NFC playoff picture getting clearer

While the AFC still has plenty of playoff jockeying ahead, the NFC playoff positioning is looking pretty clear in the top half and could become even more solid after Monday night's game. Inside are the routes for the top NFC contenders.

The nervousness that Vikings fans had of a Dallas-style December/January collapse was allayed to a certain extent Sunday as the Vikings re-asserted their position in the NFC by improving to 11-2 and cementing, at a minimum, a playoff berth with a division title looming right around the corner.

While the AFC playoff picture is extremely muddled, the NFC playoff outlook is far less confusing. In fact, it is highly unlikely that there will be any of the deep tie-breakers that are often part of the playoff picture scenarios happening this year.

The Saints (13-0) have guaranteed themselves no less than a first-round bye with their win Sunday and seem all but assured of locking down the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Cardinals (8-4) are currently the No. 3 seed and, with the 49ers, Rams and Lions coming in their next three games, it's hard to imagine too much of a dropoff. If they win tonight, the Cardinals can wrap up the NFC West title and will then be jockeying for seeding – which could be as high as No. 2, as low as No. 4, but most likely No. 3.

The Eagles (9-4) have taken control of the NFC East. They have a two-game lead on the Giants (7-6) and one-game lead on Dallas (8-5). Philadelphia has swept the Giants, which all but eliminates them from division title contention and Dallas is once again seemingly fading into the sunset. While nothing has been locked down, Philly is in charge in the NFC East.

The wild card race, it would appear, is down to merely three teams – Green Bay and the two NFC East teams that don't win the division title. Everyone else has backed out of the way, with borderline wild card contenders Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago and Seattle all losing Sunday and San Francisco being a decided underdog tonight. The Falcons are currently fourth in line for a wild card spot with a record of 6-7, which all but eliminates them – leaving it down to three teams.

Green Bay (9-4) is almost a lock to pull down the top wild card spot, but it won't be a cakewalk for them with road games at Pittsburgh and Arizona sandwiched around a home game with Seattle. However, the Packers are playing just about as well as anyone outside of New Orleans in the NFC right now, so 10 or 11 wins is expected, not just anticipated.

With the Packers likely to nail down one of the two available wild card spots, the only question is who pulls down the other spot? The Giants swept the Cowboys and Dallas' schedule doesn't get any easier. Having lost their last two games to the Giants and San Diego, the Cowboys head into New Orleans next week before closing at Washington and home against the Eagles. If they finish tied with the Giants at the end of the season, they will lose any tie-breaker. But, after losing last night at home to the Eagles, the Giants may need to run the table to be able to take advantage of their sweep over Dallas. The Giants have a much more favorable schedule with a home game against Carolina in between road games at Washington and Minnesota. Just as the Giants laid down in the second half of the regular-season finale last year, the Vikings may be doing them the same sort of favor if they have the No. 2 seed wrapped up by the time they meet in Week 17.

Over in the AFC, only four teams have been eliminated from consideration for a playoff spot, but in the NFC, the picture is coming into much sharper focus. The Saints, Vikings and Cardinals should all will win their divisions, the Packers will need a huge collapse not to get a wild card spot and the Eagles and Giants have the inside track on Dallas for the NFC East champ and the second wild card.

Everything can change in a hurry, as we've seen in previous years, but perhaps in no time in recent NFL history has a playoff scenario been quite this clear-cut and devoid of speculation and scenarios as it is right now.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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