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NFC Wild Card Race

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions

The NFC is not having a good year. There are some teams that are playing well, but all of them have some questions. The four teams that are clearly better than the rest of the conference are all in different divisions. That means that the four division races are essentially non-races unless something dramatic and unexpected happens in the next four weeks. The only real interest is to see which of the fairly flawed teams behind the leaders will be able to capture a wild card berth. With four teams tied at 6-6 atop that race, it's conceivable that 8-8 could be enough, and 7-9 is even mathematically possible. Remember back when the NFC wasn't terrible? Me neither. Here's a look at how the conference's playoff picture shapes up:

Clinched

Chicago (10-2) - The Bears are already in the playoffs and are guaranteed to win the NFC North. With two more wins than any other team, and a perfect 8-0 record in the NFC, they are also on the fast track to home field throughout the playoffs. Despite their comparative dominance, it's pretty easy to find a lot of reasons to feel less than confident about their post-season chances - with Rex Grossman and his 1.3 QB rating last game on the top of the list.

Secure

Seattle (8-4) - Seattle hasn't clinched yet, but they are three games up on San Francisco and St. Louis. They play the Niners once more, and they also have Arizona and Tampa Bay, so they should definitely be able to hold on to the top spot. They've struggled with injuries all year, but they are healthy again and could be a serious force when the playoffs start. Their schedule makes them a serious contender for the second first-round bye.

Dallas (8-4) - The Tony Romo-is-a-God argument took a bit of a hit this week with his sketchy performance, but the Cowboys were still good enough to win a division game on the road. They are two games up on both the Giants and the Eagles, and they should be able to pick on the Falcons and the Lions. Even with tough games against New Orleans and Philly, Parcells and his men are likely to win the conference, and to contend with Seattle for the No. 2 seed in the conference.

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New Orleans (8-4) - The surprising Saints are an offensive tour-de-force. They are two games up on Carolina and Atlanta. They have beat the Falcons twice, so it is unlikely Vick et al will pass them. Carolina is also two games back, but the way they collapsed against Philadelphia on Monday night makes it hard to believe that they have the desire to come out ahead. New Orleans would be in great shape if it weren't for their nasty schedule. Dallas, Washington, the Giants and Carolina are all potentially dangerous opponents.

Wild Card

This is a complete mess. After this week's Monday night game, Carolina, Philadelphia, the Giants and Atlanta are all at 6-6, and San Francisco, St. Louis, and Minnesota are a game back at 5-7. The most interesting part of this race is that none of the teams are playing like they really want it. Carolina gave up yet another fourth quarter lead against Philadelphia. The Eagles finally won a game, but they needed an amazing effort from Jeff Garcia to do it and they can't rely on that happening again.

The Giants have lost four in a row and have more problems than I could list in a month. Atlanta won last week, but had lost before that, and won't be a threat until they figure out what kind of offense they want to run. San Francisco went on a defense-fueled tear for a while, winning three in a row. They have come back down to earth with two straight losses, though. Minnesota has lost five of their last six and is getting truly terrible quarterbacking from previously reliable veteran Brad Johnson. It's hard to pick a winner from any of them. Maybe the NFC should just cancel the first round of the playoffs, and play a four-team tournament this year.

If I were to handicap the race I would start by eliminating Atlanta, St. Louis and Minnesota. The Vikes have a world of problems, St. Louis is airing their dirty laundry in public and Atlanta is too inconsistent and they won't get the leadership they will need from Michael Vick. On a talent basis the Giants should be a lock. Unfortunately, they have lost four in a row, the locker room is unsettled, Eli Manning is struggling and the schedule has no soft spots.

Something will have to change for this team over the course of the next month for them to make it. Carolina, with Keyshawn Johnson and Steve Smith, should also be able to make it, but Jake Delhomme is not playing well, and the team has given away five late leads this year. They aren't fighting like they have in the past. The conventional wisdom about Philadelphia is that they are done without Donovan McNabb. I don't necessarily buy that. Jeff Garcia won a Grey Cup and CFL MVP for my hometown Calgary Stampeders, and he has shown himself, both in San Francisco and on Monday night, to be a capable quarterback. He can get hot, he has an obvious chemistry with Donte Stallworth and he has the talent around him to make it work. Unfortunately, the Eagles have three straight road games starting next week.

With all of that to look at, it's hard to make a choice. If I had to I would look at Carolina and Philadelphia as the most likely victors in this sad race, but I am not that enthusiastic about those choices. I'd also want to look at San Francisco as my live longshot. Frank Gore is running incredibly well, the defense is good, Alex Smith is getting better every week and they have the softest schedule of any of the contenders. They need to win at least three games to be in the race. Two of their games are very winnable and the other two are tough, but not impossible. In a season this bad for the conference, at least the Niners are a good story and a deserving team. Ultimately, the two wild cards are probably going to get beaten badly in the first round anyway, so what does it matter?

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