NFC playoff picture: Eagles-Rams heads critical Week 14 slate


We are thisclose to chaos, folks.

While the AFC is, in essence, a two-horse race (and, in reality, a Patriots victory tour), the O.G. conference is not so simple. There's no telling who the real favorite is to assume home-field advantage by year's end. The NFC's wild-card teams look like division winners, while those on the fringes look like they could host wild-card games in the AFC. In short, it's hard to project more than one week ahead in this chase to the top, so instead, let's just look at this week.

Here's how things stand in this convoluted cluster of a playoff race:

1) Minnesota Vikings (10-2): at CAR, vs. CIN, at GB, vs. CHI
2) Philadelphia Eagles (10-2): at LAR, at NYG, vs. OAK, vs. DAL
3) Los Angeles Rams (9-3): vs. PHI, at SEA, at TEN, vs. SF
4) New Orleans Saints (9-3): at ATL, vs. NYJ, vs. ATL, at TB
5) Seattle Seahawks (8-4): at JAX, vs. LAR, at DAL, vs. ARI
6) Carolina Panthers (8-4): vs. MIN, vs. GB. vs. TB, at ATL

7) Atlanta Falcons (7-5): vs. NO, at TB, at NO, vs. CAR
8) Detroit Lions (6-6): at TB, vs. CHI, at CIN vs. GB
9) Green Bay Packers (6-6): at CLE, at CAR, vs. MIN, at DET
10) Dallas Cowboys (6-6): at NYG, at OAK, vs. SEA, at PHI

Not only are these teams neck-and-neck for postseason positioning, but many will play each other in the next four weeks. In fact, Week 14, features four head-to-head matchups between top-seven teams, making this coming week, starting with Saints-Falcons on Thursday night, the most consequential as it pertains to the NFC playoff race.

So what better way to tell the story of the NFC postseason picture than through the lens of these four contests -- the Quartet of Chaos (TM) -- which are listed below in order of significance?

New Orleans Saints (9-3) at Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

So much is riding on this "Thursday Night Football" game. Can you feel the color rush?! The Saints and Falcons play each other twice in three weeks, with the former looking to secure a division title and the latter's season on the line. Atlanta has four division games left on its schedule, and while the Falcons have a tiebreaker over the Seahawks, they are currently on the outside looking in and have the toughest remaining schedule of the real contenders. A loss essentially takes them out of NFC South contention and likely moves them into position with Green Bay, Dallas and Detroit as long shots.

The red-hot Saints, meanwhile, are gunning for the top seed. Behind an all-time great backfield, New Orleans has won nine of its last 10 and boasts a one-game lead in the South. Their grasp on the division is more of a limp grip than a stranglehold, but there is a scenario in which three 10-3 teams lead their divisions by the end of Week 14, and the Saints hop into the conference's top spot temporarily. The line between top seed and wild-card hopeful in the NFC is so, so fine this year, which makes the opener of the first biannual Mercedes-Benz Sponsorship Spectacular all the more important. The Saints can put the defending NFC champs behind the eight ball, but if the Falcons can pull out a home win, they can inflict even greater damage on New Orleans and the playoff picture as a whole.

Minnesota Vikings (10-2) at Carolina Panthers (8-4)

Perched atop the conference for the first time all year, Minnesota embarks on its final true test of the regular season. After playing Carolina, the Vikings will not take on another team currently with a winning record. This presents a great opportunity for Case Keenum's horde of unlikely conquerors to create serious separation between themselves and the other home-field contenders. Minnesota can lock up the NFC North title with a win, but the Vikings could also miss out on a first-round bye with a loss and wins from New Orleans and Los Angeles. Fine line.

Are the Panthers frauds? Is Carolina the team that ran roughshod over Miami before its bye? Or is it the club that snuck by the try-hard Jets and kowtowed to the Saints in consecutive weeks? The Panthers must prove their postseason worthiness on Sunday, their first in a three-game homestand. They don't control their destiny in the South, and because they've lost twice to New Orleans, the Panthers can't count on a tiebreaker with the Saints to secure a home game for them in January. But a win over Minnesota puts Carolina in position to then wipe away the Pack and Bucs in consecutive weeks, giving the team 11 wins heading into an anything-goes Week 17. Oh, the possibilities.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) at Los Angeles Rams (9-3)

Yes, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff are squaring off in the Coliseum this week, but there's a bigger battle at play than the Sunday pregame shows would have you believe. Separated by only one game, both teams have legitimate shots at claiming home-field advantage, though neither has much of a postseason pedigree. An Eagles win would finally clinch the NFC East and strengthen their bid for a first-round bye, while a loss would, at worst, leave the door open for the Rams and/or Saints to take control of the No. 2 seed.

Looking forward, Philly has two more games against teams with playoff aspirations (Oakland in Week 16, Dallas in Week 17), and you never know how a two-game losing streak (should they lose to the Rams) might spiral out of control for such a young team. Considering the Rams are 2-1 only halfway through the most exhausting six-game gauntlet any team will face this season (loss at the Vikings, win vs. the Saints and win at the Cardinals coming before games vs. the Eagles, at the Seahawks and at the Titans), they've fared pretty well under a first-year head coach and second-year quarterback. That being said, the Rams can lose their control of the West with a loss and a Seahawks win in northern Florida, which brings us to ...

Seattle Seahawks (8-4) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4)

The Seattle Wilsons played their way back into the playoff race and tossed the entire NFC picture into a blender when they stuffed Philly on national TV in Week 13. The question now for Seattle is, can it sweep through its late-season trial with more consistency than its running back room? In a sneaky Game of the Week candidate, the Seahawks take on the league's top defense in the Jaguars. The matchup between the ever-scrambling Russell Wilson and the Sacksonville front seven is a must-watch, but in terms of the playoff picture, the stakes are higher. Seattle can secure control of its destiny in the NFC West with a win, with the de facto division championship game against the Rams looming in Week 15. However, the 'Hawks can also be briefly knocked out of the top six with a loss to the Jags and wins by the Falcons and Panthers. This all thanks to Seattle's crucial loss to Atlanta in Week 11, a defeat that could end up costing the Seahawks dearly.

Win or go home

The Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, all 6-6, are patiently awaiting a proverbial Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary to sneak into the postseason conversation. The Packers and Cowboys are holding out hope that they will still be in contention by the time their superstars -- the injured Rodgers and the suspended Ezekiel Elliott -- return to the field.

Detroit's schedule is the most favorable of any contender's down the stretch, but the team has been exposed as near-frauds the past few weeks, with consecutive losses to Minnesota and Baltimore. The Lions have beaten only one team with a winning record all season (the Vikings on the road in Week 4), but luckily for them, they play zero teams currently over .500 in December. It's not a stretch to see the Lions sitting at 9-6 with a home matchup against Green Bay and the rehabbed Rodgers in Week 17. But for Detroit and these other two squads to break into the postseason, they'll have to help one another out.

Green Bay has opportunities to take down Carolina and Minnesota ahead of the regular-season finale in Motown. Dallas gets Zeke back in the lineup just in time for a Week 16 matchup with the Seahawks, then plays the Eagles in the final frame.

NOTE: The Washington Redskins (5-7), Arizona Cardinals (5-7) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8) are technically still in playoff contention, but they will evaporate from public consciousness soon enough.



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