If the playoffs started today, who's in:
1. New York Giants (10-1)
2. Tampa Bay Bucs (8-3)
3. Arizona Cardinals (7-4)
4. Chicago Bears (6-5)
5. Carolina Panthers (8-3)
6. Washington Redskins (7-4)
On the bubble:
7. Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
8. Dallas Cowboys (7-4)
9. Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
10. New Orleans Saints (6-5)
11. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5-1)
12. Green Bay Packers (5-6)
The race to draft a new franchise QB from the Big XII:
13. San Francisco 49ers (3-8)
14. Seattle Seahawks (2-9)
15. St. Louis Rams (2-9)
Challenging the '76 Bucs:
16. Detroit Lions (0-11)
Focusing on the top 10 NFC teams, let's see the remaining schedule for each team, who has the easiest road to the playoffs, and how this could shake out.
1. NYG (13-3) - Home field throughout
2. CAR (11-5) -- NFC South over NO: greater W-L record among common opponents (both 4-2 in division, Car 11-3 vs common opps, NO 10-4); Bye over ARZ: head-to-head (Week 8);
3. ARZ (11-5) - runaway NFC West winners
4. MIN (10-6) - squeaks through NFC North
5. WAS (11-5) -- 9-3 in conference
6. NO (11-5) -- 8-4 in conference
7. DAL (11-5) -- 7-5 in conference
8. TB (10-6)
9. ATL (10-6)
10. CHI (9-7)
People are talking about a scenario in which a 10-win team misses the playoffs. Heck, this could break down where a team like Dallas could finish 11-5 and still not make the playoffs. Neither would 10-win Tampa Bay or 10-win Atlanta in the NFC South. And all the sudden the hard-charging New Orleans Saints get into the show thanks to a soft schedule down the stretch. Washington also will benefit from a soft schedule.
Is this how it will all break down? It's unlikely to have so many 10+ win teams (nine in this scenario), but it's definitely possible. The above predicted game results are all plausible. Here's the skinny:
NYG @ WAS
Washington playing at home could very easily knock off the Giants. When these teams faced each other in Week 1, the Redskins were a young team struggling to find their identity while the G-men were kicking off the season as defending champions. Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell were not who they are 13 weeks later. While injuries did not stop New York from beating Arizona, the Redskins are a different animal.
NO @ TB
After the Saints dismantled Green Bay, albeit at home, are you telling me they couldn't do the same in warm-weather Tampa to the Buccaneers? Tampa Bay's defense is good, but they got behind the Lions 17-0. It's easy to rally against 0-11 Detroit, but playing like that against potent New Orleans will mean a loss for the current NFC south leaders.
ARZ @ Phi
With all the chaos going on in Philly, Arizona could roll on Thanksgiving in a battle of the birds.
CHI @ MIN
The Bears are more up and down than a yo-yo. They got throttled in Green Bay before kicking in the Rams teeth in St. Louis. They now play their third straight road game against a team that put up 41 points against the Bears defense on October 19. Yes, the Bears won the last game, 48-41, but this game is at the Metrodome where the Vikings are 4-1 this season. Advantage: Minnesota.
CAR @ GB
The Panthers playing the Packers in Green Bay could go either way, but after seeing everything unravel for the Pack in New Orleans, I've got to think John Fox's crew will take advantage of a reeling Green Bay team.
ATL @ SD
The Falcons all but eliminate the Chargers from the weak AFC West race. I don't know what's going on out there, but those teams wouldn't win the Pac-10.
SEA @ DAL
If Dallas loses this game, they'll be the turkeys of a media feast.
PHI @ NYG
In New York. Giants already beat the Eagles in Philly this year. Kevin Kolb might be starting by this point after having 10 full days off to transition into the starting role. No brainer: NYG.
TB @ CAR
Last time these two teams played in Tampa, Jake Delhomme threw 39 times and had 3 INTs. Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 17 carries. The focus for the Panthers will be on the ground game. Cats run over the Pirates.
STL @ ARZ
They're playing the Rams, dude. Wait, what?
JAX @ CHI
The wheels are falling off the Jaguars ride toward .500 while Chicago is back at home for the first time in a month!
WAS @ BAL
Not really a road game for Washington, playing just 30 miles away in Baltimore. Coming off a major win over division rival New York, the Skins are primed for a let down, and the Ravens are hitting their stride behind a stingy defense and consistent offense. Joe Flacco is a rookie? You wouldn't know watching this game.
ATL @ NO
Saints are hot. Atlanta doesn't win a lot in the Superdome. Can Matt Ryan and Michael Turner really keep up with Drew Brees? Can anyone?
DAL @ PIT
Perhaps a little bit of a reach here from an admitted Cowboys homer, but there's no way Dallas will be favored to win this game which might actually spark some team-building adversity that brings Dallas together for another season-saver. Look for lots of Marion the Barbarian in some bad weather. Considering how often Roethelisberger gets sacked, DeMarcus Ware and Co. should have a fun afternoon.
MIN @ DET
Who are the Vikings to halt the pursuit of the Lions historic season?
NYG @ DAL
To steal a line from a former Sunday Night Football promo: Can a quarterback really make a difference? He can, but sadly probably not enough of one.
TB @ ATL
Tampa Bay coming off two division losses can't quite stop the bleeding. This loss becomes the nail in their 2008 coffin, effectively crushing their post-season hopes. Matt Ryan solidifies his Rookie of the Year campaign in a big NFC South win.
MIN @ ARI
No way the Vikings defense can stop Kurt Warner, and the purple DBs will be stretched thin with the arsenal of WRs that spread the field.
NO @ CHI
I know it's weird to think the Saints can just win out from Week 11 on, but someone in the NFL does it every year. And someone *cough* Chicago *cough* always slides just out of contention. Consider it revenge for the 2006 NFC Championship Game.
DEN @ CAR
How generous of Denver to give the Chargers a window of hope. No way the Panthers lose to this bunch at home ... unless Hochuli's crew is working the game.
WAS @ CIN
I shouldn't have to defend picking Washington over the Bengals.
CAR @ NYG
And with win number 13 over a Carolina primed for a letdown, the New York Giants clinch home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Congratulations.
SD @ TB
Tampa Bay back at home after three divisional losses will make the Chargers pay for the sins of the NFC South. San Diego and Norv Turner mail it in.
ARI @ NE
The Patriots at home late in the season against a team that is isn't quite sure what it's doing toward the top of the playoff picture. Arizona doesn't need this game nearly as bad as New England, and necessity breads urgency.
GB @ CHI
The Pack absolutely destroyed the Bears at Lambeau Field. I mean just killed them. Totally annihilated them. The Pack will be eliminated by this point and Chicago's defense smothers Aaron Rodgers. In a game that will surely be deprived of offense, look for a special teams play to break things open.
PHI @ WAS
The Eagles host Cleveland between trips to New York and Washington, so that should quench any thirst for winning Philly has. That's a good thing, because the Skins beat the Iggles at the Linc earlier this season, so why should a game at FedEx Field be any different?
ATL @ MIN
Matt Ryan and the Falcons have one quality road win, at Green Bay October 5, and another in Oakland. Minnesota is tough in the dome, and this win should clinch the NFC North for 'em.
BAL @ DAL
"The Finale" as it's being dubbed in Cowboysland. Dallas closes out Texas Stadium in style defeating the Ravens and winning a 10th game of the season. Barring a Redskins fart-and-fall-down performance the following week in San Francisco, it won't be enough for Dallas.
NO @ DET
It's the Lions, dude.
NYG @ MIN
The Giants will play hard for the first half, first three quarters, but when it comes down the crunch time, it's not worth getting Eli or any other starters hurt when this is a game the Giants simply won't need.
OAK @ TB
Raiders on the road across the country. We know how bad West Coast teams have been in the Eastern Time Zone. Tampa Bay closes out the season with back to back wins over bad teams but falls one game behind Carolina and New Orleans.
SEA @ ARI
Seattle limps to the finish in the final game before the Seahawks use the offseason to clean house from everything that once was their Super Bowl team. Cardinals cruise to the win.
CHI @ HOU
The Bears will think they still have a shot because the Giants could beat Minnesota, reopening the battle for the NFC North. That won't happen, and a win over the hapless Texans goes to waste.
CAR @ NO
In a game played for really only pride, the Panthers will be in position to lose and still own the division crown. Maybe they open up the entire playbook, but would that help against the Saints in New Orleans? Drew Brees completes his MVP-worthy season by breaking Marino's mark of 5,084 passing yards and propels the Saints into the playoffs with a win.
DAL @ PHI
Cowboys play the early game, beat the Eagles, and huddle around a TV to see if there's any way the 49ers put Dallas into the tournament.
WAS @ SF
Cowboys fans will root for the upset, but the Skins will also have playoff hopes on the line. Can't see Washington blowing this against a team that doesn't know better than the play press coverage against TO. Skins win, clinch the wild card and eliminate the Cowboys in the process.
STL @ ATL
Again, it's the Rams, dude. And it's mercifully over. The Falcons put the Rams out of their misery, ending their 2008 campaign. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the Saints, Cowboys, Redskins all win to bump them farther down the ranks.