NFC Playoffs: The Games to Watch

By the end of the day, two division titles and a wild-card spot will be finalized in the NFC. You'll have to keep an eye on six games to watch it all unfold. Scout.com's Ed Thompson fills you in on who to watch -- and the impact that each game will have on the NFC playoff picture.

NFC NORTH TITLE

Games to watch:
  NY Giants at Minnesota (1:00 ET), Chicago at Houston (1:00 ET)

If the Minnesota Vikings defeat the New York Giants, there's nothing the Chicago Bears can do to stop them from claiming the division title. But a loss by the Vikings opens the door for the Bears to steal the title away in Week 17 with a win or a tie.

The bad news for the Vikings is that even though the Giants have wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they're coached by Tom Coughlin, a man who saw first-hand how important a winning momentum was to his team last year as they battled for the Lombardi Trophy. Unlike many other coaches who have already claimed a playoff berth, Coughlin will play his starters and will play to win. If the Giants defeat the Vikings, New York will head into the playoffs with a two-game winning streak instead of being cast as losers of three of their last four games.

Chicago also faces a dangerous opponent in the Houston Texans. Although they lost to the Raiders last week, the Texans knocked off the Packers and the Titans in consecutive weeks prior to that road loss. And Houston is 5-2 when playing at home.

Bottom line? A loss by either team ends their season.

Minnesota clinches the title with:
1) Minnesota win or
2) Minnesota tie and a Chicago loss or tie or
3) Chicago loss

Chicago clinches the title with:
1) Chicago win plus a Minnesota loss or tie
2) Chicago tie plus a Minnesota loss

NFC SOUTH TITLE

Games to watch:
  Carolina at New Orleans (1:00 ET), St. Louis at Atlanta (1:00 ET)

The Carolina Panthers enter the day in control of their own fate. With a win or a tie, they will win the NFC South division title and a first-round bye.

But the Panthers have the tougher of the two matchups, squaring-off against the division-rival Saints at New Orleans. While the Panthers easily handled the Saints earlier this season, that was on Carolina's turf. At home, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has led his team to six of their eight wins this season.

Meanwhile, the Falcons host the 2-13 Rams. Atlanta and their rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, could find themselves atop the NFC South by the end of the day as long as they take care of business against the Rams and get some help from the Saints.

Carolina clinches the title a first-round bye with: 
1) Carolina win, tie or
2) Atlanta loss or tie

Atlanta clinches the title and a first-round bye with:
1) Atlanta win and a Carolina loss


Cowboys QB Tony Romo
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

NFC WILD CARD

The team that doesn't win the NFC South title, Carolina or Atlanta, is assured of a wild-card spot. That leaves one spot open, which is currently held by Dallas as they enter the final week of the regular season. For Dallas, their task is simple -- win and they are in.  But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have plenty to say about how many teams are still in the wild-card hunt by the time the Cowboys kickoff their matchup at Philadelphia.

Games to watch: Oakland at Tampa Bay (1:00 ET), NY Giants at Minnesota (1:00 ET), Chicago at Houston (1:00 ET), Dallas at Philadelphia (4:15)

Despite the fact that Tampa Bay has been stumbling towards a playoff spot, their 1:00 ET matchup against the Oakland Raiders is the pivotal game in determining how wide open the wild-card race will still be by 4:15.

If the Buccaneers win their early game, the Vikings, Bears and Eagles are immediately eliminated from wild-card contention, reducing the competition for the final playoff seed to just two teams -- Dallas and Tampa Bay.

That would mean that the team that falls short of securing the NFC North title, either the Bears or the Vikings, will be sitting at home next weekend. And it would relegate the Philadelphia Eagles to a role of spoiler, instead of wildcard contender, when they host the Cowboys at 4:15. And Tampa Bay could emerge as the final NFC playoff team if Dallas falters against the Eagles.

A loss by Tampa Bay eliminates them from the wild-card race and opens the door to varying degrees to all of those other teams. The Eagles could also be ousted from contention if both the Vikings and the Bears win their early contests.

With a win, Dallas shuts out all of the other contenders. But the Cowboys are 3-4 as a road team and the Eagles are 5-2 at home. Neither team is particularly on a roll, winning three of their last five games. So this contest is definitely up for grabs.

Here are all the combinations for each wild-card-eligible team as they head into Sunday's action:

Dallas clinches a wild-card spot with:
1) Dallas win or
2) Dallas tie plus Chicago loss or tie plus Tampa Bay loss or
3) Dallas tie plus Minnesota loss or tie plus Tampa Bay loss or
4) Dallas tie plus Chicago loss or Tampa Bay tie or
5) Dallas tie plus Minnesota loss or Tampa Bay tie

Tampa Bay clinches a wild-card spot with:
1) Tampa Bay win plus Dallas loss or tie or
2) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas loss plus Minnesota loss or tie or
3) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas loss plus Chicago or tie or
4) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas tie plus Minnesota tie plus Chicago win or tie or
5) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas tie plus Chicago tie plus Minnesota win or tie

Chicago clinches a wild-card spot with:
1) Chicago win plus Dallas loss or tie plus Tampa Bay loss or tie or
2) Chicago tie plus Dallas loss plus Tampa Bay loss

Philadelphia clinches a wildcard spot with:
1) Philadelphia win plus Tampa Bay loss plus Minnesota loss
2) Philadelphia win plus Tampa Bay loss plus Chicago loss

Minnesota clinches a wildcard spot with:

1) Minnesota tie plus Dallas loss plus Tampa Bay loss

Playoff scenarios were provided by the NFL.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.


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