Insiders

NFL AM: NFC Contenders With Easiest Road to Postseason

on

Week 13 of the 2016 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night with two NFC contenders doing battle in Minnesota, where the Vikings meet the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football.

With five games remaining in the season, Dallas currently sits atop the NFC, two games clear of the division rival New York Giants for first place in both the division and the conference. Their next closest threat for conference supremacy comes from the Seattle Seahawks, who at 7-3-1 are 2.5 games behind the Cowboys. The Cowboys can also become the first NFC team to lock up a playoff spot this week if they can beat Minnesota on Thursday and either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Washington Redskins lose on Sunday. But while Dallas seems to be a playoff lock right now, in excellent position for the top seed in the conference as well, that doesn’t mean the road to glory is easy.

Starting with Thursday’s game against the Vikings, the Cowboys finish the season with four of their five games against teams currently sitting in or just outside of playoff position. At 6-5, Minnesota is a game out of first in the NFC North and a half game behind Washington for the second Wild Card spot. The Cowboys then head to New York in Week 14 to take on a Giants team that handed them their lone loss so far this season and is currently the biggest threat in their road to the top spot in the conference. After that, the Cowboys host the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also sit just a game out of the division lead in the NFC South and a half-game out of a Wild Card spot, in Week 15. Dallas then has to contend with the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions on Monday night in Week 16. The Cowboys close the season with a trip to Philly, to take on an Eagles team that always plays them tough.

All five games are certainly winnable for Dallas, and due to their lead and their play of late, they still have to be the favorite to finish the season atop the conference, but none of them will be easy and several other NFC teams have it easier down the stretch. Here’s a look at just a few.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-3-1)

Seattle’s Week 12 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers exposed some flaws in the Seahawks, especially on offense, that other teams will likely look to exploit in the coming weeks through into the playoffs. But despite some glaring issues, Seattle still has the easiest road to the postseason of any NFC contender.

The Seahawks currently sit three full games clear of the Arizona Cardinals for first place in the NFC West, the largest divisional lead in the league, and over their closing stretch, Seattle gets to run through their entirely woeful division one more time, finishing the season with three games against their three NFC West rivals. Seattle’s road to the finish line begins on Sunday night, when they host what seems to be a now annual matchup with the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina essentially watched their playoff hopes dashed last week in a loss to the Raiders that left them three games out of the division lead and far down in the Wild Card standings. The Panthers always play the Seahawks tough, but this is a game Seattle can and should win, especially at home. Week 14 then brings the toughest challenge remaining for the Hawks, as they head to Green Bay to take on a Packers team desperately attempting to fight their own way back into the playoff picture. Win or lose that one, however, things get much easier for the Hawks over the final three. They host the Rams in Week 15 and while Los Angeles did beat them earlier this season and oddly seems to have Seattle’s number in recent years, this matchup is one Seattle should win. That game is followed by a rematch with the Cardinals, whom they played to a tie in Arizona earlier this season on Christmas Eve in Week 16 and home field advantage gives the Seahawks a clear edge in that one. Finally, Seattle closes with a gimme matchup against the San Francisco 49ers which should have them looking strong heading into the postseason.

Final prediction: 11-4-1, 1st in NFC West, No. 2 NFC seed

Atlanta Falcons (7-4)

Over the first 12 weeks of the season, it would be hard to identify a division-leader and contender more enigmatic than the Atlanta Falcons. With teams like the Cowboys and Seahawks, you at least have a pretty good idea what to expect from week to week. But consistent performance seems to elude Atlanta, a team that in the last five weeks has blown out Tampa Bay and Arizona, but lost to San Diego and Philadelphia.

