Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 12/12/11
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The flip-flop of results, emotions and opportunity in the last week is typical of how fast playoff scenarios can change late in the NFL season. A week ago, the Lions were lamenting how a loss to the Saints kept them from taking advantage of week when the primary competitors for a wild-card berth in the NFC playoffs had lost. This week, the Lions and Falcons have a grip on the two wild cards because they won while the competition kept losing. The Lions have a clear-cut formula to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. If they win out, theyre guaranteed of being a wild card. Coach Jim Schwartz knows the formula, but he isnt looking at anything except Sundays game at Oakland. We know what situation were in, Schwartz said at his weekly Monday press conference. We know that every one of these games is going to be imp. That makes the Oakland Raiders more important because of the situation we are in. Weve got a three-game schedule. The significant portion of our schedule is the Oakland Raiders. That's the only thing we can worry about. We cant play any other ones right now. Its not the time of year to be looking at the scoreboard. Maybe not for coaches and players, but watching the scoreboard and analyzing playoff possibilities is fun for fans. So is predicting who gets in and who gets left out. With the NFCs wild-card contenders hitting the stretch drive at a full sprint, heres how the race to the finish is handicapped: 1. Falcons (8-5) Remaining schedule: Jaguars (4-9), at Saints (10-3), Bucs (4-9). Playoff forecast: Playing the Jags and Bucs at home gives them an easy path to a wild card. The Falcons have an outside chance to win the NFC South, but only if they beat the Saints. The Falcons couldnt do that at home. QB Matt Ryan threw 4 TD passes to lead Sundays comeback win over Carolina. Count them in as a wild card. 2. Lions (8-5) Remaining schedule: at Raiders (7-6), Chargers (6-7), at Packers (13-0). Playoff forecast: It doesnt help that the only remaining home game is against a Chargers team that is working on another strong finish and has healthy receivers for QB Philip Rivers. Count the season-ender at Green Bay as a loss. The Lions havent beaten the Packers on the road since 1991. That means the playoffs ride on the next two games -- plus the advantage of having tiebreaker advantages over the Cowboys and Bears. Count them as the leader as the second wild card, but nothing is sure. 3. Giants (7-6) Remaining schedule: Redskins (4-9), at Jets (8-5), Cowboys (7-6). Playoff forecast: Sunday nights win at Dallas gave them a double-dip at making the playoffs -- by winning the NFC East or as a wild card. Winning the division is the easier road. The Giants can do that by winning two of their last three games, as long as they beat the Cowboys in the final game. Eli Manning has solidified himself as an elite quarterback this season. 4. Cowboys (7-6) Remaining schedule: at Bucs (4-9), Eagles (5-8) at Giants (7-6). Playoff forecast: The last two losses -- in overtime at Arizona a week ago and Sunday night to the Giants -- have been devastating and could cost coach Jason Garrett his job. Beating the Bucs, who have lost seven straight, should be a lock. But the Eagles look revived, even though their season is over in terms of being a playoff contender. It would be hard to bet on the Cowboys winning if it comes down to win-and-in in the final road game against the Giants. 5. Bears (7-6) Remaining schedule: Seahawks (5-7 going into Monday night vs. the Rams), at Packers (13-0), at Vikings (2-11). Playoff forecast: Having Jay Cutler and Matt Forte out with injuries has cost the Bears any semblance of a playoff-caliber offense. Caleb Hanie has been a turnover machine in three losses to the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos. The Bears cannot win at Green Bay. That means they have to beat the Seahawks and Vikings and hope teams above them collapse. This is the season if miracles, but the Bears are stretching it. 6. Cardinals (6-7) Remaining schedule: Browns (4-9), at Bengals (7-6), Seahawks (5-7). Playoff forecast: Theyve won three straight and five of the last six to get to the fringe of wild-card competition. They need to win three straight, get help, and hope to win out on the tiebreaker.
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