The NFL is on the verge of successfully completing an entire regular season slate amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an accomplishment few believed the league could achieve. And as the month of December turns the midway corner into the back end of 2020, the playoff picture in the NFC is beginning to take form in a very real way. Things will get hot and heavy in the final three games, as division rivals clash and scrappy teams attempt to play spoiler to those who are desperately clinging to life, so strap on your seat belt and get ready for some exciting football as January approaches.
But which teams in the NFC have the best chance of landing a wild card berth? After all, the league has expanded the number of teams allowed in by one per conference due to the pandemic and the fallout thereof, giving teams that would typically already be mathematically eliminated at this point a chance to finagle their way into the tournament.
Here's a list of those who stand the best chance of grabbing an NFC wild card seat, ranked in order from "safe bet" to "um, good luck with that":
1. Tampa Bay (8-5)
OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way -- because it's exceedingly poignant and goes to his level of experience in both chasing down the postseason and performing when gets there (far more often than not) -- let's also consider he has the Buccaneers in prime position to take a playoff seat in just his first year in Tampa. From there, take a gander at the weapons on offense and just how dominant the defense can be when firing on all cylinders, and it's difficult to fathom the Bucs not being the most likely team on this list to earn a wild card berth. Plus, their final three games are against losing teams -- with two being against the now-eliminated Falcons. Atlanta will try desperately to play spoiler though, so Brady and the Bucs better be on their best behavior.
Conference record: 5-4
Strength of victory: .433
Final three: at Falcons, at Lions, vs. Falcons
2. Seattle Seahawks (9-4)
Russell Wilson's cooking hasn't been as delicious lately.
Make no mistake about it, Wilson is still one of the best in the business and, on any given day, will absolutely torch a scoreboard with weapons like D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but he's been tasked with attempting to save the day far too often on the back end of the season -- resulting in back-breaking mistakes. The problem is the Seahawks defense, a unit that is one of the worst in the league in 2020 and, as such, applies pressure weekly to Wilson and the offense. Having split with the Cardinals, however, and still in play for the NFC West division crown, all the Seahawks have to do is finish strong. That's easier said than done though, considering their final slate includes a battle with an improved WFT and the very Los Angeles Rams they're attempting to track down.
Conference record: 6-3
Strength of victory: .380
Final three: at WFT, vs. Rams, at 49ers
3. Arizona Cardinals (7-6)
The red birds are beginning to fly again.
They're not soaring like they were in the first half of the season though, having suffered three consecutive losses before finally grabbing their seventh win in Week 14 against the New York Giants. Playing the NFC East could be the prescription for what ailed them, and they'll have a chance to string together wins when they host the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15. It'll be Jalen Hurts and not Carson Wentz under center, so the Cardinals flaming hot defense -- hot off of a record-setting five sacks from linebacker Haason Reddick -- wants nothing more than to truly welcome Hurts to the NFL. If they can polish off the NFC East and escape a scrap with the 49ers with a W, they'll have a chance to potentially determine how the entire NFC West shakes out in Week 17, and that includes their own playoff fate. Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins could easily become must-see TV once again as the pressure mounts.
Conference record: 5-4
Strength of victory: .429
Final three: vs. Eagles, vs. 49ers, at Rams
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4. Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
This is where things get curious in the NFC.
From the No. 4 position down on this board of rankings, it becomes a splitting of hairs to determine who has the best chance at a wild card spot, considering the remaining teams can all be almost equally promising on game day -- or equally capable of steering the struggle bus. Of this Tier B group, the Vikings take the lead by virtue of Kirk Cousins and his newfound weapon, rookie wideout Justin Jefferson. That combines with the play of Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen to make for a formidable offense when it's clicking, but when it's not, the Vikings need their defense to become world-beaters. They've done so a time or two, but can they do it when it matters most and a playoff seat is on the line? It's time to find out.
5. Chicago Bears (6-7)
Kudos to Matt Nagy for having his team in this discussion, despite the QB issues.
From Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles and back to Mitchell Trubisky due to an injury to Nick Foles, the rollercoaster at the position has been far from fun for Bears fans, but the team is still 6-7 and could shake the table in the NFC -- assuming the defense helps in a major way. Trubisky will make mistakes, and sometimes lots of them, so Khalil Mack and Co. better be prepared to try and delete as many as they can by keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone. If Trubisky is forced to shoot it out with the Vikings or Packers, it'll almost certainly be two losses hung on them in the final three games. Outside of the Jaguars -- now again led by a hungry -- the Bears final stretch to come is a tough go, to say the least.
Conference record: 5-5
Strength of victory: .385
Final three: at Vikings, at Jaguars, vs. Packers
6. New York Giants (5-8)
Are the Giants better than the Bears? You sure? I'm not.
