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NFC playoff picture: Packers, Giants, Bucs heating up

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We're down to the nitty-gritty in the glorious NFC.

Barring a two-week collapse by the heat-seeking Cowboys, Dallas will roll into January as the conference's unquestioned top seed.

What's fascinating about the NFC, though, is the far-reaching turnover from last year's crop of playoff teams. Four of the six clubs currently poised to make the postseason were left out of last year's party. The Falcons, Lions, Giants and Cowboys -- and even the seventh-seeded Bucs -- all loom as potential new entries, while old reliables like Seattle and Green Bay would love to steer those magic carpet rides into the abyss.

There's plenty to unpack this week, so let's get down to it:

Giant drama in the NFC?

Nothing the Giants (10-4) have accomplished this season tops this: beating Dallas twice. By sweeping the Cowboys (12-2), New York still has a chance at the NFC East -- and much more. It's a long shot, but Big Blue can steal the division with wins over the Eagles and Redskins paired with Dallas losses to Detroit and Philly.

The Giants can also miss the playoffs entirely by losing their final two games amid a stew of chaos: The Falcons (9-5), Packers (8-6) and Bucs (8-6) winning out and the Lions beating the Cowboys before falling to Green Bay in Week 17. If all that happens, winter has come for the G-Men.

It's fun to ponder wild paths into the postseason, but here's the truth: The NFC East -- finally a division living up to the hype -- is much more likely to send two teams into the tournament.

Seattle isn't sweating it

It's wonderful to have new blood vying for the playoffs, but all the fresh faces make it easy to forget about the conference's most experienced postseason monster.

The Seahawks (9-4-1) have locked up their fifth straight January appearance and currently operate as the No. 2 seed. They've salted away the hapless NFC West and feel destined for a bye with games left against the Cardinals and woeful 49ers.

There's a network of complex occurrences that could lead to Seattle losing the No. 2 spot to the Lions, Falcons, Packers or Bucs, but we're better dipping into that next week if Seattle tumbles against Arizona. No need to drown in dense mathematics when we fully trust the 'Hawks to handle their business over the next two weeks.

The team nobody wants to play

Fans kill us weekly for "overrating" the Packers. I'd imagine NFL coaches feel differently after watching this roster play over the past few weeks. The concept of drawing a white-hot Aaron Rodgers this January is nightmare material for NFC hopefuls.

Currently notched as the sixth seed, Green Bay can take the NFC North by: (a) winning out or (b) traveling into Week 17 no worse than one game behind the Lions -- before knocking off Detroit in the finale. The Packers can also nab a wild-card entry or miss the playoffs entirely depending on a flock of results over the final two weeks. It's worth noting that Green Bay currently owns the tie-breaker with Tampa Bay based on strength of schedule.

The Lions, meanwhile, face a stiff test on Monday night against the Cowboys. The result of that affair will pave the way for a potential win-and-you're-in scenario for both Green Bay and Detroit. There's also a path where the Packers, Lions and Vikings could all finish 9-7, but we've stopped thinking about Minnesota for now.

Don't ignore the South

The Falcons have piled up 83 points over their last two games and currently top the NFL with an offense scoring 33.5 points per game.

The Falcons don't get enough attention, but they loom as a darkhorse Super Bowl candidate -- especially if they find a way to steal the No. 2 seed. That can happen if they beat the Panthers and Saints -- going 11-5 -- combined with Seattle slipping up against the Cardinals or 49ers and finishing 10-5-1. As of today, Atlanta is ahead of Detroit based on strength of victory.

On the flip side, the Falcons haven't even clinched a playoff spot and could fall out of the picture entirely if they crumble while the Bucs handle their business against the Saints and Panthers.

It's worth noting that the flailing Redskins (7-6-1), Vikings (7-7), Saints (6-8) and Panthers (6-8) all remain alive. It's not worth exploring their chances, though, barring a rash of surprise results this week.

We're close to solving this season-long mystery, but Week 16 still offers plenty of suspense in the NFC. Stay tuned.

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