With just two weeks left in the regular season, we have a clearer look at the playoff picture in the NFC.
The Saints, Rams and Bears have all clinched their respective divisions, while the NFC East remains up in the air, five teams are jockeying for position in the wild-card race and seven teams are officially eliminated from the postseason.
While the cream has risen to the top, scoreboard watching takes center stage in the final two weeks of action, especially when considering home-field advantage and a first-round bye are still at stake.
The Saints have the inside track to the No. 1 seed and own the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Rams (thanks to a Week 9 win) in the event of the two teams finishing with identical records. But a slip by either squad the rest of the way could open the door for the Bears to pounce on a bye.
Given what’s on the line as the NFC enters the final stage of the regular season, here’s a look at five conference teams that could become the biggest spoilers in the NFL playoff picture.
Journeyman quarterback Josh Johnson led the team to a win in Week 15 and kept Washington alive in the race. Now, he’ll have to do it again in Nashville if the Redskins are to earn a playoff berth, which appeared unlikely when Alex Smith suffered a season-ending broken leg in Week 11. The upcoming opponents also have a lot to gain and lose in the final two games, so the Redskins‘ path won’t be easy. But any win engineered by Johnson serves two purposes: improving Washington’s odds of playing in January and hurting another team’s chance to get in the dance.
The Eagles are behind the Vikings and ahead of the Redskins in the wild-card chase, but arguably Philadelphia’s best chance to get in the postseason is to win the NFC East with some outside help. First, the Eagles need to win their final two games, and then need the Cowboys, who own the tie-breaker in the division based on sweeping Philadelphia this season, to lose out. The Eagles have an interesting schedule, too, as a win over the Texans, a team currently holding a one-game lead for the No. 2 spot in the AFC, could affect seeding in the AFC. A season-finale win over Washington could ultimately send the Redskins planning for offseason vacations.
The Cardinals are tied with the Oakland Raiders for the worst record in the league and are squarely in the race for the top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. While the team from Arizona has looked lost for a majority of the season — including Week 15, in a 40-14 beatdown at the hands of the Falcons — the Cardinals have an opportunity to shape the NFL playoff picture with a win in either of the final two games. Week 16’s matchup against the Rams could prove very tough when considering the Rams blanked the Cardinals 34-0 in Week 2 and Arizona lacks the firepower to match the Rams. The season finale, however, is a different story. In Week 4, the Seahawks and Cardinals played a tight 20-17 game, which Seattle won on a field goal as time expired. The Seahawks simply can’t afford to get knocked out by the woeful Cardinals.
The Giants can point the fingers at themselves for a dismal and disappointing season, but as the saying goes, misery loves company. And New York could add some friends to the group, given the final opponents. The Colts (8-6) are surging in the AFC and are positioned with the No. 7 seed behind the Ravens (8-6), but a loss at this crucial stage of the season will dampen postseason dreams. The Cowboys could still clinch the NFC East with a win over the Buccaneers in Week 16, but a loss leaves the door wide open for either the Eagles or Redskins to step in to set up a drama-filled Week 17 in the NFC East. The Giants are in position to affect the playoff picture if they desire to do it.
Proceed with extreme caution, Chicago and Los Angeles. The 49ers are currently playing spoiler, with two straight wins against the Broncos and Seahawks, so this is a hot team against quality opponents. The Bears clinched the NFC North for the first time since the 2010 season, but are in position to jump ahead of the Rams for the No. 2 spot if Chicago wins out and the Rams lose another game. Chicago would own the tie-breaker over L.A. based on the Week 14 win. The once-invincible Rams have lost two straight games, and suddenly find themselves in urgent need to fix issues before the postseason with the No. 1 seed potentially still in play in Week 17, depending on what happens between the Saints and Steelers in Week 16. And if there is an NFC team in a perfect spot to have a say in how the higher seeding will shape out ahead of January, it is definitely the 49ers.
Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope.