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NFC playoff race to pick up in December

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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This truly will be a December to Remember in the NFL.

POWER RANKINGS

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For the first time in league history, there are 19 teams within one game of first place in their respective divisions entering Week 13. It’s also the first time since the NFL expanded and restructured in 2002 that all eight divisions have at least two teams within one game of first place this deep into the regular season. If this trend continues, the final week of the season should have far more impact on playoff seeding than in previous years when many of the spots were already clinched.

With five games remaining, here is a division-by-division primer handicapping the postseason odds of viable playoff contenders.

AFC | NFC


NFC East

Contenders: Philadelphia (7-4), New York Giants (7-4), Washington (5-6)
Easiest schedule: Philadelphia (22-33; .400 winning percentage). Two upcoming games against Dallas (3-8) aren’t as daunting as initially expected. The Giants are the only remaining opponent with a winning mark.
Hardest schedule: Washington (30-25; .545 winning percentage). The Redskins can make a move by winning their two remaining games against New York. But nondivision contests against Tampa Bay (7-4) and at Jacksonville (6-5) could prove problematic for a team that has lost three of its past four games.
Key games: Washington vs. New York Giants (this Sunday and Jan. 2), Philadelphia at New York (Dec. 19), New York at Green Bay (Dec. 26).
Outlook: The Giants gained ground in the NFC East with all three division rivals losing in Week 11. New York hopes wide receivers Steve Smith (pectoral muscle) and Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) can return by the Eagles matchup that will go a long way toward determining the division champion.

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NFC South

Contenders: Atlanta (9-2), New Orleans (8-3), Tampa Bay (7-4).
Easiest schedule: Atlanta (22-33; .400 winning percentage). The Falcons couldn’t ask for a better holiday gift than getting to face Carolina (1-10) twice in the final four weeks. Atlanta, though, must weather an upcoming three-game road trip before finishing at home against New Orleans and the Panthers.
Hardest schedule: New Orleans (31-24; .564 winning percentage). Unlike last year, the Saints will have plenty to play for in the final three weeks of the season. New Orleans finishes with road games against Baltimore and Atlanta before hosting Tampa Bay in Week 17.
Key games: Atlanta at Tampa Bay (Sunday), New Orleans at Atlanta (Dec. 27), Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Jan. 2).
Outlook: The surprising Bucs need to top the Falcons on Sunday to realistically keep their NFC South title hopes alive. The Saints-Falcons game on Monday night is shaping up as the NFL’s best Week 16 matchup. By winning its next four games, Atlanta is guaranteed the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed regardless of what happens in Week 17.

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NFC North

Contenders: Chicago (8-3), Green Bay (7-4)
Easiest schedule: Green Bay (30-25; .545 winning percentage). The Packers catch a break with upcoming games against San Francisco and Detroit before finishing with a tough three-game stretch against New England, the New York Giants and Chicago.
Hardest schedule: Chicago (31-24; .564 winning percentage). The bad news: The Bears have to play New England and the New York Jets in a three-week span. The good news: The Patriots and Jets both have to come to Chicago.
Key games: New England at Chicago (Dec. 12), Green Bay at New England (Dec. 19), New York Jets at Chicago (Dec. 26), New York Giants at Green Bay (Dec. 26), Chicago at Green Bay (Jan. 2).
Outlook: The Bears and Packers both have such a challenging schedule remaining that it wouldn’t be surprising to see one team fade and the other clinch the NFC North before their season-ending matchup at Lambeau Field. Minnesota (4-7) has dug itself too deep a hole for consideration as a valid playoff threat.

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NFC West

Contenders: St. Louis (5-6), Seattle (5-6), San Francisco (4-7)
Easiest schedule: Seattle and San Francisco (26-29; .473 winning percentage). If the Seahawks can’t get back on track Sunday against visiting Carolina (1-10), a Seattle squad that has lost four of its past five games will be in absolute freefall. The 49ers can’t celebrate their lopsided Monday night victory over Arizona for long. San Francisco must travel to Green Bay (7-4) on a short week. The 49ers also will have to win without running back Frank Gore, who suffered a season-ending hip injury against the Cardinals.
Hardest schedule: St. Louis (27-28; .491 winning percentage). If the Rams can survive a two-game stretch with games at New Orleans (8-3) and against Kansas City (7-4), a franchise that finished 1-15 last season may very well rebound to win the division crown.
Key games: Seattle at San Francisco (Dec. 12), St. Louis at New Orleans (Dec. 12), Atlanta at Seattle (Dec. 19), St. Louis at Seattle (Jan. 2).
Outlook: My apologies for a Marvez Minute earlier this year prematurely proclaiming the NFC West was making a comeback. This group remains so dreadful that there could be a division winner with a losing record for the first time in NFL history. San Francisco’s Week 7 loss at Carolina — the Panthers’ only victory of the season — looms especially large considering the small margin of error the 49ers now have for the rest of the season.

Tagged: Giants, 49ers, Panthers

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