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NFC playoff picture: Seahawks, Packers make strides

Only the Atlanta Falcons have clinched a seat at the NFC playoff table, but Week 13 helped a handful of contenders take an important step toward January football. We gained clarity Sunday, but plenty of drama remains.

Here's what the week's results told us.

One step forward for Seahawks = one step back for Bears

The Seattle Seahawks haven't been themselves on the road this season, but rookie quarterback Russell Wilson took his team into Soldier Field on Sunday and made believers out of many with a gutsy 23-17 win over the Chicago Bears. The victory lifted the Seahawks (7-5) into the driver's seat for the final wild-card spot.

Seattle can build on that lead if it takes care of business against the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills over the next two weeks. Winnable games, but potential suspensions for cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner loom as dark cloud on the horizon.

The 8-4 Bears have their loyal fan base concerned. Chicago came undone in an ugly loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11 and couldn't take care of business at home Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings come next, followed by a hyper-critical Week 15 bout with the surging Green Bay Packers (8-4), who now own the NFC North by way of their Week 2 win over the Bears.

Chicago doesn't have the makings of a team that can win on the road in January. The Seattle loss was a killer.

Flood of 6-6 teams gasping for air

They've done some good, they've done some bad, and that's why three potential playoff teams are on the ropes at 6-6. The Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings require immediate win streaks to keep pace with the above-mentioned Seattle and Chicago outfits.

The Cowboys are impossible to figure out, especially with a hazardous stretch run against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins. The Bucs -- who sorely need a road win (or two) -- must play their best football during upcoming voyages to New Orleans and Atlanta. Minnesota, meanwhile, rests on the fringes and loses the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay.

None of these 6-6 wannabes have been consistent enough to make their fates predictable. Winning out might be required.

Washington's last stand?

The Redskins essentially are in a must-win situation Monday night against the New York Giants. At 5-6, Washington is vying for a chance to join the cast of 6-6 teams we opined on above. A Redskins win puts the five-win Saints in serious hot water in the wild-card race. The Redskins own the tiebreaker, based on their Week 1 win over the Saints.

Probably not, but we might have been hasty to fork the Redskins. Robert Griffin III is shredding defenses with the pistol offense, and Mike Shanahan deserves credit for his open-minded approach to the offense. Washington's path ahead is rocky: The Baltimore Ravens and (improved) Cleveland Browns won't be easy. The Philadelphia Eagles come next, followed by a potentially wild and meaningful Week 17 encounter with the Cowboys.

No. 2 seed up for grabs

The Atlanta Falcons have sealed up the NFC South and should wrap up the No. 1 seed, barring a complete meltdown.

The second bye is far from secure. The San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1) currently rest in that spot, but they can't afford another tight loss after dropping an overtime thriller to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Why? Because the eight-win Packers might not lose again this season with the schedule ahead: The Lions, Bears, Titans and Vikings don't exactly strike fear into the heart, but Chicago will be motivated to settle the score with Green Bay.

The Giants (7-4) are in excellent position if they knock off the Redskins after the 38-10 whipping they laid on the Packers in Week 12. The world watched the Giants surge when it mattered one season ago. They can't afford to do anything less this time around.

In a sea of unknowns, one thing is for certain: Plenty of intriguing football remains.

Looking ahead to Week 14

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: Hey, Chicago. Want to be taken seriously? It starts here.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The flailing Eagles land in Tampa at a perfect time for the playoff-hungry Bucs.

St. Louis Rams at Buffalo Bills: A miracle stretch run in St. Louis? They better take care of business in upstate New York.

New Orleans Saints at New York Giants: The Saints are on the ropes, and it's December in New York. Not a good sign.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers: Green Bay gets a potential breather before facing the Bears in Week 15.

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks: Wilson and friends have captured Rosenthal's heart this season. Will they break it?

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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