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The NFC’s Wild-Card Race Is a Beautiful Mess

Making sense of the six teams vying for the conference’s two at-large playoff spots

Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re 10 weeks into the 2017 season. If it feels like the NFC playoff picture is still wide open, that’s because, well, the NFC playoff picture is still wide open.

The Eagles (8–1), Vikings (7–2), Saints (7–2), and Rams (7–2) all currently occupy the driver’s seats of their respective divisions, but the final seven weeks figure to be a roller-coaster ride. The Seahawks (6–3) are nipping at Los Angeles’s heels, the Panthers (6–3) and Falcons (5–4) aren’t far behind New Orleans, the Lions (5–4) and Packers (5–4) still have a shot at catching Minnesota, and, while it might be tough for the Cowboys (5–4) to challenge Philadelphia at this point, they’re still well within striking distance in the race for an NFC wild-card spot. Hell, even the inconsistent Redskins and the Carson Palmer– and David Johnson–less Cardinals are technically still in the race at 4–5. The extraordinary parity in the NFL this year has created plenty of ugly games and a surplus of underdog wins, sure — but it just might produce one hell of a ride down the season’s stretch run, too.

With that unpredictable finish in mind, here’s a team-by-team look at the group of non-division-leading playoff contenders in the NFC — along with a glimpse at their remaining schedules and a few key numbers to keep in mind along the way.

Seattle Seahawks (6–3)

Best Wins: 16–10 at Rams (Week 5), 41–38 vs. Texans (Week 8)
Worst Losses: 33–27 at Titans (Week 3), 17–14 vs. Redskins (Week 9)
Notable Remaining Games: vs. Falcons (Week 11), vs. Eagles (Week 13), at Jaguars (Week 14), vs. Rams (Week 15), at Cowboys (Week 16)

The Seahawks will undoubtedly keep trying to jump-start their anemic run game, but until that happens (and it might not — the offensive line’s been awful and neither Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, nor C.J. Prosise looks capable of overcoming a lack of blocking), they’re going to need quarterback Russell Wilson to do amazing things. Through the team’s first nine games, Seattle’s averaged 3.8 yards per carry and has found pay dirt just twice on the ground. With little help from a normally strong run game, Wilson’s been asked to pass more than ever. He’s on track to set career highs in attempts and yards despite the fact that he came into Week 10 facing a pressure rate of 41.8 per Pro Football Focus, third worst in the NFL.

If Seattle wants to catch the Rams or secure itself a wild-card spot in the postseason, it’ll need the version of Wilson we saw in the blowout win over the Giants (334 yards, three touchdowns) and the barn-burner win over the Texans (452 yards, four touchdowns). Seattle’s late-season stretch run looks brutal, featuring matchups with the Falcons, Eagles, and Rams at home and the Jaguars and Cowboys on the road. If we see the version of Wilson that completed just 53 percent of his passes, threw two picks, and looked out of sorts throughout most of the team’s rain-drenched loss to the Redskins show up too often, the Seahawks could be in trouble.

Of course, Seattle’s defense still seems to give the team a chance to win in nearly every game. But that squad’s stretched thin due to a rash of injuries to key players: The Seahawks lost top draft pick Malik McDowell before the year even started, and along the way have also lost one of their top pass rushers, Cliff Avril (neck), and their All-Pro cornerback stalwart, Richard Sherman (Achilles tendon), for the season. Meanwhile, safeties Earl Thomas (hamstring) and Kam Chancellor (stinger) are both banged up, and defensive tackle Jarran Reed (hamstring) and defensive end Frank Clark (thigh) both left Thursday night’s game with injuries. Seattle’s managed to fight through its injury issues to put itself in a great spot to make a run at its sixth straight playoff berth―but it can’t afford any more major losses on defense.

Carolina Panthers (6–3)

Best Wins: 33–30 at Patriots (Week 4), 20–17 vs. Falcons (Week 9)
Worst Losses: 34–13 vs. Saints (Week 3), 17–3 at Bears (Week 7)
Notable Remaining Games: at Saints (Week 13), vs. Vikings (Week 14), at Falcons (Week 17)

With linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Kawann Short leading the way, the defense remains a relative constant for a Panthers team that’s been wildly erratic on the other side of the ball. At times, quarterback Cam Newton’s looked like the unstoppable, dual-threat playmaker that won the MVP award in 2015 — like when he threw a combined six touchdowns and just one pick in back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Lions for a passer rating of 137.2 in weeks 4 and 5. But at other times, he’s been incredibly turnover prone and inaccurate. In losses to the Eagles and Bears in weeks 6 and 7, he threw a combined five picks and just one touchdown for a passer rating of 51.0. The team’s run game has seemed to follow a similar tack — Carolina ran for 201 yards and two scores in the win over Atlanta last week and 140 yards and a score in its victory over the Patriots in Week 4 — but overall, both Jonathan Stewart (2.9 yards per carry, one touchdown) and rookie Christian McCaffrey (also 2.9 yards per carry, one touchdown) have failed to find their footing on the ground.

