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NFC playoff picture: Saints, Eagles pace tough field

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It's never too early to examine the NFL's playoff picture.

Actually, not true.

This exercise makes sub-zero sense in September and none in October, as godless injuries turn promising outfits into white-hot disasters (see: Texans, Houston), while other clubs unravel before our eyes (see: Bills, Buffalo).

One week before Thanksgiving, though, we finally have a grasp of these teams. How they're built, how they bounce back from defeat and how they attack the enemy -- at least, in the NFC.

While the AFC is stocked with a soupy morass of mid-level pretenders, the top-heavy National Football Conference offers a lineup of surging, well-coached rosters built to perform deep into winter.

Attempting to paint the playoff picture, we'll dive into the mathematical variables, scheduling tics and January probabilities in the coming weeks. For now, let's play a game of WHO DO YOU TRUST?

Who's for real in this year's version of the NFC playoff race? Let's dive in:

Winter is coming -- and they're fine with that

1) New Orleans Saints: It goes beyond last Sunday's titanic blasting of the Buffalo Bills, although that contest displayed exactly why New Orleans (7-2) sits atop this list. Winners of seven straight, Sean Payton's band of rowdies has morphed into a mirror opposite of Saints teams past. For years, they hung around with a high-flying Drew Brees-led air attack that angled to mask endless incarnations of terrible defense. Not this time. Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara have become the league's most dazzling thunder-and-lightning ground duo, while Brees and Payton have made perfect use of assets like Ted Ginn in the passing game. Not unlike the 2014 Cowboys with Tony Romo, the Saints are blistering teams with the run -- they carried the ball 24 straight times against Buffalo -- and effectively asking Brees to do less. Add a surging defense to the mix, and the Saints are built for January and beyond.

2) Philadelphia Eagles: Like the Saints, the Eagles (8-1) boast the innate ability to control the clock and overpower the enemy with a powerful stable of backs who take over games after wunderkind passer Carson Wentz has filleted teams through the air. Go watch Philly's epic dismantling of Denver's defense for an example of how Wentz and friends attack from the first minute and never let go. The Eagles quarterback already accomplishes more pre-snap than plenty of experienced veterans will ever dream of, while offering some of the juiciest mobility league-wide. The loss of left tackle Jason Peters is concerning, but the Eagles -- armed with a vicious defensive front -- offer no overt weakness. It would be fascinating to watch Wentz and Brees, two marvelous passers at opposite ends of their careers, square off come January.

The stunner

3) Los Angeles Rams: They deserve their own category. For years under Jeff Fisher, the Rams (7-2) -- with many of the same parts -- were an unwatchable, hulking mess on offense. When a franchise tells you it needs half a decade to rebuild, simply point to the Rams, who struck gold with first-year coach Sean McVay and invaluable defensive play-caller Wade Phillips. Jared Goff has blossomed into a franchise anchor under center, Todd Gurley is a viable MVP candidate and the defense has morphed into an opportunistic beast. General manager Les Snead took plenty of heat during the Fisher days, but his magnificent offseason -- adding left tackle Andrew Whitworth and evolving wideout Robert Woods -- has paid off in spades. This is the team nobody wants to play.

Their fans all want them higher on this list

4) Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota landing fourth explains the powerful nature of the NFC. The Vikings (7-2) come armed with a Super Bowl-level defense and an offense littered with playmakers. Wideout Adam Thielen has become a bona fide luminary alongside Stefon Diggs, while Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have filled in admirably for lost rookie running back Dalvin Cook. The defense is loaded -- Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Danielle Hunter pack a punch -- but the question boils down to quarterback, and it's a nice problem to have: Journeyman Case Keenum has been surprisingly reliable, but will the Vikings ultimately choose to hand the offense over to back-from-injury Teddy Bridgewater? Coach Mike Zimmer -- who, as of Wednesday, was sticking with Keenum -- must handle this situation with care.

5) Carolina Panthers: I'm tempted to place them higher after Monday's bombing of the Dolphins, a statement game that saw Carolina (7-3) run for nearly 300 yards after gashing the Falcons for 200-plus one week earlier. Like the Saints, the Panthers have completely transformed themselves on offense, trading away wideout Kelvin Benjamin to maximize a band of speedy pass-catchers who can spread the field and open up the run game. That strategy sounded like hot air when the swap went down, but Carolina deserves credit. Instead of clinging to their boring attack from earlier in the year, the Panthers are allowing quarterback Cam Newton to run free and keep the enemy guessing. So far, so good, and they have the star-studded defense to complement this strategy, making it feel like 2015 all over again.

6) Seattle Seahawks: The 'Hawks (6-3) earn points for their rich playoff experience and the magic-spinning powers of Russell Wilson, the most relied-upon quarterback in the entire conference. The defense is a proven, but Seattle just lost All-Pro cover man Richard Sherman for the year, and I can't help but recall how Deshaun Watson fried this unit just a few weeks ago. The ground game comes and goes, but Seattle always finds a way to figure its issues out down the stretch. This team can win a playoff game and more if the injury bug flitters away for good.

Questions and mysteries abound

7) Dallas Cowboys: Last Sunday's ugly loss to Atlanta was a massive red flag. The Cowboys (5-4) were a shadow of themselves with Ezekiel Elliott serving his suspension, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith out of the lineup and uber-important linebacker Sean Lee lost to injury. The hope is that Smith can play this Sunday -- sending bookend-disaster Chaz Green back into the shadows -- but the Cowboys sit three games behind the eight-win Eagles in a conference with four other seven-win teams and a six-win contender. With Lee poised to miss the next three games and Elliott banned until Week 16, adversity is creeping up in Big D. A loss to the Eagles on Sunday could prove fatal.

(UPDATE: NFL Network's Jane Slater reported that Smith will not play against Philadelphia.)

Something feels off

8) Atlanta Falcons, 9) Detroit Lions, 10) Washington Redskins, 11) Green Bay Packers: Atlanta (5-4) registered a convincing win over the Cowboys, but only with Dallas missing a bushel of stars. Nice win, but the Falcons -- in their current form -- lack the DNA to hang with the big boys up top. ... The Lions (5-4) are fun to watch, but they were outplayed by the Browns for nearly three quarters on Sunday. Matthew Stafford has been sensational, but the Lions are an incomplete bunch. ... One week, Washington (4-5) looks like it could take down anyone in the NFL. Seven days later, you get an entirely different squad. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has coached a handful of brilliant games this season, but Jay Gruden's team has battled injuries and too much inconsistency to be seen as a legitimate threat. ... Sunday's improvements from Brett Hundley were encouraging, but the Packers sit two games behind Minnesota in the NFC North, with the Steelers, Panthers, Vikings and Lions still ahead. Does this feel like a team about to rip off five straight wins with Aaron Rodgers tucked away on the sideline?

All they need is a miracle

12) Arizona Cardinals (4-5), 13) Chicago Bears (3-6), 14) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6): Let's talk in a month if any one of these teams is more than floating driftwood atop the watery abyss of a lost campaign.

For the completists

15) New York Giants (1-8), 16) San Francisco 49ers (1-9): Consider this box checked off.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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