Each Monday, we're going to dive deep into forecasting the playoff picture, which can be seen in full right here. The Seahawks are on the outside looking in, a full two games back of the wild card. Sunday's loss to Arizona means that the NFC West is realistically out of reach unless another injury apocalypse befalls Carson Palmer and the Birdgang. The Seahawks are currently one of "The Mediocre Seven" NFC teams stuck at four wins. They have very little margin for error and their route to another Super Bowl is most likely going to require three road playoff games, if they make it to the playoffs.
Who knows how many wins it will take to earn a wild card in the NFC? The Packers and Falcons are both 6-3, but the Packers have lost three straight games, including one at home to the worst team in football. The Falcons have lost three of four, including a game to another candidate for the "worst team in football" honors: San Francisco. Then again, the 49ers are only one game behind the defending NFC Champions.
It's that type of season in the NFC. We don't know much yet, but we know that the best two teams from 2014 have a lot of work to do ahead of them. Some other playoff picture takeaways are below:
Who is out?
Saints coach Sean Payton said in his confusing press conference Monday that his team is not out of the playoff race at 4-6. Technically, that's true. They also have one of the worst defenses in NFL history and are 13th in a 16-team conference. I'm comfortable sticking a fork in the Saints, but their status is a reminder that only two NFC teams could be considered absolutely, positively out of any playoff mix: Detroit and San Francisco.
Even the Cowboys, at 2-7, can convince themselves they are only two losses back in the boring NFC East. Speaking of which ...
NFC East free-for-all
All four NFC East teams are battling for one playoff spot because we simply can't believe that two teams from this sea of mediocrity could make the playoffs. Plenty of primetime game hours and pregame talk will be spent on determining which NFC East team can lose at home in the Wild Card round, quite possibly to the Seahawks. (We aren't giving up on Seattle!)
The Eagles blew a huge opportunity on Sunday against Miami when their special teams collapsed and Sam Bradford hurt his shoulder. It will likely be up to Mark Sanchez to keep the Eagles afloat until Bradford gets healthy. Based purely on the schedule, the Redskins are in the best shape at 4-5. They still have four division games left, while the other three teams each have two division games left. The Giants' schedule looks the most challenging of the four teams, but they are coming off an encouraging outing against the Patriots. None of the NFC East teams have easy schedules, so it's quite possible eight wins is enough to win the division.
The battle for the byes
Carolina has two games left against Atlanta, yet it's hard to see the NFC South race as ongoing. A three-game lead for the Panthers with seven games to play means it's basically over. We'd be surprised if the Panthers lose three games all season, and the Falcons hardly look like a squad ready to go on a run.
That leaves Carolina focused on earning homefield advantage in the playoffs. They have a two-game lead on Arizona and Minnesota for the No. 1 seed. The Panthers' schedule moving forward is by far the easiest among the three. In short: The top seed is Carolina's to lose.
The Vikings, suddenly alone at the top of the NFC North at 7-2, can start thinking about a potential bye if they beat Green Bay this weekend. That would give them a two-game lead in the NFC North with six games to play in the division. The Vikings get the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks in the next four weeks. We'll know exactly where they stand in the NFC power structure after that stretch.
As we said on Sunday's Around the NFL podcast, Arizona's triumph in Seattle was a statement win. The Cardinals now look like a solid favorite to get the second bye in the NFC, but they also have a loaded schedule down the stretch including the Bengals, Vikings, Packers and Seahawks. It's great that so many of the NFC contenders play each other down the stretch. That only supports the case that ...
The last playoff spot is wide open
Let's just assume for a minute that the Packers get their act together enough down the stretch to make the playoffs. At 7-2, let's also say the Vikings don't completely collapse. That gives the NFC North two playoff spots. The NFC East is very likely to only have one. That leaves one wild card spot for a whole lot of challengers: Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Chicago. The Falcons have a huge edge because they are two games ahead and still have four games left against losing teams. But we think they will continue to come back to the pack, which will leave several teams vying for the playoffs deep into December. That's just the way the NFL likes it.