Giants clinging to playoff thread

<P>The Giants smoothed out one bump on the road to a repeat Super Bowl berth by beating the Cardinals Saturday, Dec. 15. Big Blue was just one victory shy of the team holding the inside track to the conference's final playoff berth and still had an outside shot at the NFC East title. </P>

However, it won't be easy for New York even to reach the postseason. To win the division title, it would have to win its final three games while the Eagles were losing their final three. To gain the final wild card, the Giants would have to climb over three other teams – Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

Surprisingly, it might be easier to make up a three-game deficit on the Eagles than to overtake all the teams within a game of New York.

Next up for the Giants is a winnable home game against Seattle. By that time, the division race would be over if Philadelphia won at San Francisco Saturday, Dec. 22. But that is a difficult opponent for the Eagles.

The next week, Dec. 30, Big Blue could move within a game with a win at Philly. On the final weekend, the Giants will be back home against Green Bay while the Eagles travel to Tampa Bay. Fortunately for the Giants, all three teams on the next rungs of the playoffs ladder will be playing teams with a combined winning record.

Unfortunately, New York's final three opponents have a better record than any of the others' foes. Complicating matters, Big Blue was one win New Orleans and Tampa Bay, and had a tiebreaker advantage over only New Orleans. Atlanta has a tiebreaker because of a better conference record than the Giants. The Bears were the first NFC team to clinch a postseason berth, by defeating the Bucs. Chicago had a spot in the playoffs. The Bears had tiebreaker advantages over Atlanta, and Tampa Bay, two of the three teams with seven victories that could finish with the same record as Chicago.

In position 1. St. Louis (11-2), the NFC West leader. The first seed would have a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Games remaining: at Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta, combined record 12-27.

2. *Chicago (10-3), first in the NFC Central. The second seed would have a first-round bye and the home field for at least a Divisional Playoff. Remaining: at Washington, at Detroit, Jacksonville, combined record 12-27.

3. Philadelphia (9-4), leading the NFC East. The third seed would host a Wild Card Game, and the NFC Championship Game if the top two seeds were eliminated. Remaining: at San Francisco, Giants, at Tampa Bay, combined record 23-16.

4. *San Francisco (10-3). A wild card can't move ahead of a division winner even if the wild card has a better record. The fourth seed would host a Wild Card Game, and the NFC Championship Game only if the top three seeds had been eliminated. Remaining: Philadelphia, at Dallas, at New Orleans, combined record 20-18.

5. Green Bay (9-4). The only chance a fifth seed would have to host a playoff game would be if it advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the sixth seed. Remaining: Cleveland, Minnesota, at Giants, combined record 17-22.

6. New Orleans (7-6). The sixth seed cannot host a playoff game. Remaining: at Tampa Bay, Washington, San Francisco, combined record 23-16.

In contention

7. Tampa Bay (7-6). Remaining: New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, combined record through Sunday afternoon, Dec. 16, 24-13.

8. Atlanta (6-7), with a 6-5 record in NFC games to the Giants' 5-5. Remaining: Buffalo, at Miami, at St. Louis, combined record 21-17.

9. New York Giants (6-7), with a 4-3 division record to the Redskins' 3-4. Remaining: Seattle, at Philadelphia, Green Bay, combined record 25-14.

10. Washington (6-7). Remaining: Chicago, at New Orleans, Arizona, combined record 22-16.

11. Minnesota (5-8), with a 4-7 NFC record to Arizona's 2-7. Remaining: Jacksonville, at Green Bay, at Baltimore, combined record 22-16. 12. Arizona (5-8). Remaining: Dallas, at Carolina, at Washington, combined record 11-28. Eliminated Dallas (4-9) and Carolina and Detroit (each 1-12).

*-Clinched playoff berth.

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