At the moment, the primary intrigue about the NFC playoff race is at the bottom of the seven-team postseason field. The seventh spot is currently occupied by a team with a losing record but there are seven teams with either five or six wins and every one of them has a legitimate shot at getting an invitation to the dance.
However, as the regular season draws closer to its end, the focus will probably shift to the top of the standings, where are least three teams are likely to be vying for number-one seed and the lone first-round bye. The second seed is a nice consolation prize, too, as it guarantees that team at least two home games to start the playoffs if it wins the first one. The Buccaneers are in that group.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 12 weeks:
1. Arizona (9-2), NFC West Leader
The Cardinals were idle in Week 12, and while that allowed both the Packers and Buccaneers to creep a half-game closer to them in the standings it was probably for the best. The late bye gave extra recovery time to quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who have each missed Arizona's last three games due to injury. The Cardinals probably need to get both of those standouts back on the field soon in order to hold on to the number-one seed, particularly since they would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Green Bay. Arizona will come out of its bye with three straight games against teams that have been struggling of late (or struggling all year): the Bears, Rams and Lions. However, the final stretch run includes tough tests against the Colts and at Dallas, so even with the number-one seed currently in hand the Cardinals don't have much margin for error.
2. Green Bay (9-3), NFC North Leader
The Cardinals were probably torn on Sunday while watching the Packers take on the Rams. The Packers simultaneously moved to within a half-game of the top seed (bad!) and gave Los Angeles its third straight loss and pushed the Rams two games back in the NFC West (good!). The Packers are only 2-2 in their last four games but they played very well in a last-second loss at Minnesota in Week 11 and were without Aaron Rodgers for their Week Nine loss at Kansas City. Overall, Green Bay appears to be playing as well as any contender in the NFC and will also now get the benefit of a very late bye week, which is helpful for a squad that has dealt with – and largely overcome – a long list of injuries on both sides of the ball. The Packers will come out of the bye with an attractive home game against Chicago but then has a very interesting three-game slate of at Baltimore and at home against Cleveland and Minnesota. As noted above, the Packers' Week Eight win at Arizona may eventually be weaponized in the hunt for the top overall seed in the conference.
3. Tampa Bay (8-3), NFC South Leader
The Bucs got a "quality win" at Indianapolis, beating a red-hot Colts team to get back to an even record on the road. Tampa Bay has three road games remaining, beginning with next weekend's quick hop north to Atlanta. The Panthers and Jets await as hots in Weeks 16 and 17. With Green Bay winning and Dallas losing in Week 12, the Buccaneers would have stayed in the third spot in the conference standings no matter their result in Week 12, but the win was very helpful in the quest for one of the top two seeds. The primary issue for the Bucs is their 5-3 record in games against NFC teams, particularly since they won't play either the Cardinals or Packers in the regular season. With no head-to-head tiebreaker applicable, the first difference-maker in the standings between those three teams would be conference record. Green Bay is looking good in that regard with a 7-2 mark against NFC teams, while the Cardinals are at 5-2 and the Buccaneers are at 5-3. Two of Green Bay's final three intra-conference games are against the Bears and Lions, so it seems likely that the Bucs would have to pass the Packers outright in the standings to beat them to a one or two seed.
4. Dallas (7-4), NFC East Leader
The Cowboys have lost three of their last four games but still have a two-game lead in the NFC East, which was won last year by a 7-9 Washington team. The Cowboys have also already beaten the Eagles and Giants, but four of their last six games are against division opponents so Dallas could still be in for a fight for the East crown if one of the other three teams gets hot. Washington, notably, has won three games in a row. The Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day loss to the Raiders made their path to a one or two seed a lot more difficult, particularly since they lost to the Buccaneers in Week One. The next game for Dallas is in New Orleans, against a sliding Saints team that has lost four games in a row. The Cowboys also get a crack at the Cardinals in Week 17, which could be a critical match in terms of conference seeding.
