Included in that group of mediocrity are the Green Bay Packers. Buried nearly a month ago at 4-8, the Packers have managed to scrape out three straight victories to stay alive, and if Saturday's and Sunday's relevant games shake down just right, they will be playing for the final playoff spot in prime-time Sunday night at Soldier Field against the Bears. Not many saw that scenario playing out at the beginning of the season.
"There's a reason why you play 16 games," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy on Tuesday. "It's a very easy mental trap to fall into every week with the shoulda, coulda, woulda's because you really need to focus your energy on the present and then prepare for the future and learn from the past. That's been my message from day one here. You cannot really get caught up in it. That's why we play one more game Sunday night and I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that we're going to play that football game, win that football game, and then everything else will take care of itself. We're in this position for a reason and we need to focus on getting to 8-8 because that's the only thing we can control. I think you need to have that mindset every week because if you don't, you're wasting a lot of energy on other things you have no control."
That the Packers still have a shot at the playoffs considering how their season has gone is almost incomprehensible. They have not beaten a winning team all season (which hurts them in the strength of victory playoff tie-breaker), have been shut-out twice, and have lost two other games by 22 and 28 points.
On the flip side, the Packers are finishing the season strong, making them probably the best team left of those still remaining with a shot at the No. 6 spot. There is something to be said about compiling wins late in the year and building to something bigger – just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who a year ago fought just to get to the playoffs and then won the Super Bowl when they got there. The Packers will not be contending for any Super Bowl this year, but the building momentum could work in their favor this weekend.
The four other teams in playoff contention with the Packers have bigger issues to battle than just the red-zone scoring or dropped passes. Here is s a quick look and some predictions:
The Giants: Once looking like a playoff lock at 6-2, they are in the biggest tailspin having lost six of their last seven games. Injuries, battles with the media, and a decline in performance from quarterback Eli Manning have sapped the life out of the Giants season. They will also have a new offensive coordinator in place for Saturday night's game with the Redskins. The damage, it appears, has already been done. Redskins 20, Giants 13.
The Panthers: Clearly the most disappointing team in the league considering they have a top-three receiver in Steve Smith and a defense that could carry a team to a Super Bowl. The mysteriously poor play of Jake Delhomme, and the even worse play of backup Chris Weinke, has handcuffed their offense. As a result they have lost four of the last five games. Though the Saints have wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the NFC, they still will be tough to beat at New Orleans on Sunday. Saints 21, Panthers 10.
The Falcons: A roller coaster of a season, which is often the case with a quarterback like Michael Vick, has them as the most unpredictable of the playoff contenders. Vick has been cut loose to run more this season, but has also been clearly frustrated which does not bode well heading into a big game. Plus, comments made by head coach Jim Mora about viewing the University of Washington as a dream coaching job have some wondering about whether or not he will be back in Atlanta next year. The Falcons will lose their third straight at Philadelphia where the Eagles will be looking to win the NFC East. Eagles 27, Falcons 14.
The Rams: A huge overtime win against the Redskins last week kept the Rams alive, but after a 4-1 start, they have been among the NFL's worst teams. Even with one of the league's best turnover margins (+12), a Pro Bowl passer, two 1,000-yard receivers, and a 1,000-yard rusher, they have not been able to convert talent into victories. Could it be coaching? It has to be something. The Rams will travel to Minnesota, a tough place to play, but have they the most favorable matchup of the teams vying for the playoffs. Rams 18, Vikings 15.
A telling sub-plot to the Packers game against the Bears will be how much head coach Lovie Smith plans to play his starters. The Bears had home-field advantage wrapped up a week ago, but played most of their starters into the fourth quarter against Detroit. It would be hard to imagine them doing the same this week considering what is ahead. That gives the Packers a much better chance to perform better than they did in a 26-0 Week One loss at Lambeau Field.
With the high of three straight wins (albeit against poor opponents) and the potential for this Sunday being Brett Favre's last game, the Packers should play competitively regardless of what will be on the line at kickoff (7:15 p.m. CST). As for a prediction of whether they will pull off the upset, check out PackerReport.com later this week.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.