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The NFC is crowded this season. In recent years, there would be scenarios where a team possessing a sub .500 records would make the playoffs, not the case this year. The competition has heated up and it looks a lot like the AFC playoff picture. So who is in and who is out?

1.     Green Bay Packers (12-0)

Green Bay is good, very good. Last year the Packers fell victim to the injury bug and still managed a 10-6 record, a wildcard berth, and ultimately a Super Bowl title. One would figure with everyone healthy Green Bay would better. This is the first time in franchise history the team is undefeated. Now many teams have flirted with perfection, such as the 2007 New England Patriots, who came up minutes short of completing the perfect season. Perfection should be the last thing on their minds. Green Bay survived a bit of a scare in their last second win over the New York Giants. Offensively, Aaron Rodgers looks better than ever. The Packers are fourth in total offense and third in passing yards per game this season. With all of their receivers healthy, there really looks to be no stopping this offense. The only concern for the Packers is their remaining schedule. Three of the final four games are against teams with winning records, most notably, the final game of the year versus the Detroit Lions. The Lions may be very well playing for their playoff lives in that game. Maybe the “pursuit of perfection” is overrated. In today’s NFL, the ultimate prize is a Super Bowl, it does not matter how you get there, as long as you are the last one standing.

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 2.     San Francisco 49ers (10-2)

San Francisco has surprised many football viewers this season. The notion of a first year head coach and what appeared to be a mediocre quarterback had many gurus’ dealing out little  respect to the bay area. Now that the 49ers are 10-2, there has been a mass movement across the NFL. San Francisco can play football. The biggest threat they pose to other teams is there run defense. The 49ers allow just less than 72 yards per game on the ground. To put that number in perspective, the Baltimore Ravens are second in the league and they allow 88 yards per game on the ground. The 49ers are fifth in the league in total defense. The offense, while not lighting up the score sheet has been capable but it mainly has been teams not being able to score against that stingy defense. The 49ers have already clinched the NFC West and with a favorable schedule, playing only one team with a winning record. San Francisco may stay at the second seed. In Week 14, San Francisco plays host to the Steelers. This would be a great barometer as to who they are as a football team and where they stack up against the league’s perennial powerhouses.

 3.     New Orleans Saints (8-3)

This comes as no surprise that the New Orleans Saints are in the top three in the NFC. They are tops in the NFL in both total offense and passing yard per game. Drew Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino’s single season passing record as well. Over the last decade, the image of the Saints has transformed from zeros to high-flying offensive heroes. Therefore, fans of the team have come to expect these types of numbers from them. New Orleans is cleverly balanced for a pass first organization. Ranked eighth in the league in rushing yards per game, the Saints average 123 yards on the ground. Just as soon as the offense put up a touchdown, the defense gives it back. New Orleans ranks in the bottom half in total defense at number 27. They allow 22 points per game, but have given up in the thirties this year. For a team to go far in the playoffs, the defense has to come up with stops. Although New Orleans can go punch for punch with the best of them, their fate in January may be sealed when playing a defensively sound football team, but never count them out as long as number nine is under center.

 4.     Dallas Cowboys (7-5)

Dallas is the first of the 7-5 NFC teams. With the lead in the East, it’s not smooth sailing for Tony Romo and his club. Tony Romo is an interesting prospect, known for his great starts and not so great finishes, he has gotten the job done so far this season. After the week one let down loss to the Jets, many doubted if Romo was ever going to be “the guy” for America’s team. Rest assured, he was poised and effective in comeback wins against San Francisco and Washington in following weeks, the Romo buzz was back. Coming off their third straight loss to a mediocre Arizona team has fans wondering again if Tony can deliver. The play of wide-out sensations Dez Bryant and Miles Austin will have to get better if the ‘Boys want to see Romo get better. Both Austin and Bryant have been on and off the playing field with lingering injuries this season. It will have to be the defense that carries this organization through the playoffs. The Dallas defense ranks in the top half of the league in total defense. The Cowboys claim to fame is their ability to get after the quarterback. Sack-artist DeMarcus Ware leads the team with 15.0 of their combined 35.0 sacks on the year. If there is anywhere for this team to go in January, it will be the defense leading the way. Not everyone is sold on Romo just yet, and there is good reason not to be.

 5.     Chicago Bears (7-5)

After a disappointing loss to Kansas City, head coach Lovie Smith said at his post-game press conference that his team “needs to be better in all three phases of the games.” The Bears lost starting quarterback Jay Cutler for at least the rest of the regular season. On Sunday, they started rookie Caleb Hanie. While Hanie looked decent, the game plan was a heavy dosage of Matt Forte. Once Forte left the game with a knee sprain, Hanie could not deliver when he needed to. That has been the story for the Bears this entire season. Defensively sounds, yet the offense cannot seem to put it together when it needs to. Ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in total offense, the injury to Cutler may have put a fork in a season filled with high expectations. The Bears play on the road three of the four remaining weeks, including a trip to Lambeau Field. The Bears do have a winning record on the road, but if they want to be playing in January, they need to take the advice of their young quarterback and “do whatever they can to bounce back and be ready.”

 6.     Atlanta Falcons (7-5)           

Atlanta knew in the offseason what they had to do to take the next step in becoming an elite team. They traded their drafting lives away to Cleveland for the sixth overall pick and number one receiver Julio Jones. Unfortunately, Jones has spent a portion of his rookie year nursing a hamstring injury, and thus we have 2011 Atlanta Falcons. They are the epitome of inconsistency. While playing in a not so competitive division, the Falcons have beaten teams they should have, but also have lost to some of those teams. Matt Ryan has surpassed all expectations in his first two seasons, but in his third year has looked human at best. The remaining four games of the Falcons schedule could prove to be difficult. Out of the four only one is a non-division game against Jacksonville. Let us be reminded that although the Jaguars offense ceases to exist, their defense shut down the likes of Baltimore on Monday Night Football. Playing against an emerging Cam Newton and a Saints team lead by Drew Brees, it is hard to say that the Falcons will remain at the six seed come the end of the regular season.

In the Hunt:

While the Seahawks and Cardinals would make a great story, they both still have a divisional matchup with the 49ers. With both teams sporting a 5-7 record, they would need to win out and that does not seem likely. Although, Pete Carol does have his players playing some inspired football. The Detroit Lions were, at the start of the season, the “sexy” playoff pick. When Ndamukong Suh predicted a 16-0 season, he showed confidence within his team and, thus, the Lions got out to a 5-2 start. Once the dust settled, and team started to get better, the Lions stayed the same. Now on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in, the Lions need their defensive leader, Suh, more than ever. Suh is serving a two game suspension, but the schedule looks favorable. The only true test will come at the end of the year when Suh plays his “revenge” game against division foe and possibly unbeaten Green Bay. If there is any team to overtake the Bears or Falcons at this stage, it is the Lions. The New York Giants have a rough schedule down the stretch. Playing a home and home with the Cowboys, the Giants also face their inner-state rival, the New York Jets. Even if they win three of the next four, they would need help being a full game behind the Lions in the hunt for the six seed. The Giants, like many teams, may fall victim to bad luck and with a 10-6 record at the end of the regular season, will miss the playoffs.

Whats Your Verdict?