Is it too early to start looking at the NFC playoff picture? It is if you are an player or coach. They would likely tell you "It's one game at a time." Since we in the media and as fans don't have to live by that rule, let's take a peak.
Here is how I expect things to finish:
#1 Seed: Green Bay Packers (10-0)
Will they remain unbeaten? That's the big question with the Packers. They just might do it. In the final six games they have a pretty tough stretch run to remain perfect with match ups against four potential playoff teams. Green Bay has a Thanksgiving match-up with division rival Detroit. The Lions (7-3) are in the thick of things, and Detroit is finally playing a game that matters on Turkey Day. The home field advantage could be just enough to give the Lions a chance at the upset. However, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers is just too good right now, and I don't see it happening. In week 13, the Pack attack visits the New York Giants. The G-men will be coming off a short week against New Orleans, and potentially a three game losing streak. The Giants might just be the team to knock the Packers off their unbeaten perch. After the two game road stretch, the Packers return home to host the Raiders. While Oakland has been solid this year, I don't think they have the firepower to derail the Packers. In week 15, Green Bay travels to Kansas City. Have you watched the Chiefs this year? Yeah, without a doubt they don't have what it will take to beat the Packers and Mr. Rodgers. Then it's onto the Chicago Bears. The Monsters of the Midway invade Lambeau Field possibly fighting for their play off lives, but likely without their gun slinging quarterback Jay Cutler. I know it's a divisional game, but Chicago doesn't get it done. So the Packers enter the final week of the regular season with just one loss, as they host the Detroit Lions. If everything is wrapped up (the number 1 seed); the Packers could rest their starters and get ready for the postseason. The Lions could end up beating the Packer backups to get them into the playoffs.
#2 Seed: San Francisco 49ers (9-1)
Coach Jim Harbaugh and the Niners are flat out getting it done in the NFC. They've won 8 straight with a stout defense and pretty productive ball control offense. San Francisco is off to a 9 and 1 start and could be in line for the second seed in the NFC playoff race. The Niners take on Baltimore in a sibling rivalry game (Jim's brother Jon Harbaugh is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens). This will be a tough one for San Francisco, but I think they get it done. The final 5 games for the 49ers are less than daunting with a week 15 match-up against Pittsburgh as the only stumbling block. San Francisco plays four divisional opponents down the stretch, and if you haven't noticed, the NFC West is terrible. The Niners could finish the regular season with an unbelievable 14 and 2 record. Considering what they looked like in the preseason, this would be the biggest surprise in the NFL 2011 season. Everybody is sitting around waiting with baited breath to see if the Niners fall apart. I wouldn't count on that happening. They are for real.
#3 Seed: New Orleans Saints (7-3)
This spot is tricky. Nonetheless the Saints can't, and won't, catch the San Francisco 49ers or the Green Bay Packers for the top spots in the conference. New Orleans has a tough schedule down the stretch, beginning this Monday night in week 12 at home against the New York Giants. The G Men are coming off a two game losing streak. In week 13, the Saints host the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night Football. The Lions are going to be fighting for their playoff lives. The Saints still have a match-up with Atlanta at home looming on the horizon, and they have a tough road game against the Vikings. I know it's Minnesota (2-8), but that place is always a tough venue for visiting teams. The Saints will win the NFC south, but they won't be any higher than the third seed in the conference. That guarantees them at least one home playoff game.
#4 Seed: Dallas Cowboys (6-4)
Yes, the Cowboys win the East. Looking at the New York Giants schedule down the stretch it isn't favorable for the G Men to win the division. Like it or not, the Cowboys are playing with confidence right now and are starting to hit their stride. Dallas kicks off the final six game stretch this Thursday at home against the suddenly surging Miami Dolphins. The Cowboys do have two games against the New Giants remaining in the final stretch and one more against the Eagles. Dallas also has contests against Arizona and Tampa mixed in there as well.
#5th Seed: (Wild card) Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
While the Dirty Birds won't win the NFC South, they still get in the postseason. Four out the final six opponents for the Falcons have losing records. Jacksonville (3-7), Minnesota (2-8), Tampa (4-6), and Panthers (2-8) are all waiting to be put out of their misery. The Falcons also have another shot at the Saints (7-3) and take on the Houston Texans (7-3). The worst case scenario for the Falcons is to finish at 10 and 6. I think they finish 11 and 5. If the Falcons beat the Saints on December 26th in the Superdome, you could see New Orleans as the Wild Card.
#6th Seed: (wild card) Detroit Lions (7-3)
The Lions have cooled off after starting the season undefeated through five games. They have a murderous final six weeks of the season with two games against Green Bay and a Sunday night contest versus New Orleans in the Superdome. The Lions also have a long trip to the West Coast to battle the AFC West leading Oakland Raiders. Minnesota and San Diego also dot the Lions schedule down the stretch. If they recapture their "mojo," Detroit could be a tough out in the postseason. Unfortunately for them, they play in the same division as the Green Bay Packers.
In the Hunt:
Unlike the AFC, the list of "bubble teams" isn't very long in the NFC. The Bears (7-3) have resurrected their season after starting out poorly, they adjusted their offense to fit more of Jay Cutler's strengths and they looked poised to make a good run in the NFC, and then disaster struck. Cutler broke his thumb and requires surgery. The team expects Cutler to return before the end of the regular season. I just wonder if they can stay in the picture while he's out. The Giants are also a team that is currently above .500 (6-4) that could end up missing the playoffs. I think the Lions and Falcons just have the inside track to the two wild card spots. After that you have the Eagles, Seahawks, and Buc's at 4 and 6, needing a lot of help to make it in. Crazier things have happened for sure. But this is how I see things shaping up in the NFC playoff race. The only thing I can pretty much bank on is that nobody, I mean nobody, will catch Green Bay for the top spot. Other than that, it's still pretty wide open.