Our future is coming into view. With only two weeks left to go in the regular season, what awaits us in January is becoming clearer.
No need for glasses, only time -- which some hopefuls surely wish they could purchase, to right their wrongs before it's too late. As things stand today, eight teams have clinched playoff berths in the NFL, with four coming from each conference. Those of you counting at home with legal pads and big-button calculators (and you're definitely using pencils, not pens, because you're math wizards) know that means 66.7 percent of potential postseason bids are off the board. Only four remain, and the battles for those are winding down, too.
First, let's take a look at those already in on the NFC side. (To get up to speed on the other side, check out the wonderful piece on the American conference by my colleague and former Kicking and Screaming child star Jeremy Bergman.)
Teams that have clinched playoff berths are in bold.
No. 1 seed: Seattle Seahawks (11-3, NFC West)
No. 2: Green Bay Packers (11-3, NFC North)
No. 3: New Orleans Saints (11-3, NFC South champions)
No. 4: Dallas Cowboys (7-7, NFC East)
First off, allow us to say goodbye to the Chicago Bears, whose failed Stanford-Cal play variation Sunday at Lambeau Field officially sent them to their 2019 dirt nap. Adios to the NFC cousin of the most ballyhooed but disappointing team in the NFL this season, the Cleveland Browns. The only difference between the Bears and Browns is that Chicago pairs orange with navy, and also got to make January plans a week earlier.
All right, now it's time to explain that incredible three-way tie up there and why the seedings are as they currently stand. Buckle up.
With the Saints, Seahawks and Packers all tied at 11-3 after 15 weeks, we have to turn to the NFL rulebook and its rather convoluted tiebreaking procedures. In order to determine home-field priority among division titlists, the rulebook says to apply wild-card tiebreakers, which state that in a three-way tie the first division tiebreaker must first be applied. That tiebreaker is, unsurprisingly, head-to-head.
Seattle and New Orleans faced off this season, with the Saints edging the Seahawks33-27 way back in the dark ages of Week 3. But the Packers haven't played either team, meaning we have to move further down the tiebreaking hierarchy, and since these teams all reside in different divisions, we skip from the first tiebreaker past No. 2 (best record in games played within the division) to No. 3: common games.
That's where the Seahawks prevail to take the No. 1 seed by the skin of their beaks. But that still leaves the Saints and Packers, so let's welcome tiebreaker No. 4 to the stage: conference record. Green Bay's 8-2 mark in NFC games bests New Orleans' 8-3 NFC record as of now, putting the Packers in second (and in possession of a first-round bye) and the Saints at home in a wild-card game against the sixth seed.
We should note that all three of these teams (plus San Francisco, which is also 11-3 but currently sits behind Seattle in the NFC West) have clinched playoff spots, as indicated above. The two spots still up for grabs are the other wild-card berth and the slot that goes to the winner of the NFC East, which is limping toward the finish line but will stop at nothing to make sure it crosses it, one way or another.
Tired yet? We're just getting started.
8) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles advanced their cause by overcoming an early deficit to beat Eli Manning and the lowly Giants in overtime on a soggy Monday night in Philadelphia in Week 14, then by scoring another heart-stopping win on the road against similarly poor Washington in Week 15. Philly will get to meet the Giants again, though New York might turn back to rookie Daniel Jones, provided he's healthy, which could make for an ideal Week 17 matchup -- but it won't matter one bit if the Eagles don't protect their nest against the Cowboys this week. If Dallas defeats Philadelphia, the Cowboys will lock up the NFC East title and officially eliminate the Eagles, whose only chance at the postseason is to win the division. It all comes down to Week 16 (and maybe Week 17).
7) Los Angeles Rams
The Rams sure didn't help themselves by losing to the Cowboysin Week 15, and although the fashion in which they lost doesn't really matter, their shellacking at AT&T Stadium didn't exactly inspire confidence ahead of the upcoming Saturday prime-time affair against the 49ers. If the Rams can somehow come out of that one victorious, they'd likely receive a Christmas gift basket from the Seahawks (who'd get a leg up in pursuit of their own playoff advantages) while also setting themselves up to finish on a two-game win streak. Even so, the Rams will have to keep one eye on the scoreboard, as they need the Vikings to lose two straight to preserve their chances of a tie for a wild-card spot. If Minnesota wins once in the final two weeks, those hopes don't matter anymore.
6) Minnesota Vikings
The final sentence in the Rams blurb above says it all for the Vikings, who need just one win in their final two weeks to clinch a playoff spot. There's something more at stake, though, because these Vikings are just a game behind the Packers in the NFC North, with one left to play against them. If the Vikings can close the season with a four-game win streak (and get some help from Detroit when the Lions face Green Bay in Week 17), the NFC North could be theirs.
5) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have to be steaming mad entering Saturday's affair with the Rams after losing to the Falcons on the final play from scrimmage Sunday. They'll need to check their emotions, though, in order to come away victorious and attempt to keep pace with the Seahawks, who have proven by this point they aren't going away. Adding another win to the ledger before the Week 17 rematch with Seattle is key if the Niners want to take home the NFC West crown and get that coveted home playoff game -- and maybe even the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
4) Dallas Cowboys
It's so strange to place a team that is clearly a tier below San Francisco ahead of the Niners, but that's how these seeding things go when one division doesn't match the caliber of the others. This year, that division is the NFC East, and even after a dreadful three-game stretch that would doom most teams in other seasons, Dallas is somehow still in the driver's seat for the division title. All the Cowboys need to do is complete a season sweep of the Eagles in Week 16 in front of a hostile crowd at Lincoln Financial Field. Easier said than done, of course, but the Eagles also seem unable to get out of their own way more often than not. We'll see which team can better avoid pitfalls before the Cowboys close the season against the Redskins.
3) New Orleans Saints
2) Green Bay Packers
If the Packers take down the Vikings in Minneapolis, they'll wrap up the NFC North and get to enjoy a home playoff game. But they could achieve much more if they win out and get a little bit of a boost from the teams facing the squads with which they're sprinting to the top of the conference's standings. The aforementioned three-way tie between the Packers, Saints and Seahawks needs to be broken somehow, after all, and these final two weeks could offer such sweet separation for at least one of the teams. The Packers can avoid being on the losing end if they win out.
1) Seattle Seahawks
Rightfully so, of course, with this conference so tightly packed at the top. The Seahawks can secure that top seed by winning out and will enjoy the luxury of playing the rest of the season in front of the home crowd, which could come in handy for the Week 17 game that is certainly circled on the calendars inside the team facility. Remember the last time a high-stakes game was played between the Niners and Seahawks at CenturyLink Field? Someone said something about someone being "sorry," and someone else being the best corner in the game, right? That was fun, wasn't it? Let's do that again.