We're just two weeks away from the march to Minneapolis, and barely anything is set in stone in the NFC.
Only two teams have clinched division titles and playoff spots -- Philadelphia and Minnesota -- while only the Eagles have clinched a first-round bye. There's still so much left up for grabs: home-field advantage, first-round byes, division titles, seeding. Hell, it's possible that two teams currently leading their divisions could miss the postseason entirely. (Possible, not probable, but crazier things have happened, and 2017 has been an annus mirabilis.)
What makes this year's playoff race so intriguing is its newness. Gone are the vestiges of yesteryear. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were eliminated from playoff contention on Monday night for the first time since 2008. The Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys, division champions from 2016, are one loss away from missing the postseason. Eli Manning's New York Giants, last year's fifth seed? Well, they're going through some stuff.
As the standings, well, stand, five teams are in the dance that were not playoff teams last year; the sixth, Atlanta, is the defending NFC champ:
1) Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): vs OAK, vs DAL
2) Minnesota Vikings (11-3): at GB, vs CHI
3) Los Angeles Rams (10-4): at TEN, vs SF
4) New Orleans Saints (10-4): vs ATL, at TB
5) Carolina Panthers (10-4): vs TB, at ATL
6) Atlanta Falcons (9-5): at NO, vs CAR
7) Detroit Lions (8-6): at CIN, vs GB
8) Seattle Seahawks (8-6): at DAL, vs ARI
9) Dallas Cowboys (8-6): vs SEA, at PHI
As one angsty, dead-eyed reprobate offered in an indie film this weekend: "Let the past die. ... That's the only way to become what you are meant to be." Which teams will do so in the coming weeks and build for themselves -- and us, the football fanatics -- a stirring, unpredictable future? Let's look at each playoff contender left standing (all percentages used are from FiveThirtyEight):
Philadelphia Eagles: For Philly, it's simple. Win, and you're in ... your home stadium for the rest of the postseason. That is, until Super Bowl LII, if Nick Foles can lead you there. The Eagles play the final game of Week 16, so they will know by kickoff if they have already secured home-field advantage throughout. If the Vikings lose in Green Bay on Saturday, then Philly can rest easy on Monday -- and next week vs. Dallas ...
Minnesota Vikings: Playing in U.S. Bank Stadium all the way through the Super Bowl is looking more like Norse mythology at this point than a storyline based in cold reality, but Minnesota can still secure a first-round bye this week with a win over the Packers and a Tampa Bay upset in Carolina. A win at Lambeau by itself gives Minnesota a 99 percent chance to secure a first-round bye heading into the South's showdown Sunday.
Los Angeles Rams: After symbolically seizing control of the NFC West from Seattle last week, Sean McVay's Rams are just one win away from sealing their first division title since 2003. Beat the Titans in Nashville on Sunday, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will play host to its first Rams playoff game since Jan. 1979. A Seahawks loss to Dallas would also do the trick. But let's say the Rams fall and the Seahawks win in Week 16. L.A. can still secure a playoff berth if Detroit, Carolina and Atlanta all lose. To secure a first-round bye, the Rams need to win out and have Minnesota lose out, an unlikely scenario, given Minnesota's final game is home against Mitchell Trubisky's Bears.
The NFC South
The league's most gripping divisional race enters its final leg, two weeks of round-robin play that are sure to flip the NFC playoff picture on its end. Heading into Week 16, this is where we stand:
No team in the division has clinched a playoff berth. The New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons all have at least an 80 percent chance to make the playoffs, but no club has greater than a 60 percent chance to win the division (NO, 56; CAR, 27; ATL, 17). Every team could either win the division or miss the playoffs entirely. The schedule for the two-week circular firing squad is as follows:
Atlanta at New Orleans
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Carolina at Atlanta
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
A lot hinges on the result of Atlanta's trip to New Orleans this weekend. Both teams stumbled against far lesser competition in Week 15 -- the Jets and Buccaneers took a break from their draft boards to play up to their opponents. The Falcons and Saints survived, but now face each other on Sunday, each with the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth. It's a win-and-you're-in scenario for both teams, and it's even more for the Saints. New Orleans can clinch the South with a win over the Falcons and some help from that other NFC South team. You know, the one from "Hard Knocks."
Thought at the beginning of the season to be sneaky favorites to win the NFC South, the Bucs are now the most powerful team in the conference, despite their 4-10 record. A surprising win in their final two games-- at Carolina, vs. New Orleans -- would shake the foundations of the playoff race. This isn't where Dirk Koetter thought his team would be before the season started, deciding other clubs' postseason fates while his seat stays red-hot. But now the Bucs have an opportunity to finally play meaningful football -- as spoilers, but still.
This week, if Jameis Winston extends his career-best run of play, Tampa Bay knocks off Carolina on Sunday and the Saints win, New Orleans will win the South.
This sets up what I perceive to be the most interesting scenario in the South: If Atlanta and Carolina win on Sunday, the winner of their Week 17 matchup wins the division. There's your "Sunday Night Football" finale.
On the outside, always looking in
There are few scenarios in which two of the three teams currently out of the playoff picture -- Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks -- make it into January, but we know with certainty that at least one will be eliminated this weekend.
The loser of the all-important Seahawks-Cowboys game will be axed from playoff contention. Both Divisional Round players from a year before, these are now two franchises heading in different directions. The Legion of Boom's diaspora is imminent, according to NFL Network's Mike Silver, and an injury-riddled Seattle team is coming off two of its most devastating losses of the season. Dallas, on the other hand, has won three in a row and will see the return of All-Pro tailback Ezekiel Elliott this weekend. They have home-field advantage and "momentum," if you believe in such forces.
Unlike Dallas, Seattle still has a slim, slim chance at winning its division and hosting a wild-card game. But that's only if the Rams lose out to the Titans and Niners and the Seahawks sweep their remaining games. All the Cowboys can do is win out and hope for teams to fall around them, specifically Detroit, Carolina and New Orleans, so they can slide into a wild-card spot.
Speaking of the Lions, they're also in a win-or-go-home scenario, but fear not, Motor City-heads: Detroit has the easiest road to the final dance of the aforementioned trio. The Lions' final two games are against a Cincinnati Bengals team that has given up on its season, playing for a coach in Marvin Lewis who is on his way out, and the eliminated Packers, who are again without Aaron Rodgers. Even if Detroit wins out, the Lions still only have a 35 percent chance to sneak in, and, like Dallas and Seattle, will need help from above.