Painting a playoff picture
With two weeks left in the regular season, John Clayton looks at the wild-card contenders and how it might shake out.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, it's time to take another look at the teams still in the wild-card hunt. What do their remaining schedules look like, and how will the races shake out?
• Dallas Cowboys (9-5): The Cowboys are in the playoffs. Now, it's a matter of whether they head into the playoffs as NFC East champions or as a wild-card team. If they lose to the Eagles on Monday, they'll fall behind Philadelphia in the NFC East standings. The ace in the hole is the Cowboys' final game against the Lions. Detroit visits Dallas in Week 17, and most of the Lions' top players are on injured reserve or have already started scheduling their postseason vacations. Because they lost to the Saints two weeks ago, the Cowboys now need to win their last two games and New Orleans to lose at least one of its last two (against the Giants and Carolina Panthers) to get the No. 2 seed and a week off. The Saints need one more win and one more Dallas loss to be the NFC's second seed. So the Cowboys still have a shot as long as they beat the Eagles on Monday.
• Seattle Seahawks (8-6): The Seahawks are trying to back their way into the playoffs. They've needed just one win to clinch the NFC West for the past two weeks but have stumbled, losing to the Cardinals and 49ers. If they lose their final two games, they might blow a three-game lead in the final month of the season, which would be a huge embarrassment. The Seahawks have a tough one Sunday against the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson. If they lose and San Francisco wins, the Seahawks will be forced to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs on New Year's Eve to ensure winning the division. Thoughts of getting the No. 2 seed have slipped away. Now, the Seahawks are scrambling for their playoff lives.
• Philadelphia Eagles (8-6): What a great comeback the Eagles are making. They lost Donovan McNabb and the season looked over. But Jeff Garcia has won his last three starts and suddenly the Eagles are challenging the Cowboys for the NFC East title. Even if they don't beat the Cowboys on Monday, the Eagles still have a good chance of getting the top wild-card spot. They have a 7-3 conference record and their final game is against the Falcons at home. What the Eagles want is justice. Terrell Owens tore apart their locker room last year. The chance to beat out Owens' Cowboys for the NFC East title has them flying.
• New York Giants (7-7): Maybe I'm crazy, but I still think the Giants will make it as a wild card. It's a hard case to make, though. They have lost five of their last six games. They take too many dumb penalties. They finish with a home game against the Saints and a road game against the Redskins. Both are winnable games. Winning those games would give them an 8-4 conference record, increasing their chances of beating any other 9-7 teams if it comes down to tiebreakers.
• Atlanta Falcons (7-7): Face it, the Falcons have to win their last two games to get into the playoffs. They should be able to handle Carolina on Sunday at home. But they'll still need a win against the Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 17 to make the playoffs. Working against them are two things. First, they have five conferences losses and they lose the tiebreaker to the Giants, who beat them 27-14 on Oct. 15. Second is their inconsistency. Winning two games in a row has been tough for them.
• Green Bay (7-8): Talk about long shots. The Packers are 7-8 and giving up almost 24 points a game, and they still have a chance to make the playoffs. Welcome to the NFC. Sure, it would be nice for Brett Favre to add another playoff trip to his résumé. Getting to the playoffs could persuade him to come back for another season. The Packers visit the Bears next week, and beating even the Bears' backups would be tough.
• San Francisco (6-8): The 49ers should challenge Seattle for the NFC West title next year, but they have an outside shot of catching them this year if the Seahawks continue their collapse. The Niners swept the Seahawks, giving them the tiebreaker if the two teams end up tied at 8-8. Even if the 49ers win this weekend, it's hard to see them beating the Broncos in Week 17.
• Carolina Panthers (6-8): It's over. Considered the trendy choice to go to the Super Bowl, the Panthers didn't growl this year. They've lost four in a row and they lose a couple starters a week to injury. This week it was Mike Wahle and Mike Rucker. They close the season on the road in Atlanta and New Orleans. It's over.
• St. Louis Rams (6-8): How are they still alive? They were swept by the Seahawks. They are 2-4 in the NFC West. They've lost six conference games. They finish with a home game against the Redskins and a road trip to Minnesota. Getting to 8-8 might be great, but even that probably won't be enough to get them into the postseason.
• Denver Broncos (8-6): Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler and the Broncos will be headed to the playoffs if they can beat the Bengals Sunday and follow that up with a home win against the 49ers. Even if the Broncos make the playoffs and lose in the wild-card round, Mike Shanahan will have given his quarterback of the future a taste of postseason football.
• Cincinnati Bengals (8-6): From the very beginning, Marvin Lewis knew this wasn't going to be an easy season. He had the AFC's toughest schedule. Eight of his players have been arrested in the past year. His linebacking corps has been ravaged at times with injuries. He's been without as many as three starting offensive linemen at times. And it doesn't get easier. He probably needs wins at Denver and against the Steelers to make the playoffs.
• Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6): Poor Jack Del Rio. On Sunday, the Jaguars face their second-toughest opponent at home, the 10-4 Patriots. Tom Brady isn't happy he didn't make the Pro Bowl. After that it's the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, never an easy game. You just get the feeling the Jaguars will fall a game or a tiebreaker short of the playoffs, even though they are a playoff-caliber team.
• New York Jets (8-6): The NFL's Cinderella team broke one of its glass slippers by losing to the Bills two weeks ago. Monday's game against the Dolphins in Miami is a must-win game. If they win, they could make it to the playoffs at 10-6 with a win over the Raiders in Week 17. Playing the Raiders is everyone's favorite Christmas present.
• Buffalo Bills (7-7): Hey, they probably aren't going to make the playoffs, but they are back on the map. The Dick Jauron-Marv Levy combo has turned things around. J.P. Losman is looking like a good, young quarterback. The defense is getting better. Sunday's home game against the Titans will be tough, and Week 17 against the Ravens will be tougher. At least it's been a season of progress.
• Tennessee Titans (7-7): Ah, to be Young again. Vince Young is 7-4 as a starting quarterback and is making a Ben Roethlisberger-type of run to the playoffs. Sure, the Titans aren't going to do better than 9-7, but it's been an amazing ride. They need to beat the Bills to at least assure a non-losing season. In Week 17, they play the Patriots, and if New England beats the Jaguars, it might rest some starters.
• Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7): The Steelers hate to be considered spoilers, but they can do some damage in the AFC North. They host the Ravens on Sunday and visit the Bengals in Week 17. They have six conference losses and are likely to finish in third place in the AFC North. Their six conference losses kill them in tiebreakers. Still, it's a matter of pride, and the Steelers are making a strong finish to set up next season.
• Kansas City (7-7): Or should that be 8-7? The Chiefs play the Raiders on Saturday night, which is as good as a win. Larry Johnson wants to get more carries to get the team into the playoffs. He already leads the league with 352 rushing attempts and needs 58 to tie Jamal Anderson's NFL record. Unless the Chiefs jump to a three-touchdown lead early against the Raiders and want to rest their starters, Johnson may get to 410 carries.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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