Last season the NFC West sent a 7-9 team to the playoffs as division champions and with an automatic home game. The Hawks, the lucky recipient of that honor due to an exceedingly awful division, hosted an 11-5 Saints team at Qwest Field. That Saints team finished a couple games behind a 13-3 Falcons team and edged out the Packers for the fifth seed, who in turn had edged out the Giants and Buccaneers, both at 10-6, for the final Wild Card spot.
This season's playoff picture is markedly different. The Packers are undefeated and have clinched the North, and Detroit is ahead of Chicago. The Saints are fairly firmly in control of their division, the NFC South, this season at 10-3, trailed by the Falcons at 8-5, and this time around the Bucs have really fallen off and sit at 4-9, in last place behind Carolina. The NFC East is wide open, with New York and Dallas in front, and Philly still in the fight. Of course, the 49ers have clinched the West.
Surprisingly though, the Seahawks and Cardinals are now in a position to challenge for a Wild Card spot, and the Week 17 matchup in Phoenix, much like Seattle's Week 17 game against the Rams last season, just may have playoff implications.
If the Hawks and Cards win out to that point - they'll both sit at 8-7 and with the opportunity to finish out the year at 9-7. Depending on a whole myriad of things that may happen until then, the winner of that game could very well grab that final wild-card spot. Weird. What a difference a year makes, going from the laughing stock division of the NFL to one that may send two teams to the playoffs.
Here's where the teams sit, via ESPN:
As I said, the 49ers have clinched the division, but their grip on the NFC's 2nd-seed may be in danger. They lost to the Cardinals on Sunday, face the Steelers next week, then get a Seahawks team that matches up well with them the week after that. They finish with the Rams. Now, I'm not saying they'll lose all or any of those games, but their road to a first-round bye isn't easy. That said, the Saints get Minnesota, Atlanta, then Carolina - and none of those games are easily winnable either, setting up a fun finish to the end of the season for the playoff positioning.
The Niners will need to figure out how to score in the redzone more efficiently if they hope to have success now and in the playoffs. For now, their main job will be to not unravel and lose that swagger that got them to where they are right now. The Cardinals loss is a big one, make no mistake, as it hurts their divisional and conference record. And again, hosting the Steelers is no easy task.
The Cards are, surprisingly, now second in the division, pending Seattle's game today. At 6-7, they've put themselves in a position to make a run for the playoffs, winners of five out of their last six, with Cleveland, (at) Cincinnati, and Seattle remaining.
John Skelton replaced Kevin Kolb on Sunday and led his team to another win, to put him at 3-1 on the year. Kolb is still probably the better QB so they have some options. The Cards have some weapons on offense - a guy named Larry Fitzgerald and a running back named Beanie Wells - and one of the better cornerbacks in the league right now in Patrick Peterson. Their defensive line is playing well and Ray Horton's defense is starting to figure things out. Look out for the Cards.
The Rams aren't going to threaten for the playoffs but they can always be a thorn in the side of teams who are. They've fought off ridiculous amounts of injuries this season but have proven they have the ability to surprise, particularly for beating New Orleans, but also by hanging with Arizona twice, and beating Cleveland. Ok, that Cleveland game doesn't really tell us anything, but still.
Teams like the Rams make me nervous because other teams tend to overlook them. They're hurt, they're 2-10, and they're out of the playoff hunt, but that doesn't mean they don't have pride or a guy named Steven Jackson. If Sam Bradford can play this week and through the end of the season, he could potentially get into a groove that made him the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, and if that happens, watch out. I just keep going to that Saints game, and try not to underestimate this team.
Seattle is 3-1 in their last four and seem to have established a little bit of an identity on offense. They will now be without Russell Okung, to add to their losses of Sidney Rice, James Carpenter, and John Moffitt on offense in the last few weeks. They're fighting for a playoff spot and have a pretty favorable schedule to get there right now - wins against the Rams tonight, the Bears next week, then the 49ers and Cardinals to finish out the year will put them in a position, as I said above, to grab that final playoff spot.
Let's not put the cart before the horse though - with their severely depleted line, they may find it difficult to run, and that's been their bread and butter the last month. If they can't run, they'll look to pass first, and guess what that strategy did for them in the beginning of the year.... - not much.
Tonight's game will be pretty key for the Seahawks. If they can run on St. Louis, a bad run-defending team, there's still hope. If they can't, it might not be pretty down the stretch, at least for the offense.
Surprisingly, the NFC West is actually pretty compelling this year. The Cardinals are making a late dash to the finish, the 49ers aren't looking quite as dominating as they did early, and the Seahawks are starting to form an identity. A lot of different scenarios could play out these final three, four games for each team and it sure beats wondering if 7-9 will win you the division, as it did last year.