With the Falcons at 9-2 and firmly belted in to the playoff bus, I thought it might be a good time to look at how the picture might shake out in the NFC.
It would help if you started with D. Orlando Ledbetter's informative article about the same topic here. Our favorite Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer breaks down the strength of schedules remaining for the various and sundry contenders left in the NFC, and he finds some good news for the Falcons. More on that in a minute.
It's worth noting for the record that the Falcons aren't going to rest on their laurels after locking up their third straight winning season. Per DOL from Mike Smith:
"It’s great to get winning season," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "But our expectations and our goals are a lot higher than that. We want to keep them internally, but we are progressing on our journey to where we want to be as a football team.
"In December that’s when the games become very important."
Your spirits properly buoyed, let's move into the breakdown by division. We'll start East and move our way through.
Eagles 7-4, Remaining Opponent Records (ROR) 22-33, Likely Final Record (LFR) 10-6, DIVISION WINNER
The Bears proved yesterday that you can beat the Eagles with stifling defense and a healthy dose of the pass, but not everyone is equipped to do so. The Eagles are also tied for the easiest remaining schedule among NFC contenders, so they're almost a lock to pull off a playoff berth.
Realistically, I can see them losing two more games to some combination of the Giants, resurgent Cowboys or Vikings or the enigmatic Texans. I'd be stunned if they managed to lose more than that, and 10-6 ought to be good enough to take the East. They're your division winner.
Giants 7-4, ROR 28-27, LFR 9-7
The Giants are a good team that can't seem to put it all together, and I just don't think it's in the cards for them this season.
With the Eagles, Packers and two games against the Redskins remaining, I can't imagine the Giants are finally going to dig themselves out of their hole and run the slate, which is what they'd have to do to get their head above the Eagles. Instead, I expect they'll muddle through, lose three of their final five and miss the playoffs. It's a disappointing season for an early NFC favorite, but that's football.
Bears 8-3, ROR 31-24, LFR 10-6, DIVISION WINNER
The hardest part of the Bears schedule is fast approaching, and I'm positive they're not coming out of it unscathed.
The Bears have the advantage of a division lead over the rival Packers right now, but they've got to face the Patriots, Jets and Packers again, not to mention the Vikings, who look like they're stumbling back to life. That's not a recipe for success, and I could see them losing three of those games. If they can take the Packers in their re-match, a 10-6 record will still be good enough for the division crown. They're going to need a continued brilliant effort from the defense and the version of Jay Cutler that doesn't throw doofy interceptions and write emo songs about it on the sideline.
Packers 7-4, ROR 29-25, LFR 10-6, WILDCARD
I came away from Sunday's game convinced that while the Packers are flawed, they're also a pretty awesome team. Optimism commences.
It may only get them a wildcard, but the Packers are in good shape here. The 49ers and Lions should be easy wins over the next two weeks, putting the Pack at 9-4. They need only win one more game out of a late season slate that includes the Bears, Patriots, and Giants. I think they'll ultimately fall to the Bears and Pats, but win against the Giants, locking up a playoff spot. Thankfully, that won't give them homefield in frigid Lambeau.
Falcons 9-2, ROR 22-33, LFR 13-3, DIVISION WINNER
Believe it or not, the Falcons have gotten the difficult portion of their season out of the way. That bodes well.
The challenges left on the schedule are the Bucs on the road and the Saints at home, both difficult but winnable games. I fear the Falcons will drop one of them, probably against the Bucs. That leaves them needing to beat the Saints and run the table against the truly awful 1-10 Panthers and a competent Seahawks team on the road.
I know we're worried about the road games, but I do think the Falcons are playing at a high enough level to pull that off. The Saints will give them hell at home, but I believe our boys will pull it off in the end. That leaves them with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
Be still, my heart!
Saints 8-3, ROR 31-24, LFR 11-5, WILDCARD
Poor Saints. If they were playing in any other division under my projects, they'd be the division winner. Such is the story of the competitive NFC South.
This is a very good team finding its stride, so the strength of schedule isn't as scary for them as it is for say the Giants. They should be able to take the Bengals and Rams without a problem, giving them 10 wins and the wildcard right there. From there, they'll split with the Falcons and Bucs, and I'm leaning toward a loss against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome and a win against the Bucs. They'll be the scariest Wild Card team out there, no question.
Bucs 7-4, ROR 29-26, LFR 10-6
It's going to be a heartbreaking off-season for the Bucs if things unfold this way, but again, such is the story of the competitive NFC South.
As stated, I'm picking the Bucs to beat the Falcons this week while they're at home. They'll lose to the Saints and either the Seahawks or Redskins, but not both. They'll easily handle the Lions. That will leave them with a shiny 10-6 record, but I'm predicting the playoff berth goes to the Packers. That's a rough way to go out.
Still, tons of promise on this team, and they'll be back to haunt the Falcons in 2011.
Rams 5-6, ROR 26-27, LFR 8-8, DIVISION WINNER
They'll beat the Cardinals, 49ers and Seahawks but will falter against the Saints and Chiefs. That leaves the Rams as an 8-8 playoff team and will surely set off a bitchstorm of epic proportions among those who would mandate a winning record as a necessary requirement for a berth in the big dance.
I don't disagree with that idea entirely, but I'm not here to talk about that. The Seahawks will end up 7-9, I believe, and will end up whiffing on the playoffs entirely. Unfortunately, this awful division will produce a playoff team while the vastly superior Bucs and Giants sit it out.
On the other hand, weaker field of playoff teams!
Feel free to weigh in on my projections!