Prior to Week 15, it was a foregone conclusion that the Green Bay Packers would glide through the playoffs like a 40-yard shot from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson. Things opened up after Packers proved to be vulnerable, scoring just 14 points against the Chiefs in their first loss of the season. Green Bay lost while the other teams atop the NFC continued to build momentum last week.
In the NFC, three teams really stand apart from the others. Besides the Packers, you have the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers who have the makeup for a deep postseason run. Two other teams, the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions, sit on a second tier, right below the top three teams.
With two games left to play in the regular season, let's handicap the NFC horse race.
Green Bay Packers
The case for: Being the reigning champs with a 13-1 record counts for something. They did only lose one game. Aaron Rodger and his merry band of pass catchers can still pick apart the best defenses, scoring 35 points effortlessly. Looking back at that game against the Chiefs, dropped passes and bad penalties gave KC a 12th man.
The case against: The defense relies heavily on turnovers, which could limit them against a team with an effective running game. Aaron Rodgers is being protected by a second and third string offensive tackle, that could be a real problem against an aggressive defense.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: New Orleans Saints. I'm not so sure a red hot Saints team couldn't beat them in a January rematch. The Chiefs did some damage with screen passes and plenty of handoffs. Imagine what the Saints could do with Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram.
San Francisco 49ers
The case for: Jim Harbaugh's team looks an awful lot like the Steelers, with Alex Smith as effective as a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger. A disruptive defensive front and the best group of linebackers in the conference would be a tough road block for any offense.
The case against: Do you trust them to score enough points? I'm not so sure I do.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Green Bay Packers. The Packers need only to follow the blue print of their Super Bowl win last year, using their loaded group of receivers and precision passing to pick apart a top defense. I question whether or not they could win with their current group of offensive tackles, and New Orleans probably has just as likely of a shot to beat the 49ers.
New Orleans Saints
The case for: They might be the best team in the NFC at the moment. It's hard to believe they lost to the miserable Rams almost two months ago...their last loss. Drew Brees can do almost anything, and he has the blocking and running backs to give him the most complete offense of any team in the league.
The case against: The Rams beat them, so anyone can find a way. Do they have the defense?
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta is one of a couple teams that has the defense capable of limiting the Saints' assault. What the Falcons also have is an offense rounding into form at the right time.
The case for: Being the hot team counts for something in the NFL, not quite like the wildcard teams in Major League Baseball, but the offense and the defense seem to really be coming together. Notice the offense has improved as Mike Smith has put more emphasis on the passing game? If the Falcons had this form to start the season, they'd be neck and neck with the Packers and the Saints.
The case against: The offensive line leaves a little to be desired, but criticizing the lines is one of the more nitpicky concerns expressed about these teams. I do think that a defense with a secondary capable of shutting down Julio Jones and Roddy White would be a problem for Matt Ryan.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: San Francisco 49ers. I like the 49ers defense against this team, and I think Alex Smith, Frank Gore and the offensive line could beat the Falcons by making it a war of attrition.
The case for: They have a powerful defensive line and an offense that can score points in bunches. Watching Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson work a comeback against Oakland last week, made me think that they could be dangerous in a narrow game.
The case against: Consistency is an issue. Dramatic comebacks against the Raiders are one thing, but can they do it against some of the more fearsome defenses in the league?
Toughest potential playoff matchup: New Orleans Saints. The Saints beat them handily in Week 13, and have too diverse of an offense for Detroit to stop. In fact, Detroit has played every team on this list and lost during the regular season. It's just not their time.