NFC Playoff Picture: Saints, Rams sprint ahead of crowded field

With Week 12 in the books, welcome to the stretch run of the 2018 regular season.

The league has also officially entered the playoff-forecasting portion of the program, where every week going forward is significant to teams in the hunt and jockeying for position for the right to play for it all.

This is not a time to ponder who would make it "if the season ended today," because it doesn't end today. We also should not think of teams controlling their own destiny, a sports cliche often heard at this time of the year. Destiny by definition is predetermined, after all, so an NFL team hardly controls it.

While some teams look better than others at this stage of the season, history has proved anything can and will happen in the remaining five weeks. A team could collapse or get hot at the right time, thus altering the playoff landscape. The key for the top contenders among the NFC's 16 teams is to not let up, considering what's at stake.

In the meantime, I've taken my first dive into the NFC playoff picture. The below entry is part of a weekly series leading to the end of the 2018 campaign and the road to Atlanta, the site of Super Bowl LIII.

Racing for the top seed: New Orleans Saints (10-1), Los Angeles Rams (10-1).

The Saints and Rams have plenty in common, possessing two of the league's top offenses and above-average defenses. They also both currently hold a four-game lead in their respective divisions (NFC South and NFC West).

The Rams appear to have the easier path to close the season, as they face only one team with a winning record (the Chicago Bearsin Week 14) down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Saints have the Dallas Cowboysin Week 13, the Pittsburgh Steelersin Week 16 and the Carolina Panthersin Weeks 15and 17.

In the event the Saints and Rams finish with matching records, the Saints hold the tiebreaker, thanks to their 45-35 win over the Rams in Week 9. Seeing a rematch between the two teams in the NFC Championship Game would prove a dream scenario for many NFL fans.

Division at stake: Chicago Bears (8-3), Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1), Dallas Cowboys (6-5), Washington Redskins (6-5), Philadelphia Eagles (5-6).

The Bears have some breathing room, thanks to a two-game lead over the Vikings -- whom they defeated in Week 11 -- in the NFC North. The path isn't necessarily easy for Chicago, though, with a Week 14 matchup against the Rams followed by a Week 15 game against a desperate Green Bay Packers team and the season finale against the Vikings.

The Vikings aren't clear of obstacles to close the season, either, with the Patriots (in Week 13) and the Seahawks (in Week 14) to deal with ahead of their showdown against the Bears. Any stumble by Minnesota could put this team on the outside looking in when the dust settles.

As for the three teams fighting for the wide-open NFC East, the Cowboys are the hottest of the trio, having won three straight games. The Redskins have to overcome the loss of quarterback Alex Smith and rely on Colt McCoy to make the postseason, while the Eagles need to find consistency after an erratic 11 games.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (6-5), Carolina Panthers (6-5), Green Bay Packers (4-6-1).

The Seahawks (four games behind the Rams in the NFC West) are winning by combining a dominant running game with a more-than-capable defense, providing a stark contrast to the video-game-like offenses found around the league. Seattle can build momentum down the stretch, with two gamesleft against the 2-9 San Francisco 49ers and one against the 2-9 Arizona Cardinals. The road blocks are the Vikingsin Week 14 and the Kansas City Chiefsin Week 16.

Carolina shot itself in the foot with a three-game losing streak and sits four games behind the Saints in the NFC South. The Panthers, though, could make up some ground if they can sweep the divisional series against the Saints; the two teams will face off in Weeks 15and 17.

If the Packers (third place in the NFC North) are going to make a move, the remaining five games is the time to do it. The Packers face one team with a winning record (the Bearsin Week 15) and any team with a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers should be considered dangerous, regardless of its record.

Needing a lot of help: Atlanta Falcons (4-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7), Detroit Lions (4-7), New York Giants (3-8).

If you're one of the millions of "Game of Thrones" fans, you can think of this quartet of teams in terms of a bewildered Jon Snow squaring off against Ramsay Bolton's army in the battle for Winterfell. Outnumbered and with the odds against him, all seemed lost for Snow -- until the Vale army charged the field to save the day.

OK, if you don't watch the world's most popular TV show, you might not get that reference. If that's the case, just know that the above four teams need to handle their business and hope the teams they are chasing -- in, respectively, the NFC South, NFC North and NFC East -- lose.

The Giants, in particular, are three games out of first place in a weak NFC East, and they'll have a chance to make a push in December, with games against Washingtonand Dallas.

Look forward to the draft process: Arizona Cardinals (2-9), San Francisco 49ers (2-9).

The Cardinals' two wins so far have come againstthe 49ers, and it is highly unlikely America craves the presence of either NFC West cellar-dweller in the postseason. Arizona is in clear rebuild mode with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen and first-year coach Steve Wilks, while the 49ers' promising 2018 season became an afterthought when franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in Week 3.

Of course, all of the above scenarios are far from being set in stone and will be revisited every week until the final teams clinch a postseason berth.

Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope

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