With 11 weeks nearly in the books, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape. It appears that one of the tightest races will be for the final wild-card spot in the NFC, with the Seattle Seahawks (6-4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4), New Orleans Saints (5-5) and Dallas Cowboys (5-5) all jockeying for position. Which team do you like to nab the final NFC playoff spot?
It's clear that in the NFC, there's going to be more than a few good teams left out of the playoff picture.
I'm OK with assuming that the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers are already in. But I'm not ready to go there with the 6-4 New York Giants, who are currently reeling and have a tough schedule down the stretch. There's a good chance the Giants and Dallas Cowboys will be tied after next week, though that might not affect the last wild-card spot, just the NFC East race. In my mind, the division title and that final wild-card spot are both up for grabs.
In my view, it's the New Orleans Saints vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the Seattle Seahawks for the last spot (with the Minnesota Vikings coming back to Earth). New Orleans is rolling, but it seems unlikely they'll get wins over the 49ers, Atlanta Falcons AND Giants. They also have to face the Bucs, whom they still trail in the NFC South, one more time. Tampa Bay has a tough and balanced attack, and will win the same number of games as the Saints, which keeps the Bucs ahead. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have to play three more road games, and should falter.
I picked the Seattle Seahawks to win the NFC West before the season started, and I have not given up on that possibility. Seattle (6-4) remains undefeated at home, where it will get one more shot at the division-leading San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1). San Francisco, meanwhile, has games against the Saints, Chicago Bears and New England Patriots.
I am going with the Seattle Seahawks. They are not the best of the four teams listed, but they have the most favorable schedule. In their last four games of the season, they'll face the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams at home and visit the Buffalo Bills. The Seahawks are 4-4 in the NFC, same as the Dallas Cowboys.
The Seahawks' defense is very good, which is essential for winning on the road, and they run the ball well with Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson has made enough plays -- and has shown enough poise -- to give Seahawks fans hope that he'll be consistent enough down the stretch to win close games.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, have a very tough final stretch that includes road games against the Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, as well as another matchup against Atlanta at home. The Cowboys must visit the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins and host the Saints; their week-to-week inconsistency scares me with that slate. New Orleans might be playing the best of all these teams right now, but their schedule (which features the Falcons, Cowboys, Giants and 49ers) is tough.
This is going to come down to the final week of the regular season, because all of these teams are inconsistent.
Their records will all be similar, but that doesn't mean we can't weed teams out. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggle against too many of the teams they should be able to easily put away, and they'll stumble at some point. The Seattle Seahawks' next two games are on the road (where they're 1-4) against the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears, and 6-4 could easily turn into 6-6. The Seahawks will be facing a must-win scenario in Week 17 in order to stay alive in the playoff chase, but it might not be enough.
The big domino is going to fall in Week 16, when the New Orleans Saints face the Dallas Cowboys. The winner should put itself in a position where a Week 17 victory will send it to the postseason. Do I trust the Saints to take a must-win game on the road in December? I do not. Not with the Cowboys' secondary playing extremely well and receiver Dez Bryant turning into a monster. So yeah, I think what I thought at the beginning of the season: Dallas is going to the playoffs.
The New Orleans Saints' season appeared to be over after a home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. (Yes, that's right. When you see the "1" in the Kansas City Chiefs' 1-9 record, that win is over the Saints.)
But if I was an NFC team, the Saints are the one squad I wouldn't want to be playing right now. After a loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 8, New Orleans has pulled itself back to .500 by winning three straight.
Every team in the fight for the final playoff spot has its own faults. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a tough schedule. The Seattle Seahawks are much different at home than they are on the road. And the Dallas Cowboys have Tony Romo (cheap shot, I know).
As my elementary school teachers would tell you, I was never much for math. ... But let's see if we can use some here to figure out this NFC wild-card situation:
Cowboys (5-5): WAS + PHI + @CIN + PIT + NO + @WAS = 9-7
Saints (5-5): SF + @ATL + @NYG + TB + @DAL + CAR = 9-7
Buccaneers (6-4): ATL + @DEN + PHI + @NO + STL + @ATL = 9-7
Seahawks (6-4): @MIA + @CHI + AZ + @BUF + SF + STL = 10-6
However, allow me to play Devil's Dameshek for a moment. We might be assuming too much by declaring that the current division leaders will hold on to their spots. After they face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday, the Chicago Bears have to play the Green Bay Packers (in all likelihood for the NFC North title). The Atlanta Falcons haven't played great lately, and must deal with the New York Giants and a trip to the Detroit Lions, along with the aforementioned divisional games. Speaking of the Giants, they've got a brutal road ahead, including the Packers, Cowboys, Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and a regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, who'd love to send Andy Reid off into the sunset on a happy note.
In other words, let's not put anything in pen, at least until after the leftover turkey is gone.