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NFC playoff picture: Can Lions, Giants, Redskins finish?

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It doesn't require an immense imagination to picture the New England Patriots walking away with the pretender-stuffed AFC.

The NFC, however, remains packed with intrigue.

Instead of crumbling in Pittsburgh, the surging Cowboys won the game of the year on Sunday with a hurly-burly, tilt-sealing touchdown burst from rookie runner and MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott.

The road win served as a reminder that Dallas (8-1) is built for late-season football. Armed with a well-coached defense and a clock-draining, power ground game, this year's Cowboys have won a league-best eight straight contests and none of it feels like a fluke.

In control of its own destiny, Dallas is the key puzzle piece to the NFC playoff picture -- but that isn't the only game in town.

Let's take a gander, shall we?

Beware the surging Seahawks

It's uncomfortably early to start dropping "if the season ended today" quips on NFL.com, but the Seahawks (6-2-1) feel at home in their current position as the No. 2 seed. Coming off back-to-back prime-time wins over the Bills and Patriots, Seattle finally houses a healthy Russell Wilson under center, as well as the league's second-ranked defense in terms of points allowed.

A deeper case for the Seahawks centers around their experience: Today's remaining playoff seeds in the NFC -- the Cowboys, Falcons, Lions, Giants and Redskins -- boast a grand total of one playoff win under their current coaching regimes. Pete Carroll's 'Hawks would ride into January with eight postseason victories since 2010 -- and many of the core pieces who won Super Bowl XLVIII still on the roster.

Their schedule also helps, with remaining games against the Eagles, Buccaneers, Panthers, Packers, Rams, Cardinals and 49ers. Five of those seven clubs are currently saddled with losing records, meaning Seattle would need to falter in tremendous fashion to lose out on a bye.

The Case for Atlanta

The Falcons (6-4) currently occupy the No. 3 seed. This works for me, with Atlanta standing out as the only tangible threat to Dallas and Seattle. Armed with a high-powered, diverse attack led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan, the Falcons have shown an ability to suffocate teams at home and hang with strong competition on the road.

Knocking off Oakland and Denver in hostile territory was noteworthy, but I'd actually point to the 26-24 loss in Seattle as equal proof that home/road splits won't sink Atlanta. The Falcons' defense is far from a strength, but we've seen the pass rush bubble up in big spots, with Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn causing trouble for opposing passers.

I also like Atlanta's remaining schedule with dates against the Cardinals, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints. Come out of that with four victories and the Falcons are all but a lock to host a game in January.

Who do you trust?

From where we stand, the NFC North would currently give birth to just one playoff entry: the up-and-down Lions. Detroit has been a joy to watch on Game Pass, thanks to the late-game heroics of Matthew Stafford, but the Lions remain suspicious. Ranked before their Week 10 bye as the sixth-worst team in the league, via Football Outsiders, it's fair to wonder where they'll be after games against the Vikings, Saints, Giants, Cowboys and Packers down the stretch.

The Giants (6-3) and Redskins (5-3-1) currently own the NFC's fifth and sixth seeds, respectively, with the Eagles (5-4) just missing the cut. The pecking order is bound to shift with all three teams set to play each other -- along with the Cowboys -- down the stretch. Washington is a fascinating watch when the offense is clicking, but Giants quarterback Eli Manning is the only starting quarterback in this division with a playoff win under his belt. If New York plans to make one more January push under Manning, the G-Men must negotiate a thorny final stretch against the Steelers, Cowboys, Lions and Eagles before visiting the Redskins in Week 17.

Outside looking in

I struggle to find hope in the conference's remaining cadre of pretenders. Let's start with the free-falling Vikings, who watched their 5-0 start float away with four straight defeats. Currently the No. 8 seed behind Philly, Minnesota remains in the picture only because the Lions and listless Packers (4-5) show plenty of potential for disaster down the stretch. News flash: Whoever wins the NFC North will be systematically gobbled up in early January.

From here, we enter a murky territory of underwhelming clubs refusing to seal the deal. The Cardinals (4-4-1) own the NFC's ninth seed above a pack of 4-5 squads in Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles. We're all conditioned to assume the Packers will figure it out, but game film tells us that Green Bay is a shadow of its former self. The Saints have a playoff-level offense, but Sunday's 25-23 loss to Denver was a soul-crusher. With another loss on Thursday to the flat-lining Panthers (3-6), the Saints could be marching OUT.

Until next week.

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