The 17th week of the 2022 regular season (which concluded in 2023) settled much of the playoff picture in the NFC. Six of the seven spots have been claimed and only three teams are still contention for the last one. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the third team to clinch one of the NFC's four division with a win over Carolina and locked themselves into the fourth overall seed.
Ironically, the team with the best record in the conference is the only division leader that has yet to secure a title. The Philadelphia Eagles clinched a playoff spot weeks ago, but two straight losses while star quarterback Jalen Hurts has been sidelined with a shoulder injury has kept the NFC East in doubt until the final weekend. That in turn is keeping the Buccaneers waiting to find out their opponent in the Wild Card round. It's down to two just two possibilities: whichever team does not win the East between the Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 17 weeks:
1. Philadelphia (13-3), NFC East Leader
The Eagles get a home date against the New York Giants to wrap the regular season up, but they really need is to get Hurts back in the lineup. (Getting star offensive tackle Lane Johnson back from his groin injury is arguably as important but isn't going to happen before the postseason.) The Eagles battled hard behind Gardner Minshew in a 40-34 Week 16 loss at Dallas, but last Sunday's 20-10 loss to the Saints was a disappointing way to leave the door open for the Cowboys. The Giants won't have much to play for in next Sunday's game, as they will remain in the sixth spot in the conference, win or lose. The Eagles don't want to leave their division fate in the hands of the Cowboys, who will be playing against Carson Wentz in Washington. While much of the standings have been codified, the Eagles are teetering on a precipitous edge, either winding up with a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs or a long postseason road as a Wild Card team.
2. San Francisco (12-4), NFC West Winner
While the Eagles have struggled without Hurts, the 49ers have chugged right along with rookie Brock Purdy at the helm, winning four straight, including an overtime thriller over the Raiders on New Year's Day. San Francisco has now won nine games in a row and are relatively healthy outside of the Jimmy Garoppolo injury that forced the team to go to their 'Mr. Irrelevant.' Their latest win allowed them to overtake the Vikings for the second seed in the conference, which is most relevant as it keeps them alive in the race for the first-overall seed. The 49ers have the best record in conference games (9-2) among all the NFC contenders, which not only gives them their current tiebreaker over the Vikings but is the reason they can still catch the Eagles. If San Francisco beats the floundering Arizona Cardinals at home