NFC playoff picture: 49ers, Vikings lead fierce wild-card race

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The NFC is as top-heavy as it has been in quite a few years, thanks to the strong play of the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints and the resurgent San Francisco 49ers. Thanksgiving brought a showdown between Buffalo and Dallas on CBS, a game the Bills won and an outcome that produced one of the shortest "In the hunt" lists on a TV graphic in recent memory. There were just two teams listed in the group, even though, mathematically, more remain alive.

Realistically, five teams are near locks to make the playoffs, barring total collapse: the Saints, Seahawks, 49ers, Packers and Vikings. One team, New Orleans, has already locked up a home playoff game. That's it for certainty, though, thanks to close races in the NFC North (Green Bay and Minnesota) and NFC West (San Francisco and Seattle). The Packers currently own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings with one more meeting to play, as do the Seahawks over the 49ers, with their huge rematch set for Week 17.

That's the prevailing theme among those near the top of the standings: The final two weeks could mean everything in seeding. Week 16 could mean even more for Dallas and Philadelphia, as the loser of their rematch very well could be going home before the new year.

Let's take a closer look at where things stand with four weeks to go:

DIVISION LEADERS


No. 1: New Orleans Saints (10-2, NFC South)
No. 2: Seattle Seahawks (10-2, NFC West)
No. 3: Green Bay Packers (9-3, NFC North)
No. 4: Dallas Cowboys (6-6, NFC East)

WILD-CARD CHASE


No. 5: San Francisco 49ers (10-2, NFC West)
No. 6: Minnesota Vikings (8-4, NFC North)
No. 7: Los Angeles Rams (7-5, NFC West)
No. 8: Chicago Bears (6-6, NFC North)
No. 9: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7, NFC South)
No. 10: Philadelphia Eagles (5-7, NFC East)
No. 11: Carolina Panthers (5-7, NFC South)

STILL ALIVE


Washington Redskins (3-9, NFC East)

OFFICIALLY ELIMINATED


Detroit Lions (3-8-1)
Arizona Cardinals (3-8-1)
Atlanta Falcons (3-9)
New York Giants (2-10)

Thanks to the NFC East's generally average-at-best play, the Redskins still have a very slim chance of winning the division, though they'd need to win out, Dallas to lose out and Philadelphia to win only one more of its final four games (not against Washington in Week 15, obviously). It's basically a miracle scenario, but it's still in play for a team that has won two straight with rookie Dwayne Haskins at quarterback.

The rest of the wild-card hopefuls are wishing for a Vikings collapse this month. One more win for Minnesota and a good chunk of the group can start making vacation plans for January.

Minnesota still has a decent chance to win the NFC North, meaning Green Bay's performance down the stretch still matters, too; though, we should get more clarity after the two teams face off in Week 16. If the two squads remain tight for the final month, the hopes of most of those behind them won't matter much.

Finality isn't yet a reality, though, so let's examine the chances of a handful of those still alive (listed from least likely to earn a postseason bid to most):

7) Carolina Panthers

Remaining schedule: at ATL, vs. SEA, at IND, vs. NO.

Nothing in the Panthers' recent play makes me think they'll suddenly turn things around and sprint into the postseason, boosted by the help of others' failures. Their final four games make it even less likely. Only one of their remaining opponents has a record below .500, and as demonstrated by Week 13, that contest isn't a guaranteed win, either. With Kyle Allen careening back to earth, we should be watching this team more for the status of coach Ron Rivera than for the NFC standings.

UPDATE: The Panthers fired Rivera on Tuesday and made secondary coach Perry Fewell the team's interim head coach.

6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Remaining schedule: vs. IND, at DET, vs. HOU, vs. ATL.

The Buccaneers have gotten hot lately, dominating Jacksonville for the majority of their Week 13 win seven days after their decisive victory over Atlanta. The problem is, the division is out of reach, and they'll need the aforementioned collapse above to have a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs. Of their final four opponents, only one (Texans) has a winning record, but it'll likely take just one loss to spoil their postseason chances.

5) Philadelphia Eagles

Remaining schedule: vs. NYG, at WAS, vs. DAL, at NYG.

The Eagles had a great chance on Sunday to move into a tie for first atop the NFC East, setting up a potential division-deciding showdown with the Cowboys in Week 16. A similar opportunity still exists, but Sunday's self-destruction in Miami made Philly's road that much tougher. At 5-7, the Eagles need a win and another Cowboys loss to bring the division to a tie before they meet again. That -- not the wild card -- is their likeliest route to the postseason.

4) Chicago Bears

Remaining schedule: vs. DAL, at GB, vs. KC, at MIN.

The Bears beat teams they should beat (mostly), and lose to teams that are even with or better than them. That makes Chicago's chances easier to project, even if its future is not yet set in stone. What is guaranteed, though, is the difficulty of the Bears' remaining schedule. All four of the listed teams have something significant to play for in the final month, and with Mitch Trubisky's struggles receiving a weekly spotlight, it'll be rough sailing for Matt Nagy's bunch. This week's pivotal contest with Dallas on Thursday Night Football could either help jump-start the Bears on an unlikely run or essentially end their season. From there, the path to the playoffs only gets tougher.

3) Los Angeles Rams

Remaining schedule: vs. SEA, at DAL, at SF, vs. ARI.

The Rams have three difficult games ahead, but they just destroyed the same team they'll face again in Week 17. If they can somehow win two of their next three games, improving the record to at least 9-6, they could find itself playing for a wild-card spot to close out the regular season. L.A. will still need Minnesota and/or Green Bay to hit some hurdles down the stretch, though.

2) Minnesota Vikings

Remaining schedule: vs. DET, at LAC, vs. GB, vs. CHI.

The Vikings are well-positioned to make the playoffs as long as they avoid a collapse. Their loss to the Seahawks on Monday night certainly didn't do them any favors, but at 8-4, they're by no means on the mat looking up at the searing, fluorescent lights. Minnesota should beat the David Blough-led Lions this weekend, and ideally should take care of business against a hapless Chargers team, before things get serious in a Week 16 rematch with the Packers. Should the Vikings manage to win all three of those games, they could be looking at a chance to clinch the division in Week 17 at home against the Bears. There's a lot of ball to be played before then, though, which is keeping the other NFC hopefuls still in the mix.

1) San Francisco 49ers

Remaining schedule: at NO, vs. ATL, vs. LAR, at SEA.

Are you also stunned to be reading this? The 49ers have been one of the league's best teams and best stories all season, riding a ferocious defensive front and an excellently paced offense to a 10-2 mark and the NFC West lead -- well, until early Tuesday. Seattle's win over Minnesota propelled the Seahawks into first place in the division by virtue of their thrilling win over the Niners earlier this season. The 49ers' future is still in their hands, though: If they can keep pace with Seattle down the stretch -- Seattle's schedule is admittedly easier than San Francisco's -- the 49ers can still win the NFC West in a winner-take-all Week 17 showdown.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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