Break out the aspirin, folks, because there are bound to be more than a few heart attacks this December as the NFL schedule charges full steam ahead towards the playoffs with reckless abandon. We have a unique combination this season of a high amount of clubs competing for a playoff spot and a general lack of "coasting" - that is, teams who have an easy schedule down the stretch and can clinch a postseason berth with minimal effort. While the more exciting storylines are probably in the mediocre AFC, we're going to take a look at the NFC since that is of most interest to the Eagles. Looking at competitive clubs only, let's break down the conference team-by-team.
Seattle Seahawks (10-1)
Remaining Games: vs. New Orleans (9-2), at San Francisco (7-4), at New York Giants (4-7), vs. Arizona (7-4), vs. St. Louis (5-6)
The Seahawks are in great position to wrap up the NFC's top seed, which means they are in great position to go to the Super Bowl since they are next to impossible to beat at home. Of course, that's extreme speculation. New Orleans will prove to be a stiff test, but they have yet to show that they can win games across the country in the cold. So I think that Seattle secures homefield advantage by Week 16 and then rests their starters for the playoffs.
Prediction: Seattle goes 3-2 down the stretch, losing a thriller to the 49ers at Candlestick and then a meaningless game to the Rams in Week 17. Final record is 13-3, with the first seed in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints (9-2)
Remaining Games: at Seattle (10-1), vs. Carolina (8-3), at St. Louis (5-6), at Carolina (8-3), vs. Tampa Bay (3-8)
Unlike previous years in which they won the division, the Saints will have to fight to keep the Panthers at bay if they want a home game in January. Whoever wins this division is getting that plus a first-round bye, so New Orleans knows what's at stake. Carolina will certainly give them a run for their money, but I think that the Saints are just too experienced with playoff runs to give it all away in the last five games.
Prediction: New Orleans also goes 3-2. I think the Panthers take the second of their two matchups, and I already picked them to come up short in their massive game in Seattle. Final record is 12-4, with the second seed in the NFC.
Detroit Lions (7-5)
Remaining Games: at Philadelphia (6-5), vs. Baltimore (6-6), vs. New York Giants (4-7), at Minnesota (2-8-1)
Detroit's season winds down in a hurry in the second half of December. This bodes well for them, as I am not sure if they are disciplined enough to win their next two games. Before going off on the Packers, they had almost 230 yards of offense and three points to show for it. That's inexcusable.
Prediction: Detroit goes even, sandwiching losses to Baltimore and the Giants between road wins over Minnesota and Philadelphia. It sounds unlikely, I know, but this is the Lions we're talking about. They finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Remaining Games: at Chicago (6-5), vs. Green Bay (5-6-1), at Washington (3-8), vs. Philadelphia (6-5)
Well, so much for McMoxie pulling off the upset. Then again, we're getting into the home stretch, where Tony Romo has regularly failed in spectacular fashion. He does have a somewhat favorable schedule, but Aaron Rodgers should be back when they play the Packers, who will be playing for pride more than anything at that point. Don't be surprised if they catch the Cowboys napping.
Prediction: Dallas is Dallas in December. I think they lose to Chicago and Green Bay, handle the Redskins, and then lose their season finale (again) to Philadelphia. They finish 8-8 (again) and go golfing in January.
Carolina Panthers (8-3)
Remaining Games: vs. Tampa Bay (3-8), at New Orleans (9-2), vs. New York Jets (5-6), vs. New Orleans (9-2), at Atlanta (2-9)
The Panthers are for real (which is something my 'Crunching The Numbers' posts have been saying all along... shameless plug). But how they play in a December that actually matters to them will determine if they have to huff it on the road in the postseason or if they will be enjoying an extra bye week. They have the talent to win all of their remaining games, but I think their relative inexperience will prevent them from taking the division crown. I do think they will spoil the Buccaneers' recent success story, however.
Prediction: In their last five games, Carolina takes four of them, with their lone loss coming against the Saints. They finish 12-4, but lose the second seed to tiebreakers.
San Francisco 49ers (7-4)
Remaining Games: vs. St. Louis (5-6), vs. Seattle (10-1), at Tampa Bay (3-8), vs. Atlanta (2-9), vs. Arizona (7-4)
This isn't the same team that went to the Super Bowl last year, but they do have a halfway decent schedule down the stretch. However, I still seem them dropping a close one to a tenacious Buccaneers team and then their final game versus the Cardinals.
Prediction: The 49ers go 3-2, giving them a record of 10-6 and the sixth seed in the conference.
Chicago Bears (6-5)
Remaining Games: at Minnesota (2-8-1), vs. Dallas (7-5), at Cleveland (4-7), at Philadelphia (6-5), vs. Green Bay (5-6-1)
The Bears have a favorable schedule, depending on how you look at it. They have the unfortunate situation of having lost the series sweep to the Lions, but Detroit is so undisciplined that it's hard to write Chicago off completely. On the contrary, I have them turning things on down the stretch, seeing how Jay Cutler should be returning soon.
Prediction: The Bears take four of five, with their lone loss coming to the Packers in the season finale. They end up with a 10-6 record and win the NFC North, thanks in part to a Lions' implosion versus the Vikings.
Arizona Cardinals (7-4)
Remaining Games: at Philadelphia (6-5), vs. St. Louis (5-6), at Tennessee (5-6), at Seattle (10-1), vs. San Francisco (7-4)
The Cardinals have been a surprise this season, to say the least. While they are enjoying a four game win streak, they haven't exactly been playing top-tier competition. They will get tested down the stretch, and I think it will ultimately be too much for them.
Prediction: The Cardinals will lose games to the Eagles, Titans, and Seahawks. They do pull out wins against the Rams and 49ers but it won't be enough for them to play football in January. They go home with a much-improved record of 9-7.
So that leaves us with the Eagles. How is their season shaping up? Based upon what I said above, the Eagles will beat the Cardinals and Cowboys while losing to the Lions and Bears. Given that they are such a good road team, I see them handling the Vikings. This gives them a 9-7 record and the NFC East title.
But the overall takeaway here is that you can't really say that anything has been "decided" at this point. With so many competitive teams having games against each other in the last month of the regular season, the entire playoff landscape is a time bomb ready to go off, and there will be more than a few surprises when the dust settles. The Eagles can very well secure a wild card depending on how teams respond to the pressure of the home stretch. If you have some time to kill, I recommend you check out ESPN's Playoff Machine, which allows the user to pick individual games just to see what will happen. It's depressing how much time you can waste playing around with it, so click at your own risk.
No matter what happens, one thing is for sure. Unlike the eerily prophetic words of Jeffrey Lurie two years ago, these last games for the Eagles are not "fools' gold." They are quite the opposite. Chip Kelly, Pat Shurmur, and Billy Davis will be tested both offensively and defensively in every game down the stretch. If the Eagles make the postseason, they will have earned it and will most likely be the "hot" team.
And it all starts now.