) just romped on the Giants and are now poised to do the same to Cleveland tonight. Next week they go to Washington before hosting Dallas (9-5) the last week of the season. By that time, the Eagles will be 9-5-1 and the retooled Cowboys will be 10-5. The winner will go to the playoffs. The loser might, too.

This week, the fading Giants—who are already in the playoffs—host the Carolina Panthers for top seed in the NFC.  If New York wins, they clinch the number one seed and all the niceties that go with it. If Carolina wins, the Giants can still gain top seed if they beat Minnesota in Week 17 and New Orleans defeats the Panthers.

But let's not go there yet. The Giants have played more games than any other team over the past two seasons and have not had a week off since Week Four. The fatigue, injuries, and suspensions have finally caught up to them and now they must play the NFC's hottest team. The Panthers have a punishing running game that is sure to test what's left of the Giants' mettle.  I'm not saying the Giants can't win this game, but all signs are pointing away from that happening.

No other teams can get to 12 wins so either New York or Carolina will get the top seed. Arizona is the champion of the paltry Western Division so they are in also. They have become a running joke. Yes, they will get a home game, but they are far from one of the best six teams in the conference.

With that being said, the frustrating part of the NFC playoff picture is that a few good teams will be left out. Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Washington are all still alive.  Either Chicago or Minnesota has to win the North, so the loser will go into the wildcard pool. Keep in mind that Carolina can still miss the playoffs if they lose the next two weeks and some these other teams win out.

Here's my prediction for next week's games: Carolina will defeat the Giants and by virtue clinch a first-round bye and the NFC South; The Cowboys will knock off Baltimore; the Eagles will win in Washington, which would formally eliminate the Redskins; Minnesota will beat Atlanta; Tampa Bay will lose to San Diego at home and the Bears will defeat Green Bay.

That would lead us to Week 17, where we could possibly have three 10-6 teams miss the playoffs.

The Giants (11-4), Cardinals (8-7) , Vikings (10-6), and Panthers (12-3) will enter the week secured of playoff spots but uncertain of opponents and dates.  The NFC North would have been decided by the Vikings win over Atlanta. The Bears could still tie them record-wise but would lose the tiebreaker.

Minnesota will also gain a first round bye when they defeat New York in the Metrodome. The would make Carolina the top seed, the Vikings #2 and the Giants and Cards third and fourth respectively.

That leads us to the wildcard scenarios, which are many.  The Cowboys (10-5), Eagles (9-5-1), Bears (9-6), Bucs (9-6), and Falcons (9-6) would all still be eligible.

As I said earlier, Dallas faces Philly in Week 17. If Dallas wins, they are in at 11-5. If they lose, they fall behind the 10-5-1 Eagles and would go into a tiebreaker scenario with Atlanta—who will be 10-6 after their win over St. Louis; and Tampa, who will defeat Oakland at home.  The Bears might be in the mix as well if they can beat the surging Texans in Houston.

Tune in next week for more...