What we do know is that although the Buccaneers are suddenly breathing down their neck in the standings, from the looks of it, the Falcons have a clear path to the playoffs. Their toughest remaining test comes this week, when they host the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs at the Georgia Dome. A loss in that game, and a Bucs win over the Chargers would create a virtual tie atop the division with four games to play. But from there, Atlanta has the edge. That’s because, like the Seahawks, the Falcons get to feast on the bottom feeders in the NFC West down the stretch. They head to Los Angeles in Week 14 and then host San Francisco in Week 15, two games that are eminently winnable for the top team in the NFC South.

The Falcons then close with a pair of divisional games. In Week 16 they head to Carolina to face a Panthers team that should have folded up the tent by then and in the season finale they host the Saints. Atlanta has already beaten both teams by double digits this season and those matchups give them a legit chance to not only finish strong but an outside shot at a top-two spot in the conference.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in NFC South, No. 3 seed in NFC

Green Bay Packers (5-6)

It might surprise some to see a Packers team that’s more than a game out of a playoff spot on a list of contenders with the easiest road to the playoffs. But Green Bay’s talent, specifically at the quarterback position, combined with their remaining schedule, makes it hard to doubt the Packers down the stretch, even in what has been a down year.

The Pack begins their closing stretch at home on Sunday where they host the AFC South-leading Houston Texans. This is a game Green Bay has to and should win with relative ease, as any chance to beat up on an AFC South squad should be taken full advantage of. A win there would put the Packers at 6-6 entering the final four games. They then remain at home to face a Seattle team that tops this same list, but as previously mentioned, the Seahawks currently possess just as many flaws as the Packers and the site of the game being Green Bay tilts the contest in favor of the Pack. In Week 15, the Packers get a gift, as one of their two remaining road games comes against a Bears team that can’t seem to buy a win and is looking more closely at their draft position than possibly winning a game of that magnitude. Green Bay then finishes up with a Week 16 home tilt against the Vikings and a Week 17 battle against the Lions in Detroit that seems likely to have the division title hanging in the balance. The Packers certainly have some work to do to get there, more than any other team on this list, but the opportunity is there for them to seize and with Aaron Rodgers in December, it seems as probable as it is possible.

Green Bay then finishes up with a Week 16 home tilt against the Vikings and a Week 17 battle against the Lions in Detroit that seems likely to have the division title hanging in the balance. The key there will be divisional record. the Pack are currently 2-1 in the division while the Lions have two losses in the North and the Vikings have three. If they can win two of their final three divisional games, Green Bay will be in business. The Packers certainly have some work to do to get there, more than any other team on this list, but the opportunity is there for them to seize and with Aaron Rodgers in December, it seems as probable as it is possible.

Prediction: 9-7, 1st in NFC North, No. 4 seed in NFC

Washington Redskins (6-4-1)

For the first time in quite some time, the NFC East is positioned to put three teams in the postseason this year, and though a lot can happen in the final five weeks of the season, the schedules seem to dictate that exactly that will happen. The biggest threat to that happening is the Redskins, but their tie with the Bengals in London may come in handy down the stretch.

The Redskins begin their final five with a trip to Arizona this week to take on a tough Cardinals team, but one that is not as formidable as once believed. The Washington defense will be key here, as it seems likely the Arizona defense will be able to limit Kirk Cousins and the Redskins offense in ways their most recent opponents haven’t been able to. But if Washington can keep the game close on defense, you have to like their chances. Week 14 takes the Redskins to Philly, where they’ll face a reeling Eagles team they’ve already defeated once this season and should take care of again. Following that tilt, Washington gets an extra day of preparation to host the Carolina Panthers on Monday night in Week 15, then sacrifices two days in Week 16. Fortunately, their penultimate opponent is a Bears team they should have little trouble with.

The Redskins then finish the season at home, host to the Giants in a game that might well determine the seeding for the conference’s two Wild Card spots. It’s a far from daunting stretch for Washington and one that should put them in the postseason for a second straight year, something that hasn’t happened since the Early 90s.

Prediction: 9-6-1, 3rd in NFC East, No. 6 seed in NFC.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys