When you look at the NFC playoff picture right now, your head may begin to hurt. While divisions like the NFC West and NFC South are basically sewn up, things are muddled elsewhere, with 10 teams (out of 16) within two games of the second wild card spot. Furthermore, six teams are within two games of the top wild card spot, indicating that the two teams currently holding down the spots, the Packers and the Seahawks, may not be there after the final five games of the season play out.
Seeing how crowded this field is, we decided to bring some clarity to it to show you who the real contenders are and which teams await an inevitable fall off the map as the weeks go by. So, in order from the worst chance to the best chance, here are the teams most likely to survive the wild card race in the NFC.
First: The pretenders
A group of 4-7 teams still have a fair shot at the postseason, but we think these teams are destined to fall out of the race entirely within the next two weeks. Those teams are the St. Louis Rams, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and Detroit Lions. Detroit has been hot of late, winning three straight games, but they dug themselves too big of a hole with a 1-7 start. The Saints can’t stop anyone and are turning into more of a mess as the days go on. Same goes for the Eagles, who are talking about getting rid of “mastermind” Chip Kelly after how disappointing their season has been. As for the Rams, they have all the potential in the world and they’ve shown it at times, but they can’t seem to get out of their own way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s been a successful run for the young Buccaneers, a team that held the No. 1 overall pick a year ago after winning just two games. Jameis Winston has improved over the course of the season and appears to have a bright future in the league. This team will be in the playoffs before too long, but even with a 5-6 record and being just one game back of the second wild card spot, this isn’t the year for Tampa Bay. They probably need to win out in order to reach the postseason, and tough games against contenders like the Bears and Falcons could provide the losses that will do this team in. You have to respect what they are doing, but for now, there’s always next season in Tampa Bay.
The Bears are one of the most surprising teams in the league this season, vastly improving under head coach John Fox. Jay Cutler is playing some of the best football of his highly-scrutinized career, and the team has been in just about every game they’ve played this season. They just beat the Packers on Thanksgiving and have a 5-6 record, just one game back of the second wild card. Despite all the positive things going for Chicago, we think they will fall short of the postseason. They (like the Bucs) likely need to win out in order to reach the playoffs, and games against teams like the Vikings could provide the one huge loss that ruins their chances. We say the Bears get to 8-8 — but that’s it.
New York Giants/Washington Redskins
Right now, both teams are tied atop the NFC East at 5-6, with Washington holding the tiebreaker at the moment. One of these teams will, obviously, make the postseason as division champs, but the other could have a chance to sneak in as a wild card if both teams finish strong (they don’t play each other again). While that could happen, we don’t think it will. The Giants’ schedule could easily produce two or three more losses, but you could say the same for Dan Snyder’s squad. Best case scenario for these teams is that one finishes 9-7, the other 8-8. That’s only good enough for one playoff berth.
The Atlanta Falcons were 5-0 at one point this season, with lofty Super Bowl aspirations. Now, they’ll be fortunate to even qualify for the playoffs after a 1-5 record over their past six games (including four straight losses). It’s hard to judge how this team will finish. Matt Ryan is prone to turnovers, which has really cost them, especially when you consider that each of the losses during their streak (minus the game against Minnesota) have been by three points or less. Their schedule down the stretch is tough, mainly because they play the unbeaten Panthers twice. They should probably win the other three games, but 9-7 likely won’t be enough to secure a playoff berth.
Things looked shaky for the Seahawks just about a month ago. They were 2-4 and constantly blowing fourth-quarter leads — nowhere near a playoff caliber team. Since then, however, Seattle turned it around, winning four of their past five to put themselves right back in the playoff picture. Russell Wilson and his offense are playing at a high level right now, and the defense still has enough playmakers to make a big-time difference. We see Seattle finishing 4-1 down the stretch, which will give them a 10-6 record and a wild card spot (the Cardinals are too far out in front in the NFC West for Seattle to catch them).
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay has fallen apart a bit throughout their past five games, stumbling to a 2-4 record since their bye week after a 6-0 start to the season. Despite that, the Packers have the best chance of anybody in the playoff chase to secure a wild card spot. In fact, they still have a great shot at tracking down the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North (a team they beat not long ago). With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers should be able to finish at least 4-1 down the stretch (games against the Cardinals and Vikings should test them), putting their record at 11-5, which would be more than enough to reach the postseason once again.