Despite that offensive Jekyll and Hyde act, the Panthers remain in excellent position to make a run at a wild-card spot, or better, the NFC South division title. Their final seven games set up favorably compared with some of their competition: They’re home against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, then get an advantageously late bye. From there, they play at the Jets and Saints before coming home for three of their final four games, hosting the Vikings Week 14, the (most likely Aaron Rodgers–less) Packers the next week, and the lowly Buccaneers the week after before traveling to Atlanta to close out the season. That’s no cakewalk — but there are four very winnable games on that slate. If Newton can manage to rein in the turnovers and keep making plays with his legs, a 10-win season, or better, is well within reach.

Atlanta Falcons (5–4)

Best Wins: 34–23 win vs Packers (Week 2), 27–7 win vs. Cowboys (Week 10)
Worst Losses: 20–17 vs. Dolphins (Week 6), 23–7 at Patriots (Week 7)
Notable Remaining Games: at Seahawks (Week 11), vs. Vikings (Week 13), vs. Saints (Week 14), at Saints (Week 16), vs. Panthers (Week 17)

It hasn’t felt like it all too often this season, but the Falcons remain a legitimate playoff contender. The defense, which struggled to both rush the passer and patrol the secondary early in the year, has started to jell as the season’s gone on; after shutting down the Cowboys in Sunday’s 27–7 win, it vaulted itself into the top 10 in points allowed (19.9 per game). Getting a career game this week out of pass rusher Adrian Clayborn, who racked up six sacks on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott in the win, helped, but after forcing just three turnovers in the team’s first six games, that squad has forced five in its past three matchups.

Meanwhile, the oft-criticized offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been much better than you think. It’s a group that quietly came into this week’s blowout win over Dallas ranked second in yards per drive (37.3), third in plays per drive (6.28), fifth in drive success rate (.724), and eighth in points per drive (2.08). With better execution in the red zone (they’re just 18th in touchdowns per red zone trip after finishing ninth last year), they could be close to resembling what we saw last season. After the win over the Cowboys, the Falcons still rank just 15th in scoring (21.9 points per game), but they’re eighth in yards per game (368.0), seventh in first downs per game (20.6), and tied for third (with the Rams) in yards per play (6.1). If Matt Ryan can cut down on turnovers — he’s thrown eight interceptions this year already, one more than he did all of last season, and a handful of them have been fluky tipped balls — the Falcons could end up working their way out of the so-called Super Bowl hangover and find themselves back in the postseason.

Detroit Lions (5–4)

Best Wins: 35–23 vs Cardinals (Week 1), 14–7 at Vikings (Week 4)
Worst Losses: 52–38 at Saints (Week 6), 27–24 vs. Panthers (Week 5)
Notable Remaining Games: vs. Vikings (Week 12), at Ravens (Week 13), at Bengals (Week 16), vs. Packers (Week 17)

It feels like most of us are still sleeping on the Lions, because this team is more balanced than it seems. The wild, two-touchdown loss to the Saints was Detroit’s lone terrible performance this year; Detroit’s other three losses have come by a combined total of 12 points.

The defense, one of the worst in the league last season, has come alive in 2017. It has a bona fide shutdown corner in Darius Slay (four interceptions), who’s proved he can shadow some of the league’s best receivers: Slay’s surrendered just a combined 13 catches for 157 yards and one touchdown this year in coverage of Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, and Jordy Nelson, per Pro Football Focus. Glover Quin has picked off three passes of his own, and pass rushers Ezekiel Ansah (4.0) and Anthony Zettel (6.0) have combined for 10 sacks.

The Lions have been underrated on offense as well. Detroit’s sixth in the NFL in scoring (27.1 points per game) through 10 weeks; quarterback Matt Stafford is currently fourth in passing yards (2,461) and sixth in touchdowns (17) and has thrown just five picks. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones make up a fearsome and versatile pass-catching duo (Tate’s still the best run-after-the-catch receiver in the league, and Jones is an excellent deep-ball tracker), and even drop-prone tight end Eric Ebron seems intent on a second-half redemption tour (he caught a 29-yard touchdown pass in Sunday’s 38–24 win over the Browns). Detroit hasn’t had much of a run game, but it won’t hurt that the team just got starting left tackle Taylor Decker back after he missed the first nine weeks of the season to a labrum injury. And oh, by the way, coming into this week, the Lions had the no. 2-ranked special teams unit by Football Outsiders DVOA.

