Coming off of the Bears' win over the San Diego Chargers, even the most pessimistic Chicago fans thought that the good guys were a lock for a wild card spot. With tie-breakers over two of our biggest competitors for the two spots - the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons - and riding high on a five-game win streak, it looked to be a sure thing. One broken thumb and three losses later, and the Bears have finally fallen out of playoff position. But is all hope lost? Follow me below the fold to get a breakdown of the NFC Wild Card race and to place your bets on which NFC teams have a chance of moving on to the playoffs. Onwards!The Lovie Smith mantra has always been "10 wins gets us into the playoffs," but if there was one year when nine and a lot of luck could get the job done, this is it. Here's the current field of teams still in the hunt, along with their remaining games and my best guess at how things will shake out for them.
Atlanta Falcons (8-5)
We'll have a better idea of where the Falcons will be sitting in about 26 hours, as they have what should be an easy home game against the Jaguars tomorrow night. While Matt Ryan has posted as many home losses this season (2) as he has over the rest of career combined, it's hard to see the Jaguars doing us any favors despite a banged-up Atlanta defense. After getting to rest up from tomorrow until next Monday, the Falcons will take their show on the road to New Orleans for a Monday night divisional match-up. I would certainly favor the Saints in that game, but with the Saints already having locked up a playoff spot, it's hard to say how hard they will be trying. The two things that say Saints will be giving it their all is that they can still get a first-round bye if they keep on winning and that would love to put a dent in their division rival's playoff chances. Atlanta closes out with a home game against Tampa Bay, another game that has some upset potential: the Falcons did lose to Tampa Bay earlier in the season. Still, Matt Ryan being Matt Ryan, I think he'll find a way to get it done at home.
Prediction: 10-6, #5 Seed
Detroit Lions (8-5)
If there's one team on this list that just might lose out, this would be my pick. After squeaking out their first win in three games against the lowly Vikings, Detroit is in Oakland this week and closes out with two home games against the Chargers and Packers. The Chargers might be their best chance at a win, as the Packers have shown no signs of letting up despite having already locked up the #1 seed. Detroit had a nice run going early in the season, but they have looked more like their old selves as the season has gone on. Maybe the Lions find a way to continue righting the ship, but everything I have seen out them recently points towards a late-season slide.
My prediction: 9-7, with a personal foul for creating unnecessary hope.
New York Giants (7-6)
Speaking of teams that just might lose out, we turn to the Giants. They play their easiest game of their last three this week against the Redskins, but good ol' Rex Grossman was able to beat the Giants in Week 1 at the Meadowlands. Knowing Rex, he might just do it again despite two of his better offensive players - LT Trent Williams and TE Fred Davis - spending the rest of their seasons on the bench thanks to their love of drugs. In any case, the Giants finish their season "away" against the Jets and at home against the Cowboys. None of those teams like the Giants very much, and I don't particularly like the Giants versus any of those teams. The Giants were able to hang around with the Packers and did end a four-game skid by beating out the Dallas Cowboys last week, but a team that is 1-4 in their last five can't be a playoff favorite. I think they'll even the series against the Redskins with a win this week, but with the Jets making their inevitable late-season run and the Cowboys eager for revenge and a Division title, it'll be rough sailing from there.
My Prediction: 8-8, with Eli getting a chance to watch the playoffs with Payton.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
While I can't believe that I'm actually writing this right now, I think Dallas is the favorite to win the NFC East and move out of the Wild Card picture entirely. With a chance to hand Tampa Bay their eighth loss in a row this week and another home game against the Eagles after that, Dallas can cruise into the Meadowlands in Week 17 with the chance to win and be in. While Jason Garrett has done his best Wade Phillips impersonation these last couple weeks, the Cowboys have all the tie-breakers they need to overtake the Giants with a Week 17 win even if they stumble against the Eagles. The best scenario for the Bears would be for both the Cowboys and the Giants to go 1-1 in their next two, since two 8-7 teams duking it out for a division would leave the door wide open for a 9-7 team to take a playoff spot. While it would be unwise to underestimate the ability of the Cowboys to fold under pressure, a soft schedule and an injury-depleted Giants gives them the edge in the East.
My prediction: 10-6, NFC East Champions
You could also include the Seahawks and the Cardinals, both sitting at 6-7, but it would be a real stunner for two NFC West teams to make it to the playoffs. Still, their Week 17 game against each other could end up being an interesting one if both teams win their next two. The Seahawks, however, are likely to stumble against the 49ers, who would very much like to win and beat out New Orleans for a playoff bye. The Cardinals have a bit easier road, with games against the Browns and at Cincinnati, but, at the end of the day, they are still the Cardinals. Plus, the various tie-breakers (divisional record and strength-of-schedule) that would come into effect if either team was at 9-7 and tied for a playoff seed would leave them on the outside. If the Bears need a miracle to get into the playoffs, these two teams would need a double-miracle with a cherry on top.
That brings us to our lowly Bears, who are still very much in the picture despite Marion Barber's best efforts to the contrary. But, as you can see, the door is still open for the Bears to sneak into the playoffs as a #6 seed. With an ugly win this week, the inevitable loss in Green Bay, and the glorious return of Jay Cutler in the Twin Cities to close it out, the Bears would be at 9-7 and still hold enough of a lead in the divisional win column and strength-of-schedule to get it done over the rest of the playoff hopefuls. The Bears, who proved last season they could get it done against the Seahawks, have to come up with a win this week to stay in the hunt. With that win, though, they will be very much in the playoff picture- it's not all doom and gloom just yet. Let's just hope that the Bears can at least wait for someone better than Tavaris Jackson to put the final nail in their coffin.