As it stands right now, there are eight teams in the NFC with a realistic chance of making the playoffs, with six weeks left in the season. The problem is; there will be a maximum of four spots available for those eight teams.
Just two weeks ago, I would have said the New York Giants were a lock to win the NFC East, but with consecutive losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, they find their lead shrinking to the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have won their last two games, at Philadelphia in week 10 and home against the Cleveland Browns in week 11. The Cowboys are only one game behind the defending Super Bowl champions in the East.
Of the eight teams vying for those two division titles (Giants and Cowboys in the NFC East, Bears, Packers and Vikings in the NFC North) and the two wild-card spots (Saints, Seahawks, Buccaneers), the Cowboys have the easiest remaining schedule. Their remaining opponents win percentage is a subpar .458, compared to the Giants, who have the second hardest schedules remaining at .600. This is one more reason why the Cowboys could win the East.
The hardest remaining schedule belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, .667, but they truly control their playoff chances in the North. With two games remaining against each, the Bears and the Packers, they have a number of possibilities coming out of those four games. Their next three games is a NFC North sandwich, with the Packers the middle of the home-and-home with the Bears.
Currently the Vikings are third in their division at 6-4, one game behind the Packers and one game behind the Bears. If they can split wins with both teams, they will be at 8-6 and having to beat the Rams and Texans on the road. Best case scenario, they sweep both rivalries and possibly win the division. Worst case scenario, they lose all four games and hope to finish at .500.
If Christian Ponder can manage the game and Adrian Peterson continues to dominate opponents run defenses, then there is no telling to how the Vikings will finish up, but it is likely they will need help and lots of it. They have shown great progress this season and give Vikings fans a reason to be positive about 2013.
The other two teams competing with the Vikings for the division crown, the Bears and Packers, each have nearly identical schedules remaining (.559 and .551 respectively). As mentioned, both play the Vikings twice. Both play the Lions. The Bears play the Seahawks and Cardinals and the Packers play the Giants and Titans.
Again, Minnesota is going to play a huge role in the winner of this division and it will become a lot more clearer three weeks from now. My prediction is that Chicago will win the division at 11-5 and Green Bay will take the first wild card spot.
Disclaimer! Should Jay Cutler be out for an extended amount of time, then all bets are off and the Packers will win the North.
Should the Vikings split with Bears and Packers scenario play out, then that would leave the Vikings, Saints, Seahawks and Buccaneers left to battle for the final playoff spot (I still believe the Giants will find a way to win the division and the Cowboys will miss the playoffs once again).
Assuming the Atlanta Falcons don't suffer a major collapse, they should win the NFC South and I have the Saints finishing at 10-6 in second place and the Buccaneers finishing 9-7. Considering how the Buccaneers finished last season and they brought in former Rutgers head coach Greg Schianno at the beginning of this season, 9-7 would be a major step in the right direction.
If everything plays out as I have drawn it out in this scenario, the Vikings would be eliminated at 9-7, but they too would be very happy to hang their hat on that record. At the start of the season, I didn't think the Vikings would win more than six games and I am not alone in saying that.
The Saints and the Seahawks would be the two teams left standing at 10-6 for the final wild card spot. So, who makes the final spot? If it came down to divisional wins, the Saints would get the nod, which would be absolutely amazing, considering they started the season 0-4 and they were without their head coach Sean Payton all season.
There is still a lot of football left to play and any number of scenarios exists, but it is fun to start thinking about the different possibilities of playoff teams, especially if your team is in the hunt. Here’s to a fun and exciting finish to the 2012 NFL regular season.