Packers (12-0)—Raiders, at Chiefs, Bears, Lions
The only suspense here is whether or not they can make it to 16-0 (For the record, I think they will). I thought that the Bears had the best shot to beat them, but that was before Jay Cutler’s injury. If the decision-makers in Green Bay are smart, they will not deny their Packers a shot at history like the Indianapolis Colts’ “brain trust” did a few years ago.
49ers (10-2)—at Cardinals, Steelers, at Seahawks, at Rams
They have some tricky games remaining, what with the improved play of Seattle and Arizona (not to mention a tough game against Pittsburgh), as well as Patrick Willis’s hamstring injury. They should still be good for at least 12 wins, and have an excellent shot at the number-two seed.
Saints (9-3)—at Titans, at Vikings, Falcons, Panthers
They have four very winnable games left, and could vault past San Francisco for the two seed if the ‘Niners falter.
Cowboys (7-5)—Giants, at Buccaneers, Eagles, at Giants
Dallas has a must-win game against the Giants this weekend. If the Cowboys lose to New York on Sunday, they are in serious trouble. If the Giants win all four of their remaining games (a real possibility), then Dallas can forget about winning the division, and may find themselves at the mercy of tiebreakers to see if they can get in as a wild card.
Bears (7-5)—at Broncos, Seahawks, at Packers, at Vikings
Three weeks ago, I would have said that Chicago was a lock to make the playoffs as the number-five seed. Now, when I look at their schedule, without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, I see at least three more losses. They only managed three points last week at home to the Chiefs. The Bears are hanging by a thread.
Falcons (7-5)—at Panthers, Jaguars, at Saints, Buccaneers
Atlanta looks good for 9 or 10 wins, at least. That should be enough, if the tiebreakers go their way.
Lions (7-5)—Vikings, at Raiders, Chargers, at Packers
I had Detroit missing the playoffs, but the disastrous injuries to the Bears’ two best offensive players has helped the Lions out tremendously. Detroit looks good enough for 9-10 wins.
Giants (6-6)—at Cowboys, ‘skins, at Jets, Cowboys
The two games left against Dallas are huge. If the Giants sweep those, then they look like a lock for 10-6, and would be NFC East champs. If they split with the Cowboys, then it’s to the tiebreakers they go.
Seahawks (5-7)—Rams, at Bears, 49ers, at Cardinals
If they can upset San Francisco, then they have a real shot at 9-7. They’re a long-shot, but they have a chance.
Cardinals (5-7)—49ers, Browns, at Bengals, Seahawks
The longest of the long-shots. Arizona would have to upset San Francisco and Cincinnati. Wouldn’t it be something if the week 17 game against Seattle was for a playoff spot?
So, after all of that, what’s my verdict? The Packers and 49ers are already in. The Saints take the NFC South. The race between San Francisco and New Orleans for a first-round bye should be intriguing. The New York Giants will run the table and win the NFC East. As for the wild cards, I’m not sure how the tiebreakers play out exactly, but it looks to me like, when the dust settles, it will be the Falcons and the Lions (Yes, I’m actually picking the Lions to make the playoffs). The Seahawks and Cardinals look like 8-8 teams, at best. The Bears can’t win if they can’t score. And as for the Cowboys, well, when Jason Garrett butchered the end of last week’s game in Arizona, he opened the door for the Giants and put Dallas’s season in serious jeopardy. The Cowboys-Giants game is the one I’m looking forward to the most this weekend. It is, without a doubt the biggest game of the season for both teams, and is arguably the most important game being played this weekend.
Now before I go:
Browns at Steelers
I know that the Bengals’ fans will be rooting hard for an upset. So will I. Unfortunately, Colt McCoy is in for a miserable night at the hands of the Pittsburgh pass rush. It’s been a few weeks since anything bad has happened to Peyton Hillis. Was that the calm before the storm? Winner: Steelers