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NFC playoff picture: Cowboys, Packers among trusted

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Who's in the mood to break down a rash of overly complex math-infused tie-breaker scenarios?

Me neither.

There's ample time ahead for that level of unbridled joy. Let's spend today meditating on the big picture: an image that begins with the Dallas Cowboys and pans out to include a host of NFC challengers.

But how many of these challengers can be taken seriously? Which of these teams are built for a long playoff run? And which club is bound to be picked off when it matters most?

With all these questions on the brain, it's time for another round of ...

Who do you trust?

1) Dallas Cowboys (11-2) | Playoff standing: 1st seed. The rest of this list is up for grabs, but there's little debate over Dallas. A second loss on the year does nothing to change how we should view this team. Yes, Dak Prescott and the passing game struggled against the Vikings and Giants, but this remains a roster designed to pound opponents with the run. The Cowboys' final three games are no simple task, but this remains the NFC's most dominant outfit.

Remaining games: vs. Buccaneers (8-5), vs. Lions (9-4), at Eagles (5-8)

2) Atlanta Falcons (8-5) | Playoff standing: 4th seed. Their chances of picking off the Cowboys in Dallas begin with an offense that can go toe-to-toe on the road. The Falcons have an All-Pro wideout in Julio Jones, an MVP candidate in quarterback Matt Ryan and a flock of weapons -- Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman -- inside coordinator Kyle Shanahan's pick-your-poison attack. They held their own in Seattle and ripped through Oakland (35 points), New Orleans (45 points) and Tampa Bay (43 points) on the road. Home/away splits don't apply to the Falcons, who also house a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in pass rusher Vic Beasley. With a soft remaining schedule, Atlanta remains in play for the treasured No. 2 seed.

Remaining games: vs. 49ers (1-12), at Panthers (5-8), vs. Saints (5-8)

3) Green Bay Packers (7-6) | Playoff standing: 9th seed. What is the ninth seed doing here? All you have to do is watch Green Bay's growth on offense and the recent work of Aaron Rodgers, who has graded out as the NFL's best quarterback since Week 7, per Pro Football Focus. Take this to the bank: The Packers will win the NFC North and operate as the rowdy, jelling squad nobody wants to deal with come January. Left for dead a month ago, Green Bay has risen.

Remaining games: at Bears (3-10), vs. Vikings (7-6), at Lions (9-4)

4) Seattle Seahawks (8-4-1) | Playoff standing: 3rd seed. Playoff experience matters, and no team on the list brings more of it than Pete Carroll's Seahawks. Considering their schedule, it's not impossible to imagine an 11-4-1 finish, which would put them in solid position for the second seed if Detroit stumbles. Still, the offense has put up totals of 3, 5, 6, 10 and 12 points this season, with their latest stinker coming Sunday against the surging Packers. Seattle has earned our trust over the past four seasons, but can the Seahawks win games on the road against Dallas, Green Bay or even Atlanta?

Remaining games: vs. Rams (4-9), vs. Cardinals (5-7-1), at 49ers (1-12)

5) Washington Redskins (7-5-1) | Playoff standing: 7th seed. This might appear disrespectful to the Giants, who deserve plenty of credit for sweeping the Cowboys. I'm not ignoring that, but the Redskins run one of the league's most dangerous attacks and knocked off the G-Men at MetLife. Assistant Bill Callahan creates fascinating run schemes to pair with a Kirk Cousins-led offense on pace to set franchise records in total yards per game, passing yards per tilt and yards per play. If tight end Jordan Reed stays healthy, Washington looms as a freaky wild card with enough explosiveness to go on the road and create chaos.

Remaining games: vs. Panthers (5-8), at Bears (3-10), vs. Giants (9-4)

6) New York Giants (9-4) | Playoff standing: 5th seed. If you're a Giants fan, relish this positioning. After all, New York's last two Super Bowl titles came from teams that were totally overlooked heading into the playoffs. There's no ignoring this defense, which has allowed totals of 7, 10, 13 and 16 points during the Giants' 7-1 stretch since Week 6. That said, their 10 points scored against Dallas marked the lowest output in a win during Eli Manning's 13-year career. Only seven teams are scoring fewer points per game than the Giants, who march into Week 15 with the NFL's second-worst ground game. Manning's arm strength is also a concern for a team that -- despite its place on this list -- continues to win games. Let the G-Men prove us all wrong.

Remaining games: vs. Lions (9-4), at Eagles (5-8), at Redskins (7-5-1)

7) Detroit Lions (9-4) | Playoff standing: 2nd seed. Have you heard that Detroit's eight fourth-quarter comebacks are the most in a single season since 1950? Of course you have. We've been riding this magic-carpet ride all year. The Lions are an incomplete team getting fantastic play from quarterback Matthew Stafford and a defense that has tightened up since Week 7 to allow a formidable 16.4 points per game during that span. The remaining schedule, though, is rough enough to project a Week 17 tilt with Green Bay that will likely decide the division.

Remaining games: at Giants (9-4), at Cowboys (11-2), vs. Packers (7-6)

8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) | Playoff standing: 6th seed. Bucs chatter invariably centers around their fascinating young quarterback, Jameis Winston, but Tampa has surged back into the playoff picture largely because of an improving defense allowing just 12.8 points per game since Week 10. Every week, someone new steps up for a unit that coaxed Drew Brees into three picks on Sunday. We'll find out who they are this week against the Cowboys.

Remaining games: at Cowboys (11-2), at Saints (5-8), vs. Panthers (5-8)

9) Minnesota Vikings (7-6) | Playoff standing: 8th seed. The Vikings are the odd man out in the NFC North. The return of Adrian Peterson could change all that, but it's hard to trust a team that has lost six of eight and scored 16 points or fewer in five of those games. Sam Bradford and the gang played well against the Jaguars on Sunday -- and this defense remains a beast -- but one more defeat all but ends Minnesota's season.

Remaining games: vs. Colts (6-7), at Packers (7-6), vs. Bears (3-10)

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