With six weeks remaining in the regular season, the playoff picture is beginning to heat up. As I see it, there are currently eight teams in the NFC that will be fighting over six playoff spots.
Which teams will make it into the playoffs, and which teams will be forced to watch at home? Here I make my predictions, based on recent performance and remaining schedule, of which teams will have the opportunity.
The defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers are the class of the NFL right now. With five of their remaining six games coming against teams with winning records, the only real question surrounding the Packers is whether or not they finish the season 16-0.
Random Tidbits: Aaron Rodgers has put up a QB rating over 100 in 18 of his last 21 games.
Eight different Packers receivers have caught touchdowns this season.
The Packers have won 16 games in a row dating back to last season.
I taught my 11-year-old nephew to do the "Discount Double-Check" when he scores in his Pee Wee league.
The 6-4 Dallas Cowboys may be one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now. After a humiliating defeat against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 8, the Cowboys have run off three straight victories, thanks in large part to rookie DeMarco Murray.
Murray received his first start in Week 7 against the St. Louis Rams, and has made his presence known ever since. He's averaging almost 135 yards rushing a game, and is offering balance to a very talented and explosive offense. Pair that with a very opportunistic defense, and the Cowboys could be ready to make some noise in January.
It's worth noting that the Cowboys do have three games remaining against division opponents, which could make or break their playoff hopes.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are currently in position to take the NFC South. With a 3-1 division record, including a victory over the challenging Atlanta Falcons, the Saints have a game lead in the NFC South, including tie-breakers.
Although the Saints do have three games remaining against opponents with winning records, they have the advantage of playing all of these games in the Superdome, where they are undefeated this season.
New Orleans is more than capable of winning their remaining games and securing the NFC South title, however after having lost two of their last five games, the Saints are not as safe as they would like.
It almost feels nostalgic thinking about the dominating San Francisco 49ers. At 9-1, first-year coach Jim Harbaugh has exceeded all expectations. He has given the 49ers their first winning season since 2002. To give you an idea, the last time this team had a winning season, they were coached by Steve Mariucci, quarterbacked by Jeff Garcia, and their leading receiver was Terrell Owens.
I was reluctant to give much credit to the 49ers, considering the less-than-stellar division that they get to showcase their talent against, but after a little more research, there is something about this team that is extremely impressive. They've traveled cross-country for four games, and have come up victorious in each of these games. The 49ers defense is allowing a league-best 14.5 points per game, and are beyond dominant against the run.
With four of their remaining six games coming against division opponents, the 49ers are well on their way to securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
The 6-4 Atlanta Falcons had a mediocre start to the 2011 season, but have caught fire of late, going 4-1 in their last five games. The one loss came on the controversial call to go for it on 4th and 1 in overtime against the Saints. This is a team that is starting to fire on all cylinders, including having the No. 2 run defense in the NFL.
Despite having a 6-4 record, the Falcons have a very favorable remaining schedule, with only two games against teams with winning records. One of those games will be against the now Matt Schaub-less Houston Texans.
Although not completely out of the NFC South race, the Falcons would need a little help from others if they want a shot at repeating as division champions.
Despite the possibility of losing Cutler for the remainder of the 2011 season, the Chicago Bears are still poised to take the final Wild Card spot in the NFC. The Bears have won five straight games and have one of the most favorable remaining schedules. Of their remaining six games, only two of their opponents currently have winning records.
The Bears undoubtedly have much to overcome with the loss of Cutler, however this is a team that has shown its ability to score on defense, and special teams as well. There is no question that the Bears will put even more on the back of running back Matt Forte in the upcoming weeks.
Whether quarterback Caleb Hanie is the answer for the remainder of the season or the Bears pursue Kyle Orton remains to be seen. One thing is for certain though; Cutler's decision to have the surgery shows he fully expects to be ready to play in January.
With only six available playoff spots, some teams will fall short. The two teams I see pushing for a playoff spot, but missing the cut are the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants.
The Detroit Lions have had a great season thus far. However, four of their remaining six games are against teams with winning records, including two against the Green Bay Packers. These games could either make or break the Lions season. After losing three of their last five games, they have their work cut out for them if they want to make it into the playoffs.
Eli Manning and the New York Giants have possibly the most difficult remaining schedule in the NFL, with games against the Packers, Saints, Cowboys and Jets still to play. After dropping their last two games against the 49ers and the Eagles, the Giants have gone from the favorites in the NFC East to being on the verge of missing the playoffs.