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Packers Destined To Make A Push At The North; Dissecting NFC Wild Card Race

Sam Spiegelman breaks down the NFC Wild Card race and which teams fans can expect to see in January based on strength of schedule.

Aaron Rodgers

There is plenty left to be decided in the NFC. While it is not nearly as involved or convoluted as it is in the AFC, three of four divisions remain very much up for grabs while the Wild Card may come down to those second-place finishers plus a handful of playoff hopefuls.

As of today, with nine weeks in the books, Arizona, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Orleans currently sit as the Nos. 1-4 seeds, respectively, with Dallas and Seattle in the No. 5 and 6 spots as Wild Card teams.

Green Bay is right on the outside looking in with a 5-3 mark, the same as Seattle’s, but the defending champs get the nod because of their Week 1 rout of the Packers. San Francisco is behind Green Bay at No. 8 with a 4-4 mark, while surprising Minnesota is not far behind at No. 9 with a 4-5 record. While the Vikings’ playoff chances are slim, they’re still ahead of the Panthers and Bears, Nos. 10 and 11, respectively, who were among the 2013 division winners and the pre-season favorites this year.

While Arizona looks to be the pure favorite out in the West, it’s apparent that only one of the Seahawks and 49ers can survive as a Wild Card team.

At 7-1, it’s the Cardinals’ division to lose this year, though the schedule doesn’t offer them any breaks. The Cards host the Lions before road games at Seattle and Atlanta. They also face playoff hopeful Kansas City before ending the year with Seattle and at San Francisco. It’s tough sledding, to say the least, but the Cardinals have navigated through a tough schedule already in the first half. Even if they come up short against Seattle once and lose another game or two, they’ll likely finish close to 12-4 or even 13-3, which could be good enough to hold onto the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

The defending champions have been one of the league’s biggest mysteries this season. Since trading Percy Harvin and hearing about rifts in the locker room surrounding Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, the team has looked very average. Still, at 5-3, they remain very much alive for a Wild Card spot. The Seahawks take on the Giants and Chiefs before big-time divisional games against Arizona and San Francisco. Then the champs have to go on the road against NFC East-leading Philadelphia before wrapping up their schedule with three NFC West games — against San Fran, at Arizona, and at home against St. Louis. Usually, you’d favor the Seahawks in the majority of these games, but it comes down to whether they play like champions as they did in Week 1 or allow the Raiders to nearly pull off a miracle comeback against them as they did in Week 9. With four home games in their back pockets, the Seahawks should close the year 5-3-ish, good for a 10-6 mark.

The 49ers were supposed to start the second half of the year with a renewed confidence. Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman were supposed be reinforcements on defense, helping to bring balance to the perennial NFC West contenders. However, the Niners were bested by the Rams late Week 9 and now sit at .500 on the year. They look to rebound on the road in New Orleans and at New York before hosting Washington and Seattle. They go back on the road to Oakland and Seattle before ending the year with games against San Diego and ‘Zona. That’s tough sledding for a team that’s had issues with consistency all season, and that spells a 4-4 or even 3-5 finish, and at or below .500 won’t cut it in this year’s NFC.

Seattle’s in. San Francisco’s out.

Onto the NFC North, where the surprising Lions sit atop the standings over the Packers, Vikings, and fourth-place Bears. This is not how we expected this division to play out back in August. The Lions hold just a one-game lead over the Pack, with one more meeting in the works. It’s a race that’ll not only decide the division winner and the Wild Card team, but the difference between a home or road playoff game.

Detroit has a fairly favorable slate ahead, especially with Calvin Johnson expected to return to the fold. The Lions face surging Miami before back-to-back road games at Arizona and New England. Then they face four favorable games in a row against the Bears (twice), Vikings, and Tampa before that much-hyped finale at Lambeau Field. Even if Detroit comes up 0-2 against the Cards and Pats, they should be able to finish the year 6-2 or 5-3, pending the outcome in the Green Bay game, and eventually 12-4 or 11-5.

The schedule plays out much more favorably for the Packers, who get Chicago and Philadelphia in their building the next two weeks. Then they get the Vikings before a trip to Foxborough, and finish the year with games against Atlanta, Buffalo, and Tampa before that game vs. Detroit. The breezy schedule should translate to 7-1 or 6-2, pending the Lions game, which should help the Packers make a push for the NFC North crown.

Regardless, both Green Bay and Detroit are playoff teams. It’s just a matter of which one gets the division title and which is stuck playing Wild Card Weekend.

In the NFC East, it’ll be a two-horse race between the first-place Eagles and surprising Cowboys, who have now lost two in a row. The Eagles have turned to backup quarterback Mark Sanchez to keep their division title hopes alive, as Nick Foles deals with a broken collarbone. The Cowboys should get Tony Romo back as soon as Week 10, as they try to overtake Philadelphia in the divisional standings.

The Eagles hold a half-game lead, but still have two meetings with Dallas down the stretch to decide the division. First up is a Monday Night showdown with reeling Carolina before a road trip to Green Bay. After a meeting with Tennessee, the Eagles get the Cowboys sandwiched around a showdown with Seattle. They end the year with games on the road at Washington and New York. It’s no question the Eagles have their work cut out for them. Even facing Cam Newton and sub-.500 Carolina in primetime is a test for Sanchez and this defense. Then factor in a three-game stretch against the defending champs and your biggest division rival this year. The Eagles should finish 11-5, assuming most things fall their way.

Can the Cowboys catch an 11-5 Eagles team? In projecting the end-of-the-year finish, we gave the Eagles and ‘Boys a win in their home stadiums. But Dallas gets a much easier road to try and catch those birds. Dallas opens Week 10 with Jacksonville and the Giants before a three-game span including two games with Philly and disappointing Chicago. They close the year with a game at home against Indy and at Washington. Assuming Romo is healthy and this Cinderella team continues its magical ride, the Cowboys should finish 5-2 and 11-5 overall.

If that’s the case, this division remains a toss-up, meaning either Philly or Dallas needs to sweep the series against the other. Wow. You’d have to lie on the side of the Eagles, the defending NFC East champions. However, the play of Sanchez is very much the deciding factor here.

Week 10 projections:

1. Arizona

2. Green Bay

3. Philadelphia

4. New Orleans

5. Detroit

6. Seattle

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