Last week will determine Packers' playoff opponent

The NFC playoff picture remains as clear as mud following the completion of the Week 16 slate of games on Monday night.

With St. Louis defeating Philadelphia 20-7, four teams remain in the chase for the two wild-card spots. Minnesota, at 8-7, is the front-runner for one of the spots while St. Louis, Carolina and New Orleans — all 7-8 — also are in the mix.

What this means for the Packers is they won't be able to start preparations for their playoff opener until after the regular season ends Sunday.

Minnesota, which on Monday elected to bring Mike Tice back as coach next season, will qualify for the playoffs in one of three fashions: winning or tying at Washington (5-10), Carolina losing or tying visiting New Orleans, or St. Louis losing or tying against the visiting New York Jets (10-5).

If Minnesota wins or ties, it would claim the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs and play at the NFC West champion in the first round.

If that's the case, the third-seeded Packers would host whichever team emerges among St. Louis, Carolina and New Orleans. The winner of the New Orleans at Carolina game has the inside track.

The Panthers get in should they beat the Saints and any of three scenarios takes place: Minnesota loses at Washington, Seattle wins at home against Atlanta, or St. Louis loses at home to the playoff-hopeful New York Jets.

The Saints get in should they beat the Panthers and either of two scenarios takes place: St. Louis loses to the Jets or Seattle and Minnesota win or tie.

The Rams remain in the hunt for the NFC West, though they'd have to beat the Jets and Seattle would have to lose to Atlanta. The Rams can earn a wild-card berth should they beat the Jets and either Minnesota loses at Washington or the Saints and Panthers finish in a tie.

The only way the Vikings fail to make the playoffs is if they lose and both Carolina and St. Louis win.

Seattle clinched a playoff berth by winning Sunday.

St. Louis stayed alive on Monday by beating Philadelphia, which rested Donovan McNabb for most of the game, kept running back Brian Westbrook on the sideline and wide receiver Terrell Owens at home.

Because of St. Louis' win, Seattle was unable to clinch the NFC West championship and the Vikings were unable to clinch a playoff berth.

A best guess on how this week's games will pan out would have Minnesota beating Washington, Carolina beating New Orleans and the Jets beating St. Louis.

If those favorites win, then Minnesota would pocket the fifth seed and play at Seattle and the Panthers would capture the sixth seed and play at Green Bay on the weekend of Jan. 8-9. The Packers defeated the Panthers in the season opener at Carolina, but the Panthers have rebounded from a 1-7 start by winning six of their last seven games.

If the best-guess scenario plays out, but with the Saints beating the Panthers, Mike McKenzie and the Saints would come to Lambeau. Like Carolina, New Orleans is on a roll. The Saints would carry a four-game winning streak to Green Bay.

Under some convoluted scenarios, the Packers could host Minnesota or Seattle in the first round.

For Seattle to fall to the sixth seed and come to Lambeau, it would have to lose to Atlanta, St. Louis would have to beat the Jets and the Vikings would have to win or tie at Washington. A Vikings win or tie automatically gives them the fifth seed. With a Seattle loss and St. Louis win, the Seahawks and Rams tie at 8-8, with the Rams winning the NFC West and gaining the No. 4 seed because of a season sweep of Seattle. That scenario renders the Saints-Panthers game meaningless.

For Minnesota to come to Lambeau, you had better put on your thinking cap because this one's complicated. The Vikings come to Green Bay if they lose to Washington, Seattle loses to Atlanta, St. Louis beats the Jets and New Orleans beats Carolina. That would put the Vikings, Seattle, St. Louis and New Orleans at 8-8. St. Louis would win the NFC West with its sweep of Seattle. That leaves the other three teams vying for two playoff spots. Seattle gets the fifth seed by virtue of beating Minnesota. Minnesota gets the sixth seed by virtue of beating New Orleans.

If Green Bay wins its first playoff game, it would play at second-seeded Atlanta, which features quarterback Michael Vick and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.


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