The NFC Playoff Race: Who's In, Who's Out, and Why

Ryan Rosenburg@@Rykn0Correspondent INovember 27, 2011

The NFC Playoff Race: Who's In, Who's Out, and Why

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    As the NFL regular season makes the turn for the home stretch it becomes time to ask an important question;  Who still has something to play for?  In other words, who still has a chance at a playoff spot and who will be watching the postseason from the confines of their own home waiting for next season.

    We will take a look at the locks, the likeliest, and then the long-shots and try to put together a reasonable road map to the remainder of each NFC team's season.

    Using where they stand now and who they have yet to play we will determine which teams will make the cut and which will have to wait until next year for a run at glory.

Green Bay Packers (11-0)

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    The Packers have clearly established themselves as the best team in not only the NFC, but the entire league.  The defending Super Bowl Champs have rattled off 11 straight after taking care of Detroit on Thanksgiving, and look to have a first round playoff bye all but locked up.

    Remaining Games:

    @ NY Giants (6-4)

    vs. Oakland (6-4)

    @ Kansas City (4-6)

    vs. Chicago (7-3)

    vs. Detroit (7-4)

    Clearly not a cake schedule to finish out the season. The Packers opponents feature a combined record of 30-21 and four of five are above .500. That being said, it is hard to imagine the Pack losing more than one or two of these games with the roll they have been on.  The most difficult step could be against the Giants at the Meadowlands next week, but even if they lose that one they are still in prime position for home field advantage in the NFC Playoffs. They could very well go undefeated, but a late slip up in a non-consequential game would not be unheard of.

    Predicted Record: 15-1

    Predicted Seed: No. 1

San Francico 49ers (9-2)

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    Jim Harbaugh has done a remarkable job of transforming a 6-10 49ers club from 2010 into a playoff favorite in just one season.  The San Fran defense has emerged as one of the best in the NFL, allowing zero rushing touchdowns through 11 weeks.  That's right, not one player has scored on a running play against these guys.

    Remaining Schedule:

    vs. St. Louis (2-8)

    @ Arizona (3-7)

    vs. Pittsburgh (7-3)

    @ Seattle (4-6)

    @ St. Louis (2-8)

    That is a finish to the season that likely isn't striking fear into the heart of any 49er fans.  A combined record of 18-32 and four of five teams below .500 should mean that as long as SF keeps up their current pace the NFC West is a lock.  Even if they win out, which is a very likely possibility, that still leaves them with two losses.  Based on the previous Packers breakdown that still won't be enough to snag home field advantage, but Harbaugh and company would likely be just fine with a first week bye.

    Predicted Record: 13-3

    Predicted Seed: No. 2

New Orleans Saints (7-3)

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    Drew Brees continues to light up the scoreboard week in and week out, currently boasting the most passing yards of any QB this season. His top two targets have been, oddly enough, running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham. It's not often you see a team whose top wide receiver only has the third most grabs on the roster, but that is a testament to Brees' ability to spread the ball around and take advantage of what the defense gives him.

    Remaining Games:

    vs. NY Giants (6-4)

    vs. Detroit (7-4)

    @ Tennessee (5-5)

    @ Minnesota (2-8)

    vs. Atlanta (6-4)

    vs. Carolina (2-8)

    An average schedule to contend with delivers a combined 28-33 record with half of the teams above .500. Playing four of the last six at home is a big advantage, especially when you take into account the Saints haven't lost at home all year.

    The Week 16 matchup against Atlanta will likely be one of the games of the year, holding division and playoff implications. Having beaten the Falcons in Atlanta earlier in the season the Saints should be able to hold at home. But if Atlanta needs that win to make the playoffs and NO is already set then the dirty birds could easily steal one away.

    Predicted Record: 13-3

    Predicted Seed: No. 3

Dallas Cowboys (7-4)

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    The Cowboys stumbled a bit out of the gate starting the year 3-4, but have put together four straight wins to vault themselves into the NFC East lead.  The East will come down to a battle between Dallas and New York, and it's possible that the runner up could be left out in the cold.

    Remaining Games:

    @ Arizona (3-7)

    vs. NY Giants (6-4)

    @ Tampa Bay (4-6)

    vs. Philadelphia (4-6)

    @ NY Giants (6-4)

    Those two remaining games against the Giants stick out like a sore thumb. And if either team can manage to win both then it is likely that squad will take home the division.  Dallas has shown a propensity to stumble when everything is on the line, and they may be in for another heartbreak this year if they can't pull at least one of these out. It is possible that the final game of the year between the NFC East rivals could mean win or go home, and the fact that it is played in the Meadowlands bodes well for NY. A difficult schedule for the Giants, however, could be enough help to let the Cowboys take home the division title.