Not only are the Lions probably better than we all realize, but they’ve got an easy schedule down the stretch. Just two of their remaining six opponents currently have a winning record (the Vikings and Packers). Over the next seven weeks, the team plays at the Bears, at home against Minnesota, at the Ravens, at the Bucs, at home against the Bears, at the Bengals, and then closes out the season at home against the Packers, who may or may not have Aaron Rodgers back by then. Detroit’s got to improve in the red zone (it came into this week 27th in touchdowns per red zone trip) to give itself a fighting chance at winning the division, but the rest of the year is set up well for a postseason run.

Green Bay Packers (5–4)

Best Wins: 17–9 vs Seahawks (Week 1), 35–31 at Cowboys (Week 5)
Worst Losses: 23–10 at Vikings (Week 6), 26–17 vs. Saints (Week 7)
Notable Remaining Games: at Steelers (Week 12), at Panthers (Week 15), vs. Vikings (Week 16), at Lions (Week 17)

The Packers’ season has been defined by the Aaron Rodgers injury: They looked like a Super Bowl contender before the superstar signal-caller broke his clavicle in Week 6, but have fallen to the status of a fringe playoff contender without him. The defense, which came into this week ranked 20th in DVOA, isn’t good enough to carry the team to the playoffs, nor is the run game, which did gain 160 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 37 carries in Sunday’s 23–16 win over the Bears, but lost its top two ballcarriers in Aaron Jones (knee) and Ty Montgomery (rib) to injury. Instead, much of Green Bay’s fate over the next seven weeks will likely come down to what quarterback Brett Hundley can do in relief of Rodgers — and whether or not Rodgers returns. Hundley’s first three games have been a mixed bag: He struggled badly in his first start (12-of-25 for 87 yards and a pick), a loss to the Saints, then played slightly better in a loss to the Lions last week (26-of-38 for 245 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions). This week, he fought through a hamstring injury, but did make a few big throws late in the game, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams, and his effort was enough to help the Packers get a much-needed win and give the team hope for more improvement.

Green Bay’s 4–1 start prior to Rodgers’s broken clavicle gave it a lot of wiggle room to work with, and the team’s win over the Bears helps. But the stretch run could be brutal: Four of the Packers’ final seven games are on the road, and Hundley and Co. must figure out ways to move the ball and score against the tough defensive groups of the Ravens, Steelers, Panthers, Vikings, and Lions in that stretch.

Dallas Cowboys (5–4)

Best Wins: 33–19 at Redskins (Week 8), 28–17 vs. Chiefs (Week 9)
Worst Losses: 42–17 at Broncos (Week 2), 27–7 loss at Falcons (Week 10)
Notable Remaining Games: vs. Eagles (Week 11), vs. Redskins (Week 13), vs. Seahawks (Week 16), at Eagles (Week 17)

Dak Prescott got a rude welcome to Russell Wilson’s world Sunday, as his team couldn’t protect him or run the ball. And while the Cowboys missed the drive-sustaining, chains-moving factor that suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott normally brings to the offense in the team’s 27–7 loss to the Falcons, Prescott missed injured left tackle Tyron Smith a whole lot more. Falcons edge rusher Adrian Clayborn dominated Smith’s fill-in, Chaz Green, to the tune of four sacks, and, when Green was benched in the fourth quarter, Clayborn promptly beat Byron Bell for another one. The Falcons sacked Prescott eight times on the day and left the Dallas offense out of sorts. It was a cringeworthy start to the Elliott-less portion of the season (set to last at least four weeks), and it’s not going to get easier for Prescott or the Cowboys offensive line over the next few games, especially if Smith (groin, back) can’t return to the field.

Dallas hosts Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and the red-hot Eagles next Sunday, then must face off against Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and the Chargers defense the week after that. Add in a tough Redskins front featuring Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith the following week, and games against the Seahawks and Eagles (again) in weeks 16 and 17, and the Cowboys’ path to the playoffs looks a lot like a run through the gantlet. Prescott’s an incredible talent, but until Elliott and Smith return, he and the Cowboys’ coaching staff are going to have to adapt quickly; Prescott must get rid of the ball faster to avoid the instant pressure, and Dallas has to do a better job of protecting him on the blind side, keeping tight ends in to block, and using running backs to chip on the edge.