Every game counts. That's what you can say about the NFL playoffs as the races come into focus with six weeks to go. How's that you say? Well, the Saints opening loss to the Vikings right now stands as the tiebreaker for home field advantage, should it come to that, between the two teams even though it was way back in week one. Likewise, the Lions' heartbreaking loss to the Falcons early in the year could be a tiebreaker between those two teams for the final spot. A loss there by the Falcons would have them at 5-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs while the Lions would be 7-3 and this week's home game against the Vikings could help put one team in control of that division's race. Also, Monday's Falcons win at Seattle gives them the tiebreaker with Seattle should those two teams end in a tie at season's end.
That being said, the NFL schedule maker has certainly laid down the gauntlet for most of the NFC teams in the playoff spot facing each other - in some cases twice down the stretch.
The Eagles (9-1) actually have the easiest road. Not only are they already 9-1, but they have the easiest remaining schedule, only facing two teams that currently sport winning records - at Seattle and at the Rams. They would likely have to lose both of those AND have another top contender like the Saints or Vikings run the table to not end up with home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Likely finish 14-2, though they could drop to 13-3 if season ender against Cowboys is meaningless for them and they rest players.
The next easiest schedule falls to the Lions, who at 6-4, are looking at a solid shot at the playoffs. Win or lose against the Vikings on Thanksgiving, the Lions will then be at Baltimore (no easy task), but then face the Bucs, Bears, Bengals, and reeling Packers. Likely finish 10-6.
Here is the analysis of the other teams' remaining schedules.
Saints (8-2) – @Rams (7-3), Panthers (7-3), at Falcons (6-4), Jets (4-6), Falcons (6-4), @Tampa (4-6) Total record of opponents 34-26 Games against teams with winning records 4
*The criticism against the Saints is that most of their wins have come against lesser competition. Two of their toughest three games were the first two - at Minnesota and home against New England. They were drubbed in both games. Their most noteworthy win since then was the next week at Carolina. It isn't the Saints fault that a game at Green Bay was without Aaron Rodgers - AND, this is a much different team than the one that played the first two weeks. Having to face the Rams and Falcons on the road and the Panthers and Falcons at home, the Saints likely have the toughest stretch run other than Atlanta and the least margin for error. Likely finish 12-4, which won't likely be good enough for home field advantage and a bye (that loss to Minnesota looming large).
Panthers (7-3) – @Jets (4-6), at Saints (8-2), Vikings (8-2), Packers (5-5), Bucs (4-6), @Falcons (6-4) Opponents total record 35-25 Games against teams with winning records 3
*The suddenly surging Panthers have perhaps the best win of the group (at New England) and the worst loss (against the Bears). They are at the Saints in two weeks then home against the Vikings. Split those two and they'll be sitting pretty. Likely finish 11-5.
Falcons (6-4) – Bucs 4-6, Vikings (8-2), Saints (8-2), at Bucs (4-6), at Saints (8-2), Panthers (7-3) Opponent totals 39-21 Games against teams with winning records 4
*The Falcons have the the toughest road left. The win at Seattle was a must and they got it. They have to split these 4 games at worst - Vikings, Saints, at Saints, Panthers. Three are at home. Likely finish 10-6.
Vikings (8-2) – at Lions (6-4), at Falcons (8-2), at Panthers (7-3), Bengals (4-6), at Packers (5-5), Bears (3-7) Opponent totals 33-27 Games against teams with winning records 3
*Three straight on the road against playoff contenders will test their mettle. Even if they lost all 3, they'd likely win the last 3. Likely finish 12-4.
Rams (7-3) – Saints (8-2), at Cards (4-6), Eagles (9-1), at Seattle (6-4), at Titans (6-4), 49ers (1-9) Opponent totals 34-26 Games against teams with winning records 4
*The Rams have 4 games against teams in playoff contention, tepid home support and only a one-game lead on the playoff-savvy Seahawks. Likely finish 10-6.
Seattle (6-4) - @49ers (1-9), Eagles (9-1), at Jags (7-3), Rams (7-3), at Cowboys (5-5), Cards (4-6) Opponent totals 33-27 Games against teams with winning records 3
*Seattle has the most injury issues and home field is no longer the automatic W it used to be. In addition they'll be at Dallas when the Pokes have Elliott back. Likely finish 9-7
Eagles (9-1) – Bears (3-7), at Seattle (6-4), at Rams (7-3), at Giants (2-8), Raiders (4-6), Cowboys (5-5) Opponent totals 27-33 Games against teams with winning records 2
Detroit (6-4) - Vikings (8-2), at Ravens (5-5), at Bucs (4-6), Bears (3-7), at Bengals (4-6), Packers (5-5) Opponent totals 29-31 Games against teams with winning records 1
In short, anything can happen since almost all of these teams control their own destiny if they win the games against their playoff rivals. The most likely scenario is Philadelphia finishing with home field throughout. After that, it's up in the air. Minnesota has the inside road to the second seed, especially having beaten the Saints, but 3 straight on the road will test them. Carolina or Atlanta can catch the Saints, but both will likely have to win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to do so. The Lions have the easiest road left, but could be demoralized if they lose the next two, which are tough - and Atlanta has the tiebreaker. Seattle also has a manageable road, but may not be able to overcome its injuries.
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