NFC favorites are clear, but conference playoff picture is unsettled

All it took was one weekend to set the NFC playoff picture straight -- sort of.

The minor fallout from a defining two-day stretch: The best team in the conference (New Orleans) got lucky but clinched the NFC South. The second-best team (Minnesota) got housed by the third-best team (Arizona), which fired a warning shot reminding everyone just how much of a threat it is to make a potentially deep playoff run.

Playoff picture

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The major repercussions are that there are now five NFC teams playing for three playoff spots with four games to go. As usual, three of those teams are Philadelphia, New York and Dallas -- one of which will win the NFC East. Only one -- maybe one -- will go in as a wild card. The Packers are in good shape for a wild-card spot, although they're about to embark on a four-week stretch that includes three road games. Atlanta, meanwhile, is on life support.

While the true bloods in Carolina, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle are holding out hope to get into the postseason, the more important thing now should be scouting college prospects and surveying free-agent possibilities to put those teams in playoff contention next season.

Washington can begin bringing in new furniture for the next coach. Tampa Bay can start praying that Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is still on the board when it makes its first pick in the draft. St. Louis needs to figure out how in the world it will manage its salary cap with the possibility that it could be drafting in the top two for the third straight year. Detroit has gotten so used to being out of things by now that the fan focus is already well onto the Red Wings.

What is interesting in the NFC is that instead of a dangerous, non-playoff team -- like Washington, San Francisco or Carolina -- posing danger as a spoiler, it's actually New Orleans that could inject the lethal drop to Atlanta and administer another dose to Dallas in consecutive weeks.

Don't expect the Saints to ease off the throttle, either. While the franchise's dubious history has the Who Dat Nation begging to go 16-0, New Orleans is going to be pushing for an unblemished mark if that's what it takes to earn homefield advantage through the playoffs. For weeks, players have openly admitted they don't want the NFC title going through Minneapolis.

The Saints hold the advantage at the moment, since the Vikings lost to Arizona Sunday, but that can change as fast as Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa Bay and/or Carolina can say "upset."

Let's take a further look at the NFC race:

Wilcots: Gaining momentum

This is the Saints' race to lose, but looking at the complexion of the NFC playoff picture, I see three teams that are getting hot down the stretch.

Arizona is seriously gaining momentum. I like the balance with the running game and what Kurt Warner has with his receivers. They're more battle-tested this time around. Watch out.

I've always said the Eagles are the most resilient squad in the NFL. Between their coach and QB, there's nothing they can't achieve. They have leadership and explosive weapons. They're not even 100 percent, but are one of the best teams in December.

The Packers are another team that could do some damage. I like Charles Woodson, the defense and their ability to create pressure and turnovers. They'll go in as a wild card, but if they can protect Aaron Rodgers, they'll be tough.

-- Solomon Wilcots

New Orleans (12-0)

Remaining schedule: at Atlanta (6-6), Dallas (8-4), Tampa Bay (1-11), at Carolina (5-7)

Already the NFC South champs, the Saints can clinch a first-round bye winning this week. They have back-to-back games against desperate teams, which is good for New Orleans; it will ready the team for an onslaught. QB Drew Brees should move to the front of the MVP conversation by carving up Atlanta's defense on Sunday. The Cowboys will pose a much larger problem but playing the Saints in N'awlins should swing things for the home team. If they need to, they'll play the starters until things are sealed vs. the Bucs and Panthers.

Prediction: Opening-round bye, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Minnesota (10-2)

Remaining schedule: Cincinnati (9-3), at Carolina (5-7), at Chicago (5-7), N.Y. Giants (7-5)

The Vikings can clinch the NFC North this week but that's only a formality at this point. While this is a powerhouse team, Minnesota has to get Adrian Peterson back on track and it needs to overcome the loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, the soul of a talented defense who sustained a season-ending injury in the loss to Arizona. The Vikings don't want to slip and possibly lose a bye.