Then again, I'm not sure they aren't, but that goes to my aforementioned point -- in that these remaining teams are only a mole hair away from being dopplegangers as far as playoff potential goes. Let's demote New York just a bit here after seeing a less-than-healthy Daniel Jones get pummeled by the Cardinals en route to the team's eighth loss, ending an impressive four-game win streak that included a world-shocking upset over the Seahawks. It was Colt McCoy who pulled the latter off, however, and if the Giants insist on trying to persist with Jones, despite his hamstring injury, their odds of landing a wild card spot (or retaking the top NFC East seat) dwindles very quickly (hence why the Bears are higher on this list). They'd do better to play McCoy against a Cleveland front that could easily take Jones' lunch, as could the Ravens in Week 16, so head coach Joe Judge has a verdict to declare at QB, and it better be the right one.
7. Detroit Lions (5-8)
Matthew Stafford is the lifeblood of the Lions, but he's hurting.
Without Stafford, or without a healthy Stafford, the Lions have little to no chance of squeezing their paws through the quickly closing playoff door. They've split their first two games under interim head coach Darrell Bevell since firing Matt Patricia after an embarrassing Thanksgiving loss to the Houston Texans, and one of the recent wins was over the Bears ranked above. Losing to the Packers in Week 15 reminds us all that the Lions aren't currently built to rattle the cage when it comes to top contenders, and the problem for them is their final three regular season games feature Derrick Henry and the Titans, Tom Brady and the Bucs, and a rival Vikings team that can't afford to lose in Week 17. There's still a mathematical chance for the Lions, but don't go putting money on their odds, unless you hate your money.
Conference record: 4-6
Strength of victory: .369
Final three: at Titans, vs. Bucs, vs. Vikings
8. San Francisco 49ers (5-8)
Kyle Shanahan should be in the running for NFL Coach of the Year.
Of course, he won't get it with a losing record, but the 49ers should technically be precipitously worse and far less competitive than they are on a weekly basis. Despite being ravaged by injury, San Francisco has remained one of the more difficult outs for opponents, as Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh continually find ways to make for a long day to anyone facing them. So yes, they're not great in the conference -- as far as wins go -- but they have the highest strength of victory of any team on this list, and one of the best in the league. That tells you all you need to know about them: when it's time to gut a contender, they can grease the scalpels and get it done. They'll have a shot at eliminating the Cowboys from playoff contention in Week 15 and, from there, crack their knuckles ahead of back alley NFC West brawls against two teams they loathe and -- at worst -- can alter the playoff path of.
Conference record: 3-6
Strength of victory: .446
Final three: at Cowboys, at Cardinals, vs. Seahawks
9. Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1)
Jalen Hurts is the reason the Eagles aren't scraping the barrel here.
If it were Carson Wentz under center, it'd be all I could do to not drop Philly down to the last spot, but Hurts provides a dynamic of leadership and escapability that makes him a headache for opposing defenses. This is something the New Orleans Saints found out the hard way in Week 14, feeling the sting of an upset at the hands of Hurts. The rookie second-round pick gives the Eagles a real chance at stealing a wild card seat, but it won't be easy, because he has no protection upfront and, eventually, he's going to have to win a game or two from inside a pocket that likely won't exist.and the Philly secondary ailing from the battle with the Saints, while Hurts is talented, he's still very inexperienced and the pressure on him to win out is not impossible, but simply too much to ask. Plus, they'll need a lot of help to get into the tournament, even if Hurts does ball out.
Conference record: 4-5
Strength of victory: .432
Final three: at Cardinals, at Cowboys, vs. WFT
10. Carolina Panthers (4-9)
Like the Cowboys below, the Panthers are a sneeze away from being out of the playoff picture.
To make matters worse, they're still battling injury news on all-world running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey, and that's huge. Without McCaffrey in tow, Teddy Bridgewater becomes the sole focus for opposing defenses and, while Bridgewater hasn't played poor football in 2020, he's not lighting up the scoreboard, either. This isn't what you want to hear when looking at the fact they'll face a final three-game slate that could easily see them lose out to land at 4-12 on the season, with two of their games being on the road against division leaders before returning home to face their own division leader in the Saints -- who might have Drew Brees back from injury at that point. Still, it feels like their odds feel better than the team ranked last on this list.
Conference record: 3-6
Strength of victory: .385
Final three: at Packers, at WFT, vs. Saints
11. Dallas Cowboys (4-9)
Speaking of needing help -- yeesh.
To say it's been a disappointing 2020 season in Dallas is like saying the surface of the sun is a tad balmy, and now they're in a situation Andy Dalton tries to outsmart Saleh and the 49ers and then two division rivals to close out the season. Their division record is 1-3, by the way, and they literally .. The Cowboys would either need to win out and have Washington lose their final three games to take the NFC East crown, or win out and see collapses from the Vikings and Cardinals, and for the 49ers to also crawl into a hole and die. A single loss by the Cowboys eliminates them from playoff contention, but they could win out and still not make it -- by virtue of other teams opting to play winning football. And unlike the Eagles, there's no electric change at quarterback being made in Dallas, so it'll be status quo as
Conference record: 3-6
Strength of victory: .337
Final three: vs. 49ers, vs. Eagles, at Giants