With three weeks left in the NFL season, the race for the playoffs is in full swing.
In the NFC, it feels like five of the six spots up for grabs have all but been decided. The Rams and Saints have already clinched their respective divisions, and the Cowboys and Bears both hold significant leads in theirs and show no signs of slowing down. Leading the charge for the first wild-card spot are the Seattle Seahawks, who have two more wins than any other team in the race.
Competing below them are five teams with a realistic shot at claiming the final playoff spot in the NFC.
Here, we break down the case each team has for potentially making a postseason run, the biggest thing standing in their way and the chances that 538 gives them of pulling it off.
Remaining schedule: vs. Dolphins, at Lions, vs. Bears
Chances of making the postseason: 57%
The case for the Vikings: Already in the lead
Thanks to their tie with the Packers earlier in the season, Minnesota has the advantage of already being a half-game ahead of the rest of the NFC for the final wild-card spot in the postseason.
Should the Vikings be able to match or better the record of every team below them for the final three weeks of the season, they’ll be through to the playoffs.
The case against the Vikings: Offensive dysfunction
Despite currently holding a playoff spot, the Vikings are still going through something of an upheaval — firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with just three weeks left in the season isn’t quite the sign of confidence you see in teams gearing up for a deep run in the playoffs.
Minnesota is averaging less than 13 points per game over their last four contests and has surpassed 300 yards of offense just once since Week 8. If they’re going to improve on their run to the NFC Championship last season, the Vikings will have to turn things around fast.
Remaining schedule: vs. Saints, vs. Falcons, at Saints
Chances of making the postseason: 9%
The case for the Panthers: SuperCam
Of the top four teams currently in the running for the final playoff spot in the NFC, Cam Newton is far and away the best quarterback still standing.
Through the first few weeks of the season, it looked like Newton was working towards another potential MVP season. Things have fallen apart since then, with the Panthers falling out of the top six in the NFC after dropping five straight games, but if Newton can flip the switch and start taking over again, Carolina still has a shot.
The case against the Panthers: The New Orleans Saints
The biggest hurdle standing between the Carolina Panthers and the postseason? The New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are currently the favorites to win the Super Bowl, and are particularly bothersome to their division rivals, have beaten the Panthers in four of their past five meetings. Further, there’s a good chance the Saints will still have something to play for in Week 17, as they will likely have to win out to ensure that the road to the Super Bowl goes through New Orleans.
With Carolina likely needing to be perfect to make it back to the postseason, beating the Saints twice in three weeks feels like a tall order.
Remaining schedule: at Rams, vs. Texans, at Redskins
Chances of making the postseason: 18%
The case for the Eagles: Hungry dogs run faster
The biggest thing the Eagles have going for them is the same thing that helped launch the team to their first Super Bowl win last season — expectations have all but evaporated.
With Carson Wentz looking unlikely to play on Sunday against the Rams and possibly out for the remainder of the season, Philadelphia will once again be led by Nick Foles into a series of must-win games.
We all know what happened last year. They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but you know, sometimes it does.
The case against the Eagles: The tough road ahead
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Foles won’t be able to get his sea legs back under him with a few practice games like he did last year before the start of his miraculous playoff run.
Foles and the Birds are being thrown right to the fire, with matchups against the Rams and Texans, two teams already bound for the playoffs. The Eagles are pretty likely to steal a wild-card spot if they can find a way to win out, but they have one of the toughest schedules left to be played.
Remaining schedule: at Jaguars, at Titans, vs. Eagles
Chances of making the postseason: 10%
The case for the Redskins: It can’t get any worse
Just a few weeks ago, Washington was well in control of their destiny. After Week 10, they held a two-game lead on the NFC East, with solid prospects of making the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Then disaster struck when Alex Smith broke his leg. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy would go down with an injury of his own soon after. The Redskins were forced to sign Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson after neither had thrown an NFL pass in years. Johnson was so new to the team that he resorted to playing Madden to help learn the names of his teammates.
The good news for Washington is that things can’t possibly get worse. After going down 40-0 to the Giants last weekend, they’ve already hit rock bottom. They can only go up from there, but how far up they can go remains to be seen.
The case against the Redskins: It could totally get worse
Unfortunately for Washington, while it doesn’t feel possible, things could get worse. Two freak accidents have already decimated the quarterbacks on their depth chart, and they’re just one more unfortunate fall away from signing EJ Manuel or TJ Yates.
Better luck next year.
Green Bay Packers
Remaining schedule: at Bears, at Jets, vs. Lions
Chances of making the postseason: 3%
The case for the Packers: Aaron Rodgers
We’ve seen it before.
In 2016, the Packers were a woeful 4-6 and looked on the brink of disaster, until Aaron Rodgers calmly said that Green Bay could just run the table and win the division. He did just that.
With Rodgers at the helm, you can’t count out the Packers until the math says it’s truly impossible.
The case against the Packers: They’re too far gone
Unfortunately for the Packers, even if they do run the table to get to 8-7-1 on the year, making the postseason is partly out of their hands — Rodgers and company will need every team above them to drop at least a game for them to sneak a spot in January.
No matter how brilliantly Rodgers plays down the stretch, if a team above them finds a way to win the rest of their games, it won’t be enough.
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