Twelve weeks of the NFL season are in the books. 24 teams are within one game of a playoff spot after 11 games. That's the highest number since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
This is former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell's vision in a nutshell. The league wants parity above all, with as many teams as possible believing they a chance. Parity looks like mediocrity in the AFC this season. The NFC is deeper and more compelling. Here's what we know about the NFC playoff picture after 12 weeks:
Wild cards should come out of the NFC South and West
New Orleans has a brutal closing schedule, including a trip to Seattle and two games against Carolina. The Panthers' slate is softer and they have a chance to pass the Saints. It would be shocking, however, if second place in the NFC South falls out of the playoffs.
So that's one wild-card spot. Based on record and talent, the next spot probably should come down to second place in the NFC West. Arizona hosts San Francisco in Week 17 in what could be a play-in game. I like their chances for a wild card much better than anyone from ...
NFC North three-way battle for one spot?
Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit are playing worse as the season is going along. That should change for the Packers once Aaron Rodgers is back, but they might not have enough time to catch up in the division race by the time he's back. (It's looking like a Week 14 return.)
The Bears are 3-5 since their hot start to the season. Their defense is one of the worst groups in football. The schedule is relatively soft with road games in Minnesota and Cleveland, but this does not look like a team ready to go on a run.
The Lions are capable of beating any team in the league, just like they are capable of blowing any game. They would be in great shape with a win over the Packers on Thanksgiving. They would be 1.5 games up on the Packers with four to play. A win also would put them at 4-1 in the division, with a chance to clinch all division tiebreakers if they beat the Vikings in Week 17.
Green Bay's tie against the Vikings was a killer. So was a schedule that included three division games when Rodgers was hurt.
Eagles still fighting uphill battle
Philadelphia has emerged as the trendy favorite to take the NFC East because the Cowboys ... are the Cowboys. But it's worth noting that the Eagles probably will have to win the division outright to make the playoffs. The Cowboys just have to beat Washington in Week 16 and they will hold all division tiebreakers, regardless of who wins the season finale between the Eagles and Cowboys.
To put it another way: Dallas could clinch the division with a one game leading heading into the final week. And they have just three games left against teams with winning records. The Eagles have four.
Seattle can all but lock up No. 1 seed Monday
The Saints have to win in Seattle this Monday night to stay in the mix for homefield advantage in the playoffs. If the Saints lose, they could be heading back to Seattle in the playoffs for a rematch of the 2010 wild-card game where Marshawn Lynch shook the Earth.
The winner of the NFC South should be the heavy favorite to get the No. 2 seed.
Looking ahead to Week 13
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-8) at Carolina Panthers (8-3): The Bucs are better than any of the AFC playoff contenders fighting for the No. 6 seed.
Arizona Cardinals (7-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-5): This is the best team the Eagles have faced since Week 4. (And the best defense they have faced all year.)
New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Seattle Seahawks (10-1): The road to the Super Bowl should go through Seattle if the Seahawks win.