    Predicted Record: (10-6)

    Predicted Seed: No. 4

Chicago Bears (7-3)

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    The Bears were another slow starter, dropping three of their first five.  Similar to Dallas they have since rattled off a streak of wins, five to be exact, and currently stand atop the NFC North.  A huge setback came to Lovie Smith's team following last week's game, however, as starting QB Jay Cutler was forced into thumb surgery following an injury.  Cutler's return is still in question leaving perennial backup Caleb Hanie to lead this team through this crucial stretch of the season.

    Remaining Games:

    @ Oakland (6-4)

    vs. Kansas City (4-6)

    @ Denver (5-5)

    vs. Seattle (4-6)

    @ Green Bay (11-0)

    @ Minnesota (2-8)

    This schedule could be tougher, but it could also definitely be easier.  A combined 32-29 means that the Bears will have their hands full, and the majority of these teams feature a premier defensive group that could lead to serious issues for backup Hanie.  Chicago fans better hope that Jay Cutler's thumb heals quickly, or they may miss a shot at the playoffs.

    Predicted Record: (10-6)

    Predicted Seed: OUT

Detroit Lions (7-4)

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    Following an ejection from the Lions Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may be facing suspension as the Lions look to close out the season.  While the Lions have apt backups on the defensive line the ferocity of Suh will surely be missed if he is indeed suspended.  Matt Stafford is still working to overcome a broken finger and will need to put up a substantial amount of points to overcome the defensive setback.

    Remaining Games:

    @ New Orleans (7-3)

    vs. Minnesota (2-8)

    @ Oakland (6-4)

    vs. San Diego (4-6)

    @ Green Bay (11-0)

    A very tough schedule to close out the year could very well put the Lions on the outside looking in.  Their opponents have combined for a 30-19 record to this point and only the Minnesota matchup looks like one that Detroit can point at as a sure win. The Lions will likely need some help in order to sneak into a wild-card spot, but as mentioned before that help may be provided by the Cutler-less Bears.

    Predicted Record: (10-6)

    Predicted Seed: No. 6

Atlanta Falcons (6-4)

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    The Falcons are currently on the outside of the playoff chase, but look to re-enter due to a slightly below average schedule to close out the year.  They are in an enviable spot of still being able to win their division, and if not still have the Wild Card to fall back on.  Their offense has been clicking as of late, and if they can remain healthy then they have a good shot to snag a spot in the postseason.

    Remaining Games:

    vs. Minnesota (2-8)

    @ Houston (7-3)

    @ Carolina (2-8)

    vs. Jacksonville (3-7)

    @ New Orleans (7-3)

    vs. Tampa Bay (4-6)

    The Falcons have the potential to win out, which could put them at the top of the division if the Saints falter.  Even with a couple of losses sprinkled in it appears that the Falcons will find themselves in a wild card spot facing opponents who have amounted to a 25-35 record to this point.  While the Week 16 game against the Saints could serve to determine the NFC South Champion it looks like both squads will have what it takes to hold on and play at least one playoff game.

    Predicted Record: (11-5)

    Predicted Seed: No. 5

New York Giants (6-4)

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    The Giants have put together a respectable season to this point, but a tough closing schedule looms large if they hope to make a run at the NFC East or a Wild Card spot.  With the return of starting RB Ahmad Bradshaw still up in the air the Giants continue to rely on Eli Manning to make big plays, which he has been able to do for the most part.  Up against stiffer competition, however, NY has looked much more human.

    Remaining Games:

    @ New Orleans (7-3)

    vs. Green Bay (11-0)

    @ Dallas (7-4)

    vs. Washington (3-7)

    @ NY Jets (5-5)

    vs. Dallas (7-4)

    A combined record of 40-23 proves that the Giants may have to most difficult closing schedule of the group discussed here, including two against the division foe Cowboys.  New York's performance against above average teams so far has left much to be desired, and it's hard to imagine them pulling out four or five wins from this tough stretch.

    Predicted Record: (8-8)

    Predicted Seed: OUT

Playoff Outlook

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    To wrap up that leaves us with the following projected seedings:

    1. Green Bay

    2. San Francisco

    3. New Orleans

    4. Dallas

    5. Atlanta

    6. Detroit.

    Some teams not mentioned (Seattle, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay) still hold out some hope but will need a lot of help to have any sort of chance.  It looks like it will take at least 10 wins to make it into the chase, which would require these four-win squads to win all of their remaining games and hope those ahead of them lose a lot. That seems like a lot to ask for from groups who have been below .500 to this point, but anything is possible. 

    Late divisional matchups in the East and the South should provide some fireworks for the end of the season, and when it's all said and done we will surely see six formidable teams representing the NFC come playoff time.