Prediction: Minnesota could drop what should be a physical game Sunday to the Bengals, but it will claim the NFC North, a top-two seed and the bye that comes with it. The Vikings want no part of the Eagles should Philly get there. Vikings-Saints NFC title game could showcase the leading MVP candidates, Brett Favre vs. Brees.

Arizona (8-4)

Remaining schedule: at San Francisco (5-7), at Detroit (2-10), St. Louis (1-11), Green Bay (8-4)

The Cards should clinch the NFC West this weekend by beating the 49ers. However, that's when coach Ken Whisenhunt should get concerned. His team has a way of losing focus, and playing Detroit and St. Louis consecutively could prompt a loss or two that would likely put Arizona on the road after the first stage of the postseason.

Prediction: The Cardinals don't close the way they could and will host a wild-card team, but that is good for them because it doesn't give them idle time to think about things. This is a very dangerous team that could surprise once again and advance to the conference title game.

Dallas (8-4)

Remaining schedule: San Diego (9-3), at New Orleans (12-0), at Washington (3-9), Philadelphia (8-4)

Uh oh. The Cowboys already have taken one "L" this month and have already begun to hear about ghosts of December's past. A colossal meltdown and a blown playoff berth likely will cost coach Wade Phillips his job. The remaining four weeks will be tough, with San Diego about as dangerous a team as there is in the NFL up next. Once again, the season could come down to a finale against the Eagles.

Prediction: Dallas somehow navigates its way to the postseason but that division title doesn't look nearly as winnable as it did a few weeks ago. It must win one of its two final home games against the Chargers or Eagles.

Fan rankings

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Philadelphia (8-4)

Remaining schedule: at N.Y. Giants (7-5), San Francisco (5-7), Denver (8-4), at Dallas (8-4)

The Week 14 matchup with the Giants is huge. The Eagles blew them out earlier this season and a sweep could pretty much knock New York out of the playoff hunt. The Broncos and Cowboys are going to be playing for their playoff lives so there is no let-up for Philadelphia.

Prediction: Donovan McNabb will help the Eagles win at least two of the final four games, which is probably all Philadelphia will need. A win over Dallas will give Philly the division title.

Green Bay (8-4)

Remaining schedule: at Chicago (5-7), at Pittsburgh (6-6), Seattle (5-7), at Arizona (8-4)

The Packers are rolling since the offensive line started protecting Aaron Rodgers and the quarterback started getting rid of the ball. The defense also is very opportunistic, and is a lot like Arizona's unit last year. It's not imposing, but if you make a mistake, you're trapped. With four straight wins, this week's game with the Bears is big. A victory here eases some of the pressure of trying to have to close out the final three games with a flurry. The season finale at Arizona could be a playoff preview.

Prediction:Packers seal a wild-card berth and, as a solid road team, could do some damage in the postseason.

New York (7-5)

Remaining schedule: Philadelphia (8-4), at Washington (3-9), Carolina (5-7), at Minnesota (10-2)

The Giants have the easiest path of the NFC East teams, as the Vikings could be resting players in the finale. The game against the Eagles will steer New York's path. The Giants' passing game seems to have rebounded but the team will need to get Brandon Jacobs going to make a serious run. New York could win three of the last four but it better carry the momentum generated from the Week 13 victory over Dallas.

Prediction: The Giants just miss out because the Cowboys and Eagles handle their business.

Atlanta (6-6)

Remaining schedule: New Orleans (12-0), at N.Y. Jets (6-6), Buffalo (4-8), at Tampa Bay (1-11)

Quarterback Matt Ryan figures to try and play through his turf-toe injury against the Saints and an upset puts Atlanta in position for a potential run that could get the Falcons into the playoffs. Losses to every team in the NFC East except Washington and five conference defeats have put Atlanta behind the tie-breaker eight ball.

Prediction: After Sunday's game with the Saints, the Falcons' playoff hopes end and the only optimism remaining is for posting back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

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