While the 49ers celebrate the end of their decade-long playoff drought, the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals sit at 5 - 7 following home "upset" victories this week, and find themselves only two games out of the post-season.
In the way? Well, other than their own inconsistency - and the unfortunate fact that you have to play road games in the NFL - only four 7 - 5 teams and a 6 - 6 team.
Two of those teams come from the NFC East, which looks more and more determined to go to whichever team chokes the least. The Cowboys' schedule is slightly more favorable, and they have a one game lead; but never underestimate Romo's ability to fall flat on his face in December (9 and 13, career). Luckily for him, Eli Manning (14 and 18) also loves to just-almost-but-not-quite make the playoffs by losing in the final month of the year. And luckily for both of them, one of their two teams has to win the division unless the Eagles or Redskins win out and get a lot of help.
Say what you want about the 49ers - we lost to Dallas early in the season in overtime in a game we arguably should have won, and we did not show up to play against an elite Baltimore squad on the road during a short week; but San Francisco deserves the #2 seed if for no other reason than that they haven't (yet) choked.
Giant's remaining schedule: at Cowboys; vs. Redskins; at Jets; vs. Cowboys
The Buccaneers are toast, and it would be awesome for the Niners to take credit for that (why not?). Could Tampa Bay beat Dallas? Sure. But I do not see it happening, even against Romo in December. The Eagles might be a different story. Dallas could go 1 - 3 and still take the division, but they will be happy instead to beat the Bucs and take at least one game from New York.
The Giants will need to go 3 - 1, or 2 - 2 with both wins coming against Dallas, in order to take the division (along with some outside help). I do not see either scenario happening. In fact, they'll probably lose this next Sunday to Dallas and put away any doubt. I could see them going 2 - 2 overall, but I don't think that will be enough to take the division.
Either way, whoever does not win the East will have, at best, an 8 - 8 record. The Seahawks hold a tiebreaker over the Giants, and the Cardinals hold one over Dallas - so they will each be rooting for the other to take the division.
We also find two viable Wild Card teams in the NFC North.
The Detroit Lions looked viable early, at least, until tough, back-to-back home losses to San Francisco and Atlanta shifted their Cinderella clock to midnight. Now, in retrospect, it's easy to blame the handshake incident and the in-game tussles on Schwartz and his squad, seeing as how half the roster is full of trouble-makers and trash-talkers. The Lions love to get in your face when you lose or make mistakes, and they also like to kick you while your down. Their season is in the middle of an implosion thanks in part to their schedule getting tougher, but also because their disciplinary foundation seems... uhh, lacking?
Neck-and-neck with them are the Chicago Bears, who were playing like a very dangerous team through the second and third quarters of the season and would have easily grabbed the #5 seed; but an injury to Cutler cost them this week at home against the Chiefs, and now with Forte out they are in deep trouble.
Bear's remaining schedule: at Broncos; vs. Seahawks; at Packers; at Vikings
If I had written this part before Monday night, I would have given the Lions the benefit of the doubt against San Diego; but not so much now that it appears Rivers and company have had their typical December realization: "Hey, we're in the AFC West. Even we have a chance in this division!" The Vikings are beatable, especially at Ford Field, but I think Detroit loses the other three. If they get really, really lucky, Green Bay will let 'em off the hook Week 17, but something tells me Detroit "dun' gone made it personal" against the Pack, and will pay for it by sitting at home this January.
While Detroit's devil-worshiping ways will cost them their season, people in Chicago need to start praying to the Gridiron Gods - immediately. That's 'cuz Tebowmania is gonna run wild next week in Denver as the Broncos find themselves atop the AFC West, and will be fighting harder than ever to stay there. They get a break the following week, having to play Seattle in Chicago, but don't be surprised to see lines in Seattle's favor. They'll follow that with a loss to the Packers, and it will be too late to do much of anything come Week 17 at Minnesota.
So I honestly do not see either of these teams finishing better than 8 - 8. Detroit has a better chance of sneaking to 9 - 7 if they can get their [site decorum] together, but I wouldn't bet on it.
In the South, the Saints are running away with the division, sitting one game behind the 49ers for the NFC's #2 seed. Behind New Orleans sits Atlanta with a 7 - 5 record. Their remaining schedule is favorable, which will help them put up better efforts than they did against Houston.
I think Atlanta has the best chance to get to 9 wins. It would be hard to imagine a scenario where they don't win at least two of their remaining games. Ignoring the Saints, their opponents present a combined 11 - 25 record, and they face two of them at home.
Personally, I hope the Giants, Bears, Lions, and Falcons all lose next week; and Seattle wins. That will make things blatantly interesting, and the NFL network will have to start including Seattle in its Wild Card discussions.
Which brings us to Arizona and Seattle here in the West.
Seahawk's remaining schedule: vs. Rams; at Bears; vs. 49ers; at Cardinal
I'm saying that 8 - 8 will be good enough for that sixth seed, but it will be crowded. If we assume both the Cardinals and Seahawks lose to San Francisco (which is not a give-in, but it is the biggest test remaining for both teams), then they will need to win their other three to get to .500, which is impossible because they play each other the last game of the year.
Some of you, here, are probably thinking, "If Seattle wins the next two, they will be on fire come Week 16 at home; and could very well pose a threat to us." That would be true except that there is a huge black mark on Carroll's college career at USC, and it reads: "Jim Harbaugh".
Therefore, barring one of these guys beating the Niners, only one can get to 8 - 8 and have a shot at the playoffs. Between the two, I think Seattle has the best chance. If they get there, and have help around the NFC, they can hold the tie-breaker over New York and Chicago (who they will have defeated Week 15) as well as Detroit due to overall conference record. Believe it or not, if all three of these teams go 8 - 8, which is totally possible, Seattle will rise above them all and make the playoffs. Even if somehow Atlanta goes 8 - 8 (or Dallas, for that matter) Seattle will hold the conference record tie-breaker over them as well.
Of course, wouldn't it be funny if both Atlanta and Detroit and/or New York get to 9 - 7, and Seattle gets to 8 - 8 only to miss the playoffs? How ironic that only a year ago 7 - 9 was golden. That might be some kind of record, even: the first playoff team to improve upon their record the following year, but miss the playoffs.
Random fact: the NFC West has the lone distinction of having won a playoff game in each of the last 7 post-seasons, including 8 of 9 since the re-alignment. At the very least, San Francisco will have the honor of representing the oft under-estimated West this January. Will the 'Hawks or Cards join them?
What do ya'll think?
Year of post-season play - Teams that won at least one post-season game (NFC - AFC)
2011 - Green Bay, Chicago / Seattle - Jets / Baltimore, Pittsburgh
2010 - Dallas / Minnesota / New Orleans / Arizona - Jets / Baltimore / Indianapolis
2009 - Philadelphia / Arizona - Baltimore, Pittsburgh / San Diego
2008 - Giants / Green Bay / Seattle - New England / Jacksonville / San Diego
2007 - Philadelphia / Chicago / New Orleans / Seattle - New England / Indianapolis
2006 - Washington / Carolina / Seattle - New England / Pittsburgh / Denver
2005 - Philadelphia / Minnesota / Atlanta / St. Louis - New England, Jets / Pittsburgh/ Indianapolis
2004 - Philadelphia / Green Bay / Carolina - New England / Indianapolis, Tennessee
2003 - Philadelphia / Atlanta, Tampa Bay / San Francisco - Jets / Pittsburgh / Tennessee / Oakland