5. L.A. Rams (7-4), Wild Card #1
The Rams have occupied the fifth seed in the NFC standings for a while but their grip on that spot isn't quite as strong as it used to be. Los Angeles has lost three in a row and looked outmatched against one of the top NFC contenders in Green Bay this past Sunday. A Week 10 loss at San Francisco also is a potential problem given that the 49ers have climbed to within a game of the Rams in the conference standings. Those two teams will meet again in the final weekend of the regular season, a game that may interest the Buccaneers greatly if they are still in first in the NFC South and wondering which Wild Card team will be headed to Tampa. Los Angeles has a good chance to get back on track in Week 13 with the 2-9 Jaguars visiting, but the remainder of the schedule is hazardous. The Rams have a rematch with the Cardinals in Week 14 – Arizona gave Los Angeles its only loss in the season's first eight weeks – and still must play the Vikings, Ravens and 49ers.
6. San Francisco (6-5), Wild Card #2
The 49ers, winners of three straight and four of their last five, jumped all the way from the eighth seed to the second Wild Card spot in Week 12 with their impressive win over a Minnesota team that had been on a roll. San Francisco is now one of just six teams in the NFC with a winning record and will get a crumbling Seahawks team next week, albeit in Seattle. The main concern for the 49ers at the moment is their 5-4 record against NFC teams; Washington, right behind them in the standings is 5-2 in conference games and Minnesota is 4-3 with more opportunities to improve that mark. The second concern for San Francisco is that it has three tough road trips left, to Cincinnati, Tennessee and Los Angeles for that aforementioned season-ender against the Rams. The good news for Niners fans is that their team has been impressive on the road, with a 4-1 record so far.
7. Washington (5-6), Wild Card #3
The Football Team rivals San Francisco for the title of hottest team among the Wild Card teams, having won three in a row after Monday night's escape against Seattle. A team that had lost four straight and had scored an average of 14 points a game in that stretch has come out of its Week Nine bye on a roll and even has an outside shot at challenging the Cowboys for the NFC East title. Whatever happens with Washington, their stretch run is going to give an indication of how strong the East actually is because, after this weekend's game at Las Vegas the Football Team will close with five straight division contests. That includes two games against Dallas, which is a direct opportunity to close the two-game gap in the East standings. The best thing Washington has going for it is that four of its six losses have come against AFC teams, leaving them with a very attractive 5-2 conference record.
On the outside…
8-9-10. Minnesota (5-6), Atlanta (5-6), New Orleans (5-6)
Minnesota lost a golden chance to strengthen their playoff hopes with a loss at San Francisco on Sunday, which led directly to those two teams flipping spots in the conference standings. Minnesota's next three opponents – Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago – are all currently scuffling but games against the Rams and Packers follow that run. Atlanta has lost three of its last five but is still in solid position to make a playoff run. The Falcons' 2-5 conference record is a problem, though, as are upcoming games against the Buccaneers, 49ers and Bills. The Saints have lost four straight but may be getting some important starters back from injury soon, including Alvin Kamara and several offensive linemen. They host the Dallas Cowboys this Thursday night. Minnesota has the top spot in this tied segment due to a 4-3 conference record, and Atlanta is next because it beat the Saints in Week Nine.
11-12. Philadelphia (5-7), Carolina (5-7)
These two teams are tied as they were last week but they allowed Atlanta to hop over them in the standings. The Eagles had won three of four to jump into Wild Card contention but suffered a disheartening 13-7 road loss to the Giants on Sunday. The Panthers lost their second in a row, both with Cam Newton under center, and will now be without Christian McCaffrey for the rest of the season. They do get a bye in Week 13 and if nothing else could play spoiler with two games against the Bucs in the last three weeks. Philadelphia has both a head-to-head win over the Panthers and a superior conference record.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers will get a chance to make the playoff road much bumpier for the Falcons with a trip to Atlanta this weekend. All four of Tampa Bay's remaining NFC games are against teams in its own division, and improving its record against conference opponents is of utmost importance down the stretch.