Let's have a look at the NFC playoff picture as it stands right now, with four weeks left to play in the season. Things look crystal clear at the top, with Green Bay galloping in front of the pack, and the 49ers holding a cozy one-game margin over the Saints that is essentially a two-game margin because they hold all the tiebreakers.
At the lower rung, the Giants basically need to sweep their two-game series with Dallas to win the NFC East, and if they don't they will need serious help to even gain a wildcard. Even further down the ladder, the ailing Bears need to find a way to win some games down the stretch, or they could be in danger of dropping to the last wildcard spot or even worse, out of the playoffs altogether.
Here's a team-by-team breakdown:
1. Packers, 12-0 final 4: Oakland, @Kansas City, Chicago Detroit.
Prognosis: Nothing to worry about except running the table and staying healthy and breaking records and staying warm during their three remaining home games.
2. 49ers, 10-2, final 4: @Arizona, Pittsburgh, @Seattle, @St. Louis.
Prognosis: The 49ers look solid for the 2 slot on the strength of their one-game lead over the Saints, which is bolstered by the fact that they have a two-game lead in conference games and a 1.5-game lead in common opponent games. That said, the 49ers do have the Steelers on the schedule, and if they slip and lose another game, the Saints could leapfrog them.
3. Saints, 9-3, final 4: @Tennessee, @Minnesota, Atlanta, Carolina
Prognosis: As mentioned, the Saints might need to win their final four to pass the 49ers. With a two-game lead over the 7-5 Saints in the NFC South, they look like a lock to win the division, even if they lose to Atlanta at home (keep in mind, Brees and Co. are 6-0 at home).
4. Dallas, 7-5, final 4: New York Giants, @Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, @New York Giants
Prognosis: It's been such a strange year for the Big D, but if they can manage a split with the Giants they should end up winnning the NFC East, even after all of Romo's late-game heroics/ choking and coach Jason Garrett's poor time management. If the Cowboys manage a split with NYG, Dallas' superior conference record (5-3 vs. 3-6) will more than likely be the difference maker. If they are swept by the Giants, they'll have a tough time getting in, given that they've lost a head-to-head game with the Lions, and they will be 9-7 at the very best.
5. Chicago, 7-5, final 4: @Denver, Seattle, @Green Bay, Minnesota
Prognosis: Suddenly the only sure thing on the Bears schedule down the stretch is their week 17 home game vs. the Vikings. Can Chicago, without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, handle Denver on the road? I guess we'll find out, and the same goes for their chances against Seattle's opportunistic defense in week 15 at home.
This week's game in Denver is huge for Chicago. If they can't beat Denver, the Lions (a 7-5 team on the outside looking in at the moment) will still have a shot at winning an all-important tiebreaker with the Bears: best record against common opponents. Currently the Lions are 5-3 in such games, and Chicago is 6-3.
6. Atlanta, 7-5, final 4: @Carolina, Jacksonville, @New Orleans, Tampa Bay
Prognosis: I think it's safe to say, based on the way they've been playing of late, and their relatively easy schedule down the stretch, that the Falcons will get in as a wildcard. Can they win the division? Maybe, but they must beat the Saints in week 16 to do it, and get a little help. The Saints lost their head-to-head matchup with the Bears, but that might not end up mattering, as the Bears are currently a team in disarray and they should struggle to split their final four games.
Outside Looking in:
1. Detroit, 7-5, final 4: Minnesota, @Oakland, San Diego, @Green Bay
Prognosis: The Lions are close, but they are falling short against the other 7-5 teams in terms of tiebreakers. They lost to Atlanta, so they are essentially a game behind the Falcons, and even though they split with the Bears, their 5-5 conference record isn't helping them at all. The small window for the Lions would be if the Bears lost to Denver this week and Detroit beat both Oakland and San Diego. That would give Detroit a 7-3 record against opponents they have in common with the Bears, and the Bears would lose out to the Lions with a 6-4 record.
The other window for Detroit is to steal a win against Green Bay in the final game of the season. Division record is the first tiebreaker after head-to-head for the Lions and Bears, so if either team can manage a win over Green Bay, then the tiebreaker is probably theirs.
2. New York Giants, 6-6, final 4: @Dallas, Washington, @New York Jets, Dallas
Prognosis: The Giants are pretty much out of options here. Thanks to their brutal conference record, they need to sweep the Cowboys to get in. Well, there are a few other ways they can get a wildcard with a split, but it's not very likely.
3. The Best of the rest: Seattle(5-7), Arizona (5-7), Philadelphia(4-8)
Prognosis: Life Support. Need transplant!