Welcome to the weird times.
A week ago, the football world thought it knew everything and saw it all coming. The Saints were an indestructible, historic offense, capable of burning Super Bowl champion secondaries and record books with equal aplomb. Chicago’s “Monsters of the Midway” redux could withstand an injury to Mitchell Trubisky. The veteran Colt McCoy could get the job done in D.C. The Vikings were on a straight path to the playoffs, having just slayed the Packers. And speaking of Green Bay … Worry not, Aaron Rodgers had a plan!
All that’s gone now. All those thoughts and projections: rolled-up rubbish. New Orleans is fallible. Chicago, too. Mark Sanchez is relevant, Minnesota is wavering and Mike McCarthy is outta here.
There remains one, just one constant in the National Football Conference: Aaron Donald is good at the sacking. Like, really good.
As the NFC playoff picture grows murkier, Week 14 offers a quartet of matchups that could help clear up this mess of a conference: New York at Washington; Philadelphia at Dallas; Los Angeles at Chicago; Minnesota at Seattle.
Below, I diagram how we should look at each of those matchups and the races they affect — and what each result could mean for the teams involved.
The rest, as Pro Football Hall of Famer Natasha Bedingfield once said, is still unwritten.
Here’s how things stand in the, er, standings:
In the hunt:
Bye, Bye, Bye
It’s lonely at the top of the NFC. The Rams and Saints are far and away the favorites to seal first-round byes in the conference, given their current records and remaining strength of schedule. Four games ahead of Carolina in the South, New Orleans has the Bucs, Steelers and Panthers (twice) left to play. The fightin’ fleurs-de-lis can clinch the division this Sunday. L.A. locked up its second consecutive NFC West title last week and have just one game remaining on the schedule against an opponent with an above-.500 record: this Sunday night in Chicago. If L.A. bests the Bears, it will secure a first-round bye.
Speaking of those Bears, they sit just behind that dominant duo in the standings. Before Mitchell Trubisky suffered his shoulder injury against Minnesota, Chicago was surging up in the polls and close to contending for a bye. But the Bears’ loss in East Rutherford with Chase Daniel at the helm put them in a precarious position. Trubisky could return this week, but if Chicago drops to 8-5 with a loss to the Rams, the Bears will all but fall out of contention for a bye. Worse, they will also lose their grip on the NFC North race. Minnesota is 1.5 games behind Chicago entering Week 14, and the two face off in the season finale, potentially with the division and/or a playoff berth on the line. To avoid such a fate, the Bears need to win Sunday. The best-case scenario: A Chicago victory coupled with a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay — improbable, but hey, it happened in Week 1 — would pull the Bears within one game of a bye.
Let’s Get Wild Card
Back to those Vikings. Kirk Cousins‘ crew is also at risk of losing ground in the NFC North and the wild-card race if the Vikes fall in Seattle on Monday night. The critical clash between the two teams currently slotted into the NFC’s wild-card slots pits two pedigreed coaches and quarterbacks against one another in prime time. It’s a tasty prove-it match that affects Minnesota’s chances at playing postseason football more than Seattle’s.
The surging Seahawks have won three in a row behind an improved running game and secondary. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Seattle (7-5), just one game ahead of desperate also-rans, now has a 93.5 percent chance(!) to make the playoffs. That’s because the ‘Hawks finish with three games at the CLink and with two games against lottery teams in San Francisco and Arizona. Snag your wild-card tix while they’re cheap, 12s.
Meanwhile, following losses to playoff contenders New England, Chicago and New Orleans over the last five games, Minnesota (6-5-1) needs a victory in enemy territory to stay above the fray in the NFC wild-card race. Only a Week 2 tie with the Packers — thanks, Clay Matthews — separates the Vikings from the 6-6 Panthers, Eagles and Redskins. (The 5-7 Buccaneers are technically alive, but are they really?) Despite a crowded wild-card crew and a sneaky-tough end of year stretch (MIA, at DET, CHI), Minnesota has a 67.9 percent shot at making the dance, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Vikes’ odds will obviously change for the worse if they lose on Monday evening.
NFC East Round Robin
If you find yourself in these final weeks of the season tiring of highly touted NFC East matchups between average-to-mediocre sides, welp, too bad. The East is a three-team race entering Week 14, with Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington separated by one game; the Giants are on life support at 4-8, but one more loss and they’re through. The Acela corridor is still where it’s at.
The course of the division could very well be decided this Sunday. In the most important intra-divisional game of the year, Philly travels to Dallas to try to pull even with the ‘Boys atop the East. The Cowboys topped the Eagles just four weeks ago in their first meeting, so if they sweep Philly on Sunday, the ‘Boys will enter the final three games of the season with essentially a three-game lead over the Eagles. NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund astutely pointed out this week that if Philly wins, their probability to make the playoffs is 54 percent. If the Iggles lose? Just 25 percent. TL;DR: Issa big deal.
Elsewhere in the division in Week 14, the Redskins host New York in Landover with their third-string quarterback under center. Back by popular demand in my household — and necessity in Washington’s — Mark Sanchez will play a pivotal role over the next four weeks in the divisional and wild-card races in the NFC. Mark Travis John Sanchez, he who “led” the New York Jets to two consecutive AFC Championship Games in his first two NFL seasons, only to be cast off years later as a backup/bench coach and remembered by simpletons as a butt fumbler. He is the man who will be tasked, in the absence of Alex Smith and Colt McCoy, to lead D.C. back to the postseason. At minimum, the 6-6 ‘Skins will need to split their final four against NYG, JAX, TEN and PHI to have a shot at reaching the dance. A loss to New York on Sunday would likely doom those chances. But a win, spurred on by a written-off former first-round pick, could jump-start a wonderful redemption story in the swamp.
Four weeks ago, the thought of putting the Panthers and Buccaneers in the same playoff-picture category would have never crossed my mind. But things have changed below the Mason-Dixon. Carolina is in the midst of a four-game losing streak and is primed to surrender the NFC South to the Saints before even playing them once. Rumors abound that changes are coming to Carolina’s front office and coaching structure. Cam Newton‘s shoulder isn’t cooperating. They are currently out of the postseason, and a loss to Cleveland on Sunday would devastate their chances (currently 14.1 percent, according to ESPN).
The Bucs have even slimmer hopes of making it (1.1, via ESPN). At 5-7, they’d have to win out against the Saints, Ravens, Cowboys and Falcons (gulp) and hope for collapses from every six-win team above them. So, yeah, their first playoff season since ’07 is unlikely and the Dirk Koetter era looks to be coming to an end. But Tampa Bay has been playing its best ball of the season of late, with Jameis Winston back under center, and last Sunday’s win over the aforementioned Panthers muddied the waters in the NFC for Carolina and everyone involved. With three games left against playoff contenders, might the Bucs play spoiler and sink some ships along the way?
Back of the Pack
Mike McCarthy’s firing says it all. The Packers are packing it in. No longer in the echelon of contenders like Los Angeles, New Orleans or even Chicago, Green Bay now has company among this year’s chronic losers. Joe Philbin’s Packers join the Falcons, Giants, Lions, Cardinals and 49ers as teams assuredly out of the playoff picture. Mathematically, Green Bay still has a 2.7 percent chance to see January, according to ESPN, but those are longshot odds even Aaron Rodgers couldn’t will into existence with a pithy catchphrase. Let me put it this way for those cheeseheads still in denial: With four weeks left in the season, the Packers are closer to the top overall pick in a 32-team draft (10th) than they are to being the best team in a 16-team conference (11th). Nighty night.
Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.