NFC Playoff Picture

1. Philadelphia (12-1)
2. Atlanta (10-3)
3. Green Bay (8-5)
4. Seattle (7-6)

5. Minnesota (7-6)
6. Carolina (6-7)

7. St. Louis (6-7)
8. 6 teams tied at (5-8)


1.) Carolina wins the tiebreaker over St. Louis by virtue of beating them in Week 14.

I want to know what John Fox told the Carolina Panthers at halftime in San Francisco. Seriously.

This team was 1-7, utterly devastated by injuries and trailing 17-3 to the lowly 49ers, who were also 1-7. Then they came out in the second half of that game and blew the Niners away. Four more wins later, they are right in the thick of the playoff picture, not to mention the darlings of every pundit on the block.

How many teams have started the season 1-7 and made it to the playoffs? How many of them had to use a sixth-string running back to get there? This may be the most stunning turnaround in NFL history.

Unfortunately, the Panthers are not out of the woods yet, thanks to a complicated stew of tiebreakers. Carolina has the edge over St. Louis, thanks to this win, but not Seattle, thanks to this loss. St. Louis also swept Seattle, so the Rams own the NFC West tiebreaker. Thus, if St. Louis, Seattle and Carolina all finish 8-8 — which is a distinct possibility — then St. Louis wins the division, and Seattle nudges Carolina out of the last Wild Card spot.

However, there is one more X-factor in play here — the Minnesota Vikings, who are 7-6 and appear to be starting their annual December decline. If the Vikings also finish 8-8, then it gets complicated. Here’s how I think it would play out:

The first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchups, which Seattle wins, because they beat both Carolina and Minnesota. The last Wild Card spot then comes down to division record. At 2-1 in the NFC South, the Panthers half a half-game edge in that tiebreaker over the Vikings, who are 2-2 in the NFC North with games looming against Detroit and Green Bay. Let’s say that the Panthers go 2-1 in the last three games to finish 8-8. Let’s also say that the Vikings win one of their two division games and lose at Washington in the final week. Carolina finishes 4-2 in the NFC South, and Minnesota finishes 3-3. The Panthers are in.

On the other hand, the six teams that are 5-8 are still mathematically alive, so any one of them could also win out and play havoc on the tiebreaking system.

Confused yet? You will be…

Key NFC matchups to watch in Week 15:

1.) Carolina at Atlanta (SAT, 8:30 PM, ESPN)

If you’re the Carolina Panthers, Michael Vick is the last person you want to see right now. The Panthers struggled last season against Vick, who passed for 179 yards and ran for 141 in his first game back after injury, a game the Falcons won in overtime. In 2002, the Falcons won both games against the Panthers by a combined score of 71-0. In those two games, Vick had 111 rushing yards and completed 35 of 49 passes for 450 total yards and two TDs. If the Panthers want to prove that they are truly playoff-worthy, they must win this game.

As for the Falcons, they have already clinched the NFC South and are two games ahead of Green Bay for a first-round bye with three left. They are also two games behind Philadelphia, so home-field advantage is nearly out of reach. With their playoff position pretty secure, this may be a letdown game for them. At least, that’s what we Panthers fans are hoping…

2.) Seattle at N.Y. Jets (SUN, 1:00 PM, FOX)
3.) St. Louis at Arizona (SUN, 4:05 PM, FOX)

Here’s the other reason why the Panthers must win on Saturday. Seattle is facing a Jets team that showed off incredible defensive speed last Sunday in Pittsburgh. The Seahawks will have lots of trouble with Curtin Martin, too. Meanwhile, the Rams, hobbled as they may be, gets the only team that San Francisco has beaten all year. It’s not hard to imagine both teams finishing up Sunday at 7-7, which puts St. Louis back in the driver’s seat in the NFC West, which is not good for the Panthers.

4.) Minnesota at Detroit (SUN, 1:00 PM, FOX)

Will the annual December slide continue for the Vikings? Detroit gave Green Bay all it could handle last week, but fell just short. If the Lions can pull off the upset, they could put the Vikings in a very precarious playoff position. Mike Tice must really want that head coaching job at U. of Washington if he’s calling for Randy Moss to pass the ball late in the game.

5.) Jacksonville at Green Bay (SUN, 4:15 PM, CBS)

Green Bay has the lead and the tiebreaker (for now) in the NFC North, but Jacksonville is also fighting for the last Wild Card spot in the AFC, and the Jags will hit you in the mouth on defense. If Green Bay can stand up to this team, they can solidify their hold on the division.

.) Dallas at Philadelphia (SUN, 1:00 PM, FOX)

An Eagles win and a Falcons loss wraps up home field advantage for Philadelphia. The Cowboys fell out of the hunt after choking against the Saints, so all they have to play for is their pride. If Vinny Testaverde is still starting, they won’t have much of that left, either.

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