Homestretch in Run for NFL Playoffs Getting Clearer

By Michael LoCoco
PSDC NFL Beat Writer

It’s hard to believe there are only three weeks of regular season football left. As the season draws to a close, more and more clarity is granted to the postseason picture. Each conference contains a dangerous red-hot Wild Card contender and both conferences feature mediocre divisions (the AFC South and NFC East). Let’s take a quick look at the postseason as we learn more and more from the regular season.

THE TWO MOST DANGEROUS POSTSEASON TEAMS

Photo Credit: Jason Bridge/USA Today Sports

It’s been a year of incredible parity in the NFL. It wasn’t until this weekend that teams really started to get sorted out in the playoffs and other clubs began to get eliminated. That also means that the difference in talent between the sixth seed and the first seed might be a lot less than usual. Maybe the Wild Card clubs had bad injuries. Maybe they played a tougher schedule. Maybe they just suffered rotten luck. Whatever the case may be, the old adage that you want to be the hot team going into the playoffs could certainly hold true again. For the two most dangerous teams in the postseason, that would certainly seem to be the hope.

There are two teams no one wants to face right now in January, the Steelers and the Seahawks. Both will likely end up Wild Cards, possibly the worst seed in each conference. They are also teams that are getting hot at the right time. Now to be clear, neither team in flawless. Seattle has incredible weakness on the offensive line and their battered running back corps, so long a strength for the Seahawks, is taking huge hits. The Steelers, for their part, can’t seem to defend anyone in the passing game. Ultimately, there is a reason these teams will be Wild Cards; they aren’t invincible. Still, both teams are blisteringly hot, and both teams are lighting it up through the air.

Over the past weeks, quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger can do no wrong. They are dropping bombs all over the field. Touchdown after touchdown, both teams have gotten hot by torching teams through the air. They are blowing out opponents left and right and no one wants to see that in December. After all, the Panthers or Patriots might be more balanced, but like a basketball team that can rain threes, a bomber squadron passing unit can get white-hot in an individual game and be almost impossible to stop. Early season struggles may make both teams road warriors for the entirety of the playoffs, but neither team should be considered a long-shot to play in Santa Clara.

NFC PLAYOFF FIELD BASICALLY SET

There is a bit of position jockeying to do yet in the NFC, but the results of yesterday’s games basically set the field in the NFC with only three weeks left. The NFC will send the Panthers, Cardinals, Packers, Vikings, and Seahawks into the playoffs along with whoever trips into January from the NFC East. The Bucs and Falcons had chances, but both teams lost yesterday essentially granting the two Wild Card spots in the NFC to the North and West.

Seeding is a bit more in flux, but the scenarios are quite straightforward. Carolina, barring a monumental collapse will be the first overall seed. The winner of the NFC East will be the fourth seed. The Cardinals will be the second seed provided they can beat Green Bay at home in Week 16 and not lose to anyone else before or after that (they do play the Seahawks in Week 17). That leaves the third seed and the Wild Card spots to sort out between Green Bay, Minnesota, and Seattle. The winner of the North will be the third overall seed. The loser will be a Wild Card. Green Bay has a tiebreaker win over Seattle and Seattle has a tiebreaker win over Minnesota. In essence, if Green Bay wins the division, Seattle is the likely five seed and if Minnesota wins the North, Seattle is the likely six seed.

While every team in the NFC will battle until they are officially eliminated, most of the drama of “who’s out, who’s in” is through for the NFC. Right now, it’s all about seeding.

SHOULD THE PANTHERS GO FOR IT?

I don’t like playing the what-if game, but if the Panthers beat the Giants this week, the calls are going to get incredibly loud with regard to whether or not the Panthers should go for the 16-0 record. With three games remaining, the Panthers need to win two of them to guarantee home-field advantage. They play the Giants then the Falcons and the Bucs. Both Atlanta and Tampa Bay were effectively eliminated this week. Neither team was competitive really against the Panthers before and there is no reason to think they would be now. The Giants are a streaky little club, but after their expected loss to the Panthers, Carolina will be staring perfection right in the eye.

Assuming that Arizona beats the Eagles, the Panthers will be forced to play hard against the Falcons. Assuming the team does get to 15-0 unscathed they will have wrapped up the first seed. Other than bragging rights, there is no need to play starters heavily in Week 17. Will they though? I’ve long been a proponent of not using fear of injury as a crutch to avoid this type of thing. Injuries happen, period. So few teams have the chance at perfection. The Panthers should take it. Yes, it’s “meaningless,” but the chance to go 19-0? The chance to be the undisputed best team ever? That’s worth the shot.

WHO I LIKE TONIGHT

Miami 24 New York Giants 18

This is a meaningless game for Miami while the Giants are fight for their playoff lives. That’s what is going to make it so much worse when the Giants lose. Goodbye Coach Coughlin.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @MichaelLoCocoWI

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