The NFL playoff picture is shaping up as teams head deeper into the 2014 season. Who looks promising? Who's on the edge? Check it out
The Packers pass the eye test as the best team in the NFC. Aaron Rodgers is playing at an MVP level, and the defense has steadily improved all season. They are 7-1 since their slow start and have sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time following Detroit's loss in New England. Arizona's loss in Seattle could be a harbinger of things to come. Is Drew Stanton ready to win tough road games coming up in St. Louis and San Francisco?
Head-to-heads decide NFC East
Philadelphia and Dallas face each other twice in three weeks, starting on Thanksgiving. We figured these two games could decide the NFC East crown all season, and the two teams enter this crucial stretch tied at 8-3. At the risk of stating the obvious, the winner of Thursday's game will essentially get the chance to deliver a knockout blow in Week 15 when the teams face off again in Philadelphia. Dallas' division loss to Washington could come back to haunt the Cowboys when it comes to tiebreaks.
The loser of the NFC East is hardly guaranteed a playoff spot, though ...
Two good teams will stay home
Two of the following five teams will not make the playoffs: Dallas, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco. I'm just going to put the Packers into the playoffs because they have Rodgers, and a total collapse seems impossible. I will also put Arizona into the playoffs because the Cards have nine wins and their only two losses came on the road against last year's Super Bowl teams. You want to bet on them losing in Atlanta on Sunday? The Cardinals could potentially cough up the NFC West, but it's hard to see them stumbling to a 1-5 finish. That's what it would take for them to miss the playoffs. Arizona fans should watch Thursday night's game closely, though, to find out their prime division competition.
Seattle and San Francisco need a sweep
The Seahawks have 49ers have split their matchups the last two seasons, with the home teams going 4-0. Either team will need a season sweep to win the NFC West. The matchup on Thanksgiving night oddly means more than if both teams were, say, 9-2. Seattle can deal a huge blow to its division rivals with a road win. San Francisco can put the Seahawks in catchup mode and essentially knock them out of the division race with a home win.
Seattle has a better chance to rally all the way toward a division title because the team has already beaten Arizona. San Francisco already has two division losses, including an early one to the Cardinals.
Let's not talk about the NFC South
The Falcons and Saints are tied for the division lead at 4-7. The Panthers are very much alive at 3-7-1. The three teams play a round robin down the stretch, with New Orleans having a big advantage because its games will be at home. These teams are all lousy, and they will all be underdogs in Week 13. Yes, there's a good chance a 4-8 team will be in first place after Week 14. As poor as New Orleans has been, the Saints' schedule opens up after this week's game in Pittsburgh; vs. Carolina; at Chicago; vs. Atlanta; and at Tampa Bay. Win three of those games -- which the Saints should -- and New Orleans should make the playoffs.
Don't count out Detroit
The Lions haven't scored a touchdown since the Marty Mornhinweg era, but it might not matter. Detroit returns for a three-game homestand against losing teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota. The Lions will have a hard time winning the NFC North, but their schedule is favorable to make the playoffs as a wild card.