NFC Hierarchy Clears as Playoffs Nears

As we get set to turn the calendar to December we enter crunch time in the NFL--where playoff positioning is solidified and teams try to catch a wave like the Packers did last season. But as of now, the NFC playoffs appear set. The six teams that would comprise the NFC field right now, appear to be the ones that will be left standing in January.

Yes, I know, a lot can happen between now and New Year's Day. A key QB could go down, someone could stomp their way to a suspension. But barring any major developments, here's how things appear to be shaking out in the NFC.

#1 Seed: The Pack, of course. They haven't lost in more than 340 days. They're chasing history right now and have a very good shot at an undefeated regular season. This Sunday's road test at the Giants appears to be their toughest game left, though home games against the Raiders and Bears won't be gimmes. Whether they're 16-0 or slip up somewhere along the way, there will be no road warrior script like 2010 for the Packers. The road to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau.

#2 Seed: San Francisco appears to have the inside track, but don't sleep on the Saints. The Niners have a better conference record than New Orleans, 7-1 vs. 5-3, so they would likely win a tiebreaker if they finish with similar records. With road games in Seattle and St. Louis and home games against the Rams, Panthers and Steelers, I see the 49ers finishing 13-3 at worst and the second seed.

#3 Seed: The Saints remain the Packers' most dangerous threat in the NFC. As I predicted in August, the first game and last game may be Saints at Packers. They have the QB who can go toe to toe with Aaron Rodgers and he has a deeper arsenal of offensive weapons than the Pack has--thanks to a strong backfield. The Saints may win out. Their toughest test is a road game in Nashville. Otherwise they come to Minnesota and host the Lions, Falcons and Panthers. Say they stumble once. They finish 12-4 and the third seed.

#4 Seed: Though the Cowboys only have a one game lead over the Giants, it feels like a lot more. They've won four straight, though they haven't been overly impressive along the way. The schedule favors Dallas in December, with divisional home games against the Giants and Eagles and road games in Arizona, Tampa and New York. They're 7-4 right now; I've got them finishing 10-6 and winning the NFC Least.

Wildcard #1: Atlanta has righted the ship and will secure the top wildcard spot with 10 or 11 wins. They're at Houston this week--the Texans are down to their third string QB--a rookie--and they're on the road in Carolina and New Orleans. They have home games with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. Feels like 10-6.

Wildcard #2: Despite the loss of Jay Cutler, the Bears will sneak into the playoffs by default. They'll win their two home games, against KC and Seattle and will likely win in Minnesota in the season finale. The road game in Denver is a question mark because it's hard to pick against Tim Tebow right now--feels like you're picking against God. They'll lose in Lambeau on Christmas night, so put them at 10 or 11 wins.

The Pretenders: The only two teams with winning records right now are the Lions and the Giants. With news that Ndamukong Suh has been suspended two games for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions have no shot in New Orleans on Sunday night. They'll win home games with the Vikings and Chargers, but will lose at Oakland and Green Bay, to finish at 9-7. They may be ascending, but they need to learn how to act like winners. As for the Giants, if you've watched them this season, you know they are confounding. Lose at home to Seattle then beat the Patriots in Foxborough. Their last two efforts: losses at home to the Eagles and at New Orleans show that their offensive line is terrible and their secondary took too many injury hits early on to compete. 8-8 appears to be their fate.

Wildcard weekend could bring us Chicago at Dallas and a divisional matchup between the Falcons and the Saints. If the home teams survive, we'd be looking at Dallas at Lambeau and the Saints at San Francisco in the divisional round. Wait, am I getting ahead of myself? OK, one game at a time...bring on the Giants.

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