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Sixth sense: Battle for final playoff spot in NFC will be tight

The NFC wild-card race is beginning to look like one gnarly bowl of beef stew.

Yes, it's early. Yes, there's any number of catastrophes that could take place, like Matt Stafford going down (again). But let's start with figuring out what we know.

How about those perfect Packers? It's clear they're winning the NFC North and homefield. But my sense is the Bears will beat them in Week 16, and Chicago will finish with 10 or 11 wins to grab a wild-card spot. I'm already on the record: Da Bears make the playoffs.

It would take a gaffe of Roger Craig and Will Clark proportions for the 8-1 Niners not to take the NFC West. And at 7-3, and with a head-to-head win over the Falcons in Atlanta, give me the Saints in the NFC South.

That leaves the loser of the NFC East race (at this point, either the Giants or Cowboys), the Lions and the Falcons to argue over the sixth seed. So what's going to happen? Here's the team-by-team shakedown:

New York Giants

The Giants are the group that elicits the most trust, based on how they've played two very good teams (Patriots and 49ers) on the road, the fact they rank in the top 10 in penalties and turnover differential and also how they have the tendency to pull out the close shaves.

Here's the reality check: of all the potential playoff teams, the Giants have the toughest road as far as schedule is concerned. New York's remaining opponents are a combined 10 games over .500. If Big Blue fails to handle a reeling Eagles team at home, the Saints-Packers-Cowboys gauntlet might be too formidable for the G-Men to rally to make the postseason.

Current strengths: Pass rush, Eli Manning's play and red-zone efficiency (so important in big games)

Gaping holes: Health at running back (Ahmad Bradshaw), wideout (Hakeem Nicks) and effectiveness of ground attack

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas might not be the most well-rounded team in the NFC East, but they are the healthiest, even without Miles Austin.

The Cowboys get Felix Jones back this week, which will provide DeMarco Murray an occasional breather and give the offense a change-of-pace back. That said, coach Jason Garrett would be foolish to make this a running-back-by-committee situation. Murray has been a beast, with an incredible 601 yards rushing in the past four games alone.

Dallas should be the favorite to win the division, despite being a game back of the Giants, due to a very easy schedule. Concerning the wild-card chase, Dallas has the best conference record (4-2), which will help in tiebreakers.

Current strengths: Murray's presence gives offense true balance, Tony Romo' hot play (100 plus rating in three of past four games) and a palatable schedule

Gaping holes: Little pass rush outside of DeMarcus Ware and blitz packages, mediocre safeties and an organizational tendency to play down to opponents

Detroit Lions

Lions Offensive Woes in 2011
Category Figure Rank
Percentage of Rush Plays 35.0 32nd
Third Down Conversions Percentage 27.6 32nd
Rushing Yards 93.6 per game 27th
10-Play Drives 7 T-31st

Despite the sterling 6-3 record, things aren't looking so good on Motown. As a 37-13 thrashing at the hands of the Bears this past weekend showed, the Lions' prospects going forward are shaky.

Matthew Stafford is playing with a broken finger, and it showed on some of his throws in Chicago. While he reportedly has looked better in practice, he will only continue to fare worse, health-wise, if Jim Schwartz doesn't get him some help in the form of a ground attack. The game constantly is on Stafford's shoulders.

Jahvid Best doesn't appear any closer to returning from a concussion. Maurice Morris should start this weekend. Detroit's ineffective run game and poor offensive balance could be the difference in both Stafford's ability to stay upright and the Lions' bid to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

Current strengths: Calvin Johnson (11 touchdowns), best third-down defense in NFL (28.5 percent) and ability to create turnovers and opponent mistakes.

Gaping holes: Inconsistent and ineffective running game, an offense too dependent on the big play and a porous run defense

Atlanta Falcons

While the Falcons are still in the NFC South race, they face an uphill climb to catch the Saints, who are 1.5 games up and have taken the head-to-head meeting in Atlanta.

The Falcons also find themselves in a tough position to capture a wild-card spot, considering they already have four conference losses, which could be a huge negative come playoff tiebreaking time. The Falcons have a very manageable schedule going forward, with games against the Vikings, Panthers and Jaguars over the next five weeks. The team also received a break during that run, as their toughest opponent -- the Texans -- just lost their starting quarterback.

Mike Smith's group needs a W at home this weekend against a feisty Titans club that is allowing the sixth fewest points in the league.

Current strengths: Explosive passing attack when Julio Jones is healthy, a running game capable of closing out games and a manageable schedule over next five weeks

Gaping holes: Erratic offense on first down, plenty of QB pressure but not enough sacks and WR drops on catchable balls (22 and counting).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles

These clubs had the potential to make a playoff run, but both will fall short.

The Bucs are an easy call to make. As my NFL.com colleague Mike Lombardi so articulately pointed out, they are playing like the Headless Horsemen at a time when they can't afford a lapse in leadership.

The Eagles can't suffer any more blows, self-inflicted or courtesy of Adrian Wilson. As talented as this team is, at 3-6, it will take no less than winning out to secure the sixth and final playoff spot. With Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin ailing, and an unpredictable defense running the gamut of disruptive to completely passive, 2011 looks like a lost season in Philadelphia.

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