While the NFC East’s ongoing experiment in failure is certainly worth watching, the conference’s best postseason race will come down to its sixth playoff spot. The NFC’s second wild card bid currently belongs to the Vikings, but the Rams, Bears, and even the Packers or Seahawks could all wind up playing the No. 6 seed when the first week of the playoffs rolls around.
That leaves a smaller crowd than the AFC’s last-gasp playoff push, but the NFC’s group of contenders should create an equally dramatic finish. The East’s amazing craptitude could make 2019 a season when a seven-win team hosts a playoff game while an 11-win club stays home. Who could wind up being the odd team out? Let’s take a closer look at the conference’s prospective postseason teams by focusing on all the ones that could slide into the NFC’s final playoff seed.
Minnesota Vikings (9-4)
- at Chargers
- vs. Packers
- vs. Bears
Kirk Cousins is playing the best football of his career, even with top target Adam Thielen on and off the inactive list thanks to a hamstring injury. Cousins’ 112.0 passer rating is a personal record by more than 10 full points. He ranks in the top five among NFL quarterbacks in overall rating, completion rate (70.1 percent), touchdown rate (6.2 percent), and adjusted yards per attempt (9.2).
Those are all wonderful numbers that have yet to lead to a meaningful win. None of the nine teams Minnesota has beaten in 2019 have a winning record through Week 14. The club’s best victory, by winning percentage, came over either the Cowboys or Raiders, both of which are 6-7.
That inability to win spotlight games starts with Cousins. He’ll put his 0-8 record on Monday nights on the line in a Week 16 game that may decide the NFC North champion.
Cousins was uninspiring in his first go-round with the Packers this season. He completed just 14 of his 32 passes and threw more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one). He was frequently baffled by Green Bay’s coverage, as the team’s revamped pass rush only sacked him once and hit him four more times — two rates well below its season average.
The good news is games against the Chargers and Bears should be easier. However, an 11-win Vikings team with another loss to Green Bay would lose a wild card tiebreaker to an 11-win Rams team by virtue of their conference records. Minnesota should be rooting for the Niners to beat the Rams in Week 16; that would make its road to the postseason significantly easier.
NFC North title odds: 25 percent
Second wild card odds: 50 percent
Winning out won’t guarantee a division title, but it would lock down a playoff spot. That won’t be easy, but it might be the only way to hold off a surging Rams squad.
Green Bay Packers (10-3)
- vs. Bears
- at Vikings
- at Lions
The New York Times’ playoff probability indicator gives the Packers a 77 percent chance of winning the NFC North, which means it’s unlikely they’ll have to worry about a wild card spot or a road game to kick off their postseason. That doesn’t mean they should stop worrying about the Vikings — even after their 21-16 win over Minnesota back in Week 2.
First-year head coach Matt LaFleur has restored Green Bay to the upper tier of the NFC after two straight non-playoff seasons led to Mike McCarthy’s ousting. The former Rams assistant has been largely hands off when it comes to Aaron Rodgers’ freewheeling play behind center, and the two-time MVP has responded with his most efficient passing performance since 2016. In the process, he’s turned unheralded players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard into vital pieces of his passing machine. Aaron Jones, who has scored 15 touchdowns in 13 games, has been equally important.
The bigger question related to the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes is whether the team’s rebuilt defense can continue to stand up. General manager Brian Gutekunst spent an unprecedented amount of money to bring players like Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrian Amos to Wisconsin in free agency. They’ve lived up to their lofty contracts so far; after ranking 26th and 22nd in the league in points allowed in 2017 and 2018, respectively, the Packers are up to 13th in 2019.
There are caveats there. This team has had some tough-to-explain breakdowns against teams good and bad. They’ve given up 97 points in their three losses, which came against the 49ers (understandable), Eagles (less understandable), and Chargers (heh, what?). Another lapse in the postseason could end their season.
NFC North title odds: 75 percent
Second wild card odds: 10 percent
Beating the Vikings in Week 16 would claim the division. Same goes for wins over the Bears and Lions, even if Rodgers loses in Minnesota. Things would have to go catastrophically wrong for the Packers’ playoff drought to reach a third season.
Seattle Seahawks (10-3)
- at Panthers
- vs. Cardinals
- vs. 49ers
The Seahawks haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet, but just need one win and one loss from either the Rams or Vikings to earn their place. With games coming up against the 5-8 Panthers and the 3-9-1 Cardinals, the bigger question is whether they’ll win the NFC West and the potential top seed that comes with it, or if they’ll have to settle for a wild card spot and a road trip in the playoffs’ opening weekend.
That battle will likely come down to Week 17 when the Niners travel north for a rematch of one of this fall’s best (and weirdest) games. The Seahawks bested their division rival in Santa Clara on an evening when the 49ers were without All-Pro tight end George Kittle, kicker Robbie Gould and, for much of the game, tailback Matt Breida. As a result, the outcome of that first matchup didn’t really tip its hand to its encore.
If Seattle beats San Francisco again, it likely means a division title and a bye through the Wild Card Round. Otherwise, the Seahawks will likely be forced to take out their aggression on whichever unfortunate team limps away from the NFC East’s car crash and into the postseason. Things would have to fall apart to slide all the way to the sixth seed — and a 1-in-10 chance may actually be generous.
NFC West title odds: 50 percent
Second wild card odds: 10 percent
Los Angeles Rams (8-5)
- at Cowboys
- at 49ers
- vs. Cardinals
The defending conference champions have finally found the extra gear that made them so dangerous in 2018. Unfortunately, it came after a 3-3 start that may have doomed their playoff chances in an ultra-competitive NFC (not you, NFC East).
Los Angeles got its biggest win of the season by toppling the Seahawks at home in Week 14, but that aforementioned Week 16 game in San Francisco could be the dividing line between a wild card appearance and an early January vacation. Jared Goff will have to overcome his concerning 2019 regression to get there. The 2018 MVP candidate has fallen off significantly in his fourth year as a pro, leaving him in line for a career high in interceptions (he’s already got 14 in 13 games) a career low in touchdowns over the course of a full season (he’s on pace for 18 after throwing 32 in ‘18).
Goff’s 81.1 passer rating since October would rank him 29th among 33 qualified starting quarterbacks. Fortunately for him, a sturdy defense has been able to provide some much-needed support. Only one team — the nigh-unstoppable Ravens — has scored more than 17 points against them since Week 7. That unit will be put to the test against a challenging lineup. LA’s final three opponents include the league leader in yards per play (Dallas at 6.5), 2019’s second-leading scoring offense (San Francisco, 30.5 points), and Kliff Kingsbury’s try-anything air raid system in Arizona.
NFC West title odds: 0 percent
Second wild card odds: 29 percent
The Rams won’t be division champs for the first time in the Sean McVay era and will likely have to match the Vikings’ record to leapfrog them in the wild card standings. But they’re a game back and have two teams currently painted into the playoff picture in their way. Goff will have to maintain his early December pace — four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 2-0 record — for LA to have a chance of getting there.
Chicago Bears (7-6)
- at Packers
- vs. Chiefs
- at Vikings
Congratulations on climbing over .500, Bears! Your reward for vaulting back into the playoff race is the league’s toughest remaining schedule.
Chicago biffed games against the Chargers, Raiders, and Eagles en route to a 4-6 start that’s only been corrected by a recent three-game winning streak. Like a less hopeful version of the Rams, that recent upswing looks like too little, too late. The Bears will likely have to win out to have a chance at breaking into the playoff bracket. That means beating three teams with a combined 28-11 record currently.
That’s going to take a major effort from Mitchell Trubisky, a player who has done this in his four games against teams with winning records in 2019:
Mitchell Trubisky vs. teams w/ winning records in 2019
The only game the Bears won in that stretch was one Trubisky left in the first quarter with a knee injury. Three of his four games this season with a passer rating higher than 90 came against teams with three wins or fewer (Washington and twice against the Lions). His ability to move the ball and maintain possessions doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on his defense, either. Chicago has allowed 17.8 points per game in those four high-rating performances and 17 in the eight games where he ranged from mediocre to awful.
This all makes it wildly unlikely the Bears return to the playoffs in 2019, but the final three games of the season will give Trubisky a wonderful opportunity to stake his claim as the quarterback in Chicago’s 8-8 2020 campaign.
NFC North title odds: <1 percent
Second wild card odds: 1 percent