Upsets highlighted play among the NFC playoff contenders this week. The top-seeded Atlanta Falcons dropped one to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Jay Cutler suffered an injury late in the Bears' loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
For the Falcons, the loss just delays the team's chance to lock down home-field advantage and a first-round bye. Atlanta still has two wins over the 49ers, the second seed in the NFC. A date with the Giants next week looms large on the schedule, but the Falcons get more favorable matchups against the Lions and Buccaneers to wrap up the regular season.
Chicago has reason to worry. The Packers supplanted the Bears on top of the NFC North. Worse, an 8-5 Chicago team that has lost four of its last five games looks like an easy target for a hungry group of NFC teams vying for a postseason bid.
This is what the NFC seeding looks like after Week 14:
1. Atlanta Falcons, (11-2, NFC South)
2. San Francisco 49ers, (9-3-1, NFC West)
3. Green Bay Packers, (9-4, NFC North)
4. New York Giants, (8-5, NFC East)
5. Seattle Seahawks, (8-5, Wild Card)
6. Chicago Bears, (8-5, Wild Card)
As mentioned above, the Falcons' loss doesn't change much about the playoff picture. It will open an endless debate about that team's playoff worthiness, much of which will be a waste of otherwise fine hot air that could have been used to fill balloons for orphans.
The 49ers would probably prefer a win instead of that ridiculous tie with the Rams, but at least it gives them some kind of edge against a red-hot Packers team. San Francisco hosts the Patriots next week and is on the road in Seattle after that. The 49ers end the regular season with what should be a virtual scrimmage against the bottom-feeding Cardinals.
The team to watch is the Packers, now winners of seven out of the last eight games after being dealt a Week 5 upset loss by the Colts. Check out the last three games on the docket for Green Bay: at Chicago, vs. Tennessee and at Minnesota. A win in Chicago would seal the division title for the Packers and shoot even bigger holes in the Bears' playoff hopes.
New York is clinging to a one-game lead in the NFC East with wins by Washington and Dallas this week. Threatening the Giants' case is a 2-3 division record, topped by both the Redskins and Cowboys. The Giants have road games in Atlanta and Baltimore over the next two weeks before wrapping up the regular season at home against the Eagles.
Seattle continues to impress, and is holding onto a chance at overtaking the 49ers for the NFC West lead. That could come down to a Week 16 game between the two teams in Seattle. The status of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner could determine this team's ultimate fate. Sandwiching that game with the 49ers is a road trip to play Buffalo and a home game against the Rams in Week 17.
Chicago is in real trouble, especially with a plague of injuries hitting late in the season... again. The Packers are in town next week, and the Bears finish the season with road games in Arizona and Detroit.
Wild Card Weekend Matchups
Bears vs. Packers - At this point a third game between these two teams looks like cruel and unusual punishment. The winner would face the Falcons.
Seahawks vs. Giants - This could be one of the better games of the postseason, if it happens. Can the Giants pass rush contain Russell Wilson? Who stops Marshawn Lynch? I lean toward the Giants winning this one on experience alone, but Seattle has all the makings of a team that could surprise us all with a deep playoff run. The winner would play the 49ers, under the current order.
Outside Looking In
Here's where the NFC separates itself from the AFC. It's a free for all to snatch one of those Wild Card spots, and these teams can all smell blood in the water with Chicago struggling.
Washington Redskins, 7-6: The schedule gods have a very favorable three weeks for the Redskins. Washington is on the road in Cleveland and Philadelphia over the next two weeks. A regular season finale at home against the Cowboys could be the deciding factor. RGIII's recovery timeline from a knee injury this week is key.
Minnesota Vikings, 7-6: Adrian Peterson is a man possessed and looks like he could carry the Vikings into the playoffs. The Vikings are in St. Louis next week, Houston the week after that before concluding the season at home against the Packers.
Keep an eye on the Rams and the Buccaneers. Both teams need others to lose in order to sneak in, but anything could still happen with three weeks left to go.