It's too early to start writing down playoff scenarios, like: who has to beat whom to make the playoffs, which teams are a lock, which teams are on the outside, which games are critical etc. But the fascinating thing about this year is that there are no teams that have elevated themselves way above the rest of the league, which has some interesting consequences. First, the playoff races will probably go down to the wire and even more so, the seeding in each conference will not be settled for a while either. Last year the Colts were undefeated and gave the Jets their playoff life by pulling their starters in the 15th game of the season. That is not likely to happen this year, although it is possible that the Falcons could pull away a bit because of their schedule. In the NFC, only one of the playoff contenders, Falcons, has 9 wins. Only two, Saints and Bears, have 8 wins and four other teams, Giants, Eagles, Packers and Buccaneers have 7 wins. Making this more interesting is that the very weak NFC West does not have a team over .500 so they will contribute only their division winner to the playoffs and do not have a team that will compete for the wild card. Confusing the actual playoff picture is how many games there are left between these playoff contenders themselves.
Everyone is now anointing the Falcons as the cream of the crop in the NFC, but there is something that should be considered in this analysis. There are a few principles that we need to consider when it comes to analyzing the strength of these teams and the "power rankings". First is the hallowed Parcells-ism: "you are what your record says you are". Even though I understand that and I accept it, you still have to realize that a team wins when it plays a team that is weaker than it is. And even though you can't control the schedule, a team will have a better record when it plays a whole schedule of weaker teams than it would if it played a schedule of strong teams. This is not rocket science, it kind of borrows from the BCS method and considers strength of schedule when considering bowl invitations and national championships in college football.
The other principle we have to be aware of is: it's not who you play, it's when you play 'em. Just look at the Dallas Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans or the Indianapolis Colts for examples. Would you rather have played the Cowboys when Phillips was coaching them and they were 1-7 or when Garrett is coaching them, they have a brief revival and are 2-1 since he took over? For the Titans, would you rather have played them earlier in the year when Vince Young and Kerry Collins were both healthy or now when they don't have a QB to send out on the field? Would you rather have played the Colts in week 2 when the Giants played them or now after they have sent 11 players to IR? Of course every team has its ups and downs during the season and its waves of injuries, and it is fortune and the NFL schedule maker that lines your team up against another on a particular week of the NFL season, but it still influences whether you win or lose.
In that context, when you look at the NFC this year, you see three fairly strong divisions and one really weak one. The NFC North has the strong Packers and Bears plus a talented but dysfunctional Vikings. The NFC South has three strong teams in the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers. The NFC East is similar to the NFC North in that it has two good teams in the Giants and Eagles along with one talented but somewhat dysfunctional team in the Cowboys. (It is interesting that the only two NFL teams to fire coaches in mid-season are these two teams that I characterized as dysfunctional, flawed might be a better description, but the two teams coincidentally both won playoff games last year.) The NFC West is weak with the division winner possibly coming in with a losing record.
The reason I bring this up is that the NFC South played the NFC West this year, while the NFC East and NFC North played each other. The record of the NFC South against the West is 9-2, with even the lame Panthers getting their only win of the year against the West. Each of the 3 South teams in the playoff hunt has one game left against the West which you can probably chalk up as a win and a leg up in the playoff race. I know "you are what your record says you are", but strength of schedule counts. I'm just saying.
There are so many inter-playoff-contender games that it's not possible to say who really has the advantage now. Falcons have two left against the Panthers and one against the Seahawks, so that definitely puts them in strong position to get to at least 12 wins, a high playoff seed and a bye.
Looking at the Giants schedule, they have 3 winnable games on their schedule. Plain and simple: they have to win them. The tougher games (Eagles and Packers) will also go along way to determine if they make the playoffs. We will know a lot more about the Giants chances after this weekend and yet more after next weekend. We will do some analysis each week to see how the NFC playoff picture unfolds.