When the Seattle Seahawks fell 14-5 at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals saw a slim glimmer of hope that the NFC West may not be out of reach.
On Sunday evening, though, the Seahawks reasserted their dominance with a convincing win over the Carolina Panthers, improving to 8-3-1 with a 40-7 victory that kept Seattle's margin atop the division at a full three-game advantage.
To ensure a division crown, Seattle can finish the year 2-2 over its final four games to secure wins No. 9 and No. 10, which would put the Cardinals' hopes of stealing the division out of reach.
With games against the Packers, 49ers and Rams (as well as the Cardinals) still on the calendar, Seattle's odds of winning the division greatly increased after Sunday evening's result.
The Cardinals, however, received a great boost in their hopes of earning one of two NFC wildcard berths with their 31-23 win on Sunday over Washington.
At 5-6-1, Arizona still has plenty of work to be done, and may have to win all four of its remaining contests, but the Cardinals received help from a handful of other wildcard contenders that lost over the weekend.
All three NFC East teams chasing a wildcard berth --Washington, New York and Philadelphia -- dropped games on Sunday while the Falcons and Saints also suffered losses. Though Green Bay defeated Houston to improve to 6-6 and Tampa Bay upended San Diego to notch its seventh win of the season, the Cardinals are just 1.5 games out of the sixth spot in the NFC playoff picture because of the tie on their ledger.
If the season ended today, here's what the playoff picture would look like.
5. New York-8-4
6. Tampa Bay-7-5
9. Green Bay-6-6
12. New Orleans-5-7
While Arizona clearly has ground to make up from its spot as the 10th seed, the Cardinals now have tie-breaking victories over the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds, Tampa Bay and Washington, and can earn a tie-breaker over New Orleans when the teams meet on December 18th.
If the Cardinals were to win their final four games and finish 9-6-1, Arizona could theoretically earn the sixth seed in the playoffs so long as Tampa Bay doesn't finish 3-1 or better and or one of these teams --Washington, Minnesota or Green Bay-- doesn't finish 4-0 over its final four games.
The Cardinals' path to the playoffs becomes much more difficult if the team finishes the regular season 8-7-1 instead of 9-6-1, but there's still a possibility Arizona could sneak in and secure the sixth seed if the four teams listed ahead of the Cardinals all underperform down the stretch.
To earn the sixth seed in the playoffs at 8-7-1, Arizona would need Tampa Bay to lose three of its final four games, and it would need Washington, Minnesota and Green Bay to finish no better than .500 over their final four games.
That, of course, is a much taller order, so the Cardinals are much better off playing themselves into playoff contention with a five-game win streak to end the regular season.
There are also scenarios where Tampa Bay could finish the season on a hot streak and Atlanta could fall apart, but the Cardinals would prefer for the Falcons to win the NFC South because Atlanta holds a tie-breaker over Arizona while the Cardinals hold the tie-breaker over Tampa Bay.
At 5-6-1, the Cardinals are still a long shot to earn a playoff berth, but if Arizona can improve to 7-6-1 heading into a Christmas Eve showdown in Seattle, Bruce Arians' squad will have a much better chance of stunning the rest of the contenders in the NFC and finishing the season with the win streak it needed to jump into the postseason hunt.