The NFC playoff picture is still developing in the darkroom, but certain realities are taking shape.
That leaves one NFC playoff spot vacant: the No. 6 seed. The crop of contenders for the final slot in the Grand Old Conference's postseason tournament is unusually weak this season. As my colleague Gregg Rosenthal outlined in his Debrief this week, there's a very real possibility that we could see an eight-win sixth seed come out of the NFC this season. The last team to pull off such a trick? The 2006 New York Giants, led by Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey and 25-year-old Eli Manning. They lost on the first weekend.
This decade, the NFC's sixth seed has rarely been the landing spot for an also-ran. Only once since 2008 has a team secured an NFC wild-card berth with fewer than 10 wins (2016 Detroit Lions, 9-7).
Welp, let's make that twice!
Let's take a look at how the race for the No. 6 seed stands -- and which clubs have the best chances, in my estimation, to be on the field and not the links come the first weekend of 2019. For additional context, I've listed remaining strength of schedules, as well as updated playoff probabilities from our resident analytics expert, Cynthia Frelund.
8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8)
Remaining schedule (.528 strength of schedule): at BAL, at DAL, vs. ATL.
Frelund's playoff probability: 1.1 percent.
The Bucs are mathematically alive -- as are the Falcons, but with nine losses already, I omitted them from this file -- though they must travel to two of the league's hottest defenses in Baltimore and Dallas over the next two weeks. Tampa Bay would need to win out and hope for an historic collapse all around the conference to sneak into the dance. This scenario might be caput by the end of the first half on Sunday.
7) Detroit Lions (5-8)
Remaining schedule (.444 SOS): at BUF, vs. MIN, at GB.
Frelund's playoff probability: 0.1 percent.
Detroit was so off my radar that, at the beginning of this exercise, I forgot the Lions were still eligible to crack the postseason. An oversight on my part, but an excusable one, given how in the shadows they've been since Thanksgiving. Detroit has the weakest remaining schedule of the eight contenders and benefits from playing two familiar opponents to close out the season. But the Lions, riddled by injuries to stars Marvin Jones, Kerryon Johnson and now Ezekiel Ansah, don't strike fear into anyone. Their ouster is inevitable.
6) New York Giants (5-8)
Remaining schedule (.611 SOS): vs. TEN, at IND, vs. DAL.
Frelund's playoff probability: 0.6 percent.
Apologies, Giants fans. Last week, I ignored the numbers and included Big Blue among the teams playing for draft positioning -- which could still be true! But the Giants do indeed have a path to the postseason, albeit one that relies on their upcoming AFC South foes folding in the midst of their own playoff pushes and the rest of the NFC succumbing to influenza. New York has strung together the most positive results of anyone on this list as of late. A win over the highly erratic Titans would give the G-Men at least one more week of breathing room. A loss would send them into QB prospect scouting.
5) Washington Redskins (6-7)
Remaining schedule (.472 SOS): at JAX, at TEN, vs. PHI.
Frelund's playoff probability: 2.0 percent.
Outside of Detroit, Washington has the easiest remaining strength of schedule of the sixth-seed contenders. But that's about the only break the Redskins will catch over the last three weeks. In less than a month, D.C. has seen three starting quarterbacks come and go. Alex Smith and Colt McCoy were lost to serious leg injuries. Mark Sanchez was ... not the answer. Enter San Diego Fleet first-round pick Josh Johnson, who is about to start his first game since 2011 this week in Jacksonville. Johnson was quite effective replacing Sanchez in garbage time during the Redskins' blowout defeat to the Giants, but it's unclear whether the 32-year-old quarterback, who learned the names of his new teammates via "Madden 19" last week, is ready to will Washington to the postseason. Who's under center isn't D.C.'s only issue. Adrian Peterson is showing his age behind a patchwork O-line. Greg Manusky's defense has lost its fight. The reeling 'Skins are fading fast with away bouts in the unpredictable AFC South upcoming. Just four weeks ago, Washington was a favorite to not only make the postseason but win the NFC East running away. Now the 'Skins are all but cooked, save for a Nick Foles-ish run to glory from the ultimate underdog in Johnson.
4) Carolina Panthers (6-7)
Remaining schedule (.722 SOS): vs. NO, vs. ATL, at NO.
Frelund's playoff probability: 9.4 percent.
Carolina is fading like Cam Newton's arm strength. Despite losing five games in a row, though, the Panthers still have a shot at cracking the postseason. The schedule-making demons did them no favors by pushing their first game with the hated Saints back until Week 15 with the Panthers already out of the South race. (I can't recall a later first game between divisional opponents in recent memory. Bizarre strategy there, considering the Saints and Panthers played three exciting games in 2017. Spread the wealth, LEAGUE OFFICIALS.)
Perhaps having three divisional tests to close out the season is a blessing in disguise for Carolina. The Panthers have lost each of their last four games in 2018 by seven points or fewer, and division tests are often toss-ups. That's an overly optimistic way to look at it. On the other (much stronger) hand, the Panthers have lost four of their last five meetings with New Orleans and five of their last six with Atlanta. Plus, Carolina is catching the Saints when they have yet to clinch home-field advantage. Unfortunately for Ron Rivera and his hot seat, it's likelier that the Panthers take a cat nap down the stretch than roar back to playoff contention.
3) Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
Remaining schedule (.722 SOS): at LAR, vs. HOU, at WAS.
Frelund's playoff probability: 13.5 percent.
To even think about defending their Super Bowl title in January, the Eagles have to overcome a brutal three-game stretch in Dallas, in Los Angeles and then back home against Houston. The Eagles' loss to Dallas in leg one of this beastly trilogy proved a crushing blow to their hopes of winning the NFC East, and while it didn't knock them out of the wild-card race, they lost the opportunity to control their destiny in late December. Cynthia Frelund gives the Eagles the second-best chance behind the favored Vikings to snag the sixth seed, even though Philly's final three-game run is tied for the toughest among the wannabes. Making matters worse is that two of the Eagles' tests come against Rams and Texans teams with a lot to play for. L.A. is eyeing a first-round bye and ultimately home-field advantage, while Houston could still be playing for a division title in Week 16, not to mention a first-round bye in the AFC.
2) Green Bay Packers (5-7-1)
Remaining schedule (.500 SOS): at CHI, at NYJ, vs. DET.
Frelund's playoff probability: 3.7 percent.
OK, I know what you're thinking. Didn't the Packers just fire their longtime head coach a week ago, hence signaling they were moving on from this season and into a new era of Acme football? Didn't you, foolish writer, explicate in this space one week ago with not-so-clever wordplay that Green Bay was "packing it in"? Well, yes, but circumstances have changed. All four teams with six wins above the Packers in the standings in Week 14 lost. Plus, not only did Green Bay snap its three-game skid in its first test under Joe Philbin, but the Packers throttled Atlanta with a balanced diet of Aaron Jones, Davante Adams and a healthy Randall Cobb, the recipe they've been lacking.
Now, Green Bay would obviously fall off this list entirely with a loss in Chicago on Sunday. Given the Bears' dominance at Soldier Field this season (6-1) and their most recent defeat of the juggernaut Rams, Philbin's Packers should go into Chicago as heavy 'dogs. But need I remind you who quarterbacks Green Bay and what his record is in the Windy City? Aaron Rodgers has not lost a game in Chicago since September of 2010, which just so happened to be the last year the Bears won the North; the Packers of course redeemed that loss with a title-game win in January 2011. Show me what you got, what you got, Raji. Is it out of the realm of possibility that Rodgers pulls off another shocker against the mini Monsters on Sunday, perhaps tapping into the magic of 2013, when the 7-7-1 Packers marched into Soldier Field and stole the division from Chicago with a last-gasp touchdown pass?
This is all to say that if Green Bay can pull off the upset Sunday, it could walk to an 8-7-1 record with two final games against the very beatable Jets and Lions. No other team on this list has an easier Week 16 and 17. And yet! Even if the Packers make it to 8-7-1, they would need the Vikings to lose two of their final three games to avoid losing the tiebreaker to their division rivals. Again, thanks, but no thanks, Clay Matthews.
1) Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)
Remaining schedule (.583 SOS): vs. MIA, at DET, vs. CHI.
Frelund's playoff probability: 81.7 percent.
Despite the three losses in four weeks, the offensive ineptitude and the firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo on Tuesday morning, the Vikings still remain the heavy favorites to emerge from the morass as the NFC's sixth seed come Dec. 30. That's thanks to a forgiving -- if tricky -- final three games. Minnesota returns home to host the Dolphins in Week 15. The Vikings are far more successful in their building (4-2) than on the road (2-4-1) and are taking on an unpredictable Miami team coming off a whirlwind victory against New England. Minnesota's trip to Detroit is tricky because it's a divisional opponent likely playing spoiler, but the Vikings took care of the Lions convincingly in their first meeting, sacking Matthew Stafford 10 times. Then, there's the finale against Chicago, which could mean everything or absolutely zilch to the Bears; Minnesota would obviously hope for the latter, unless the division is on the line. By the time Week 17 rolls around, Chicago could have locked up the North and the No. 3 seed, due to a combo of Bears victories and Cowboys losses, giving Matt Nagy's young side little to play for on the regular season's final afternoon. In that situation, Chicago could play the backups, presumably let the Vikes walk through for an easy victory at U.S. Bank Stadium and then give them hell in the wild-card round at Soldier Field the following week.
But let's not put the ship before the Norsemen. The Vikings need to get right on offense under the stewardship of new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who is highly regarded but has never called plays at the NFL level. As with all of the aforementioned contenders, Minnesota is likely a one-and-done team in January, but not getting to that point would be an organizational disaster, given what the Vikings invested in this season. The DeFilippo defenestration is a desperate move, but one made knowing Minnesota is thisclose to a third playoff berth in four years. And once you're in the dance, anything can happen, even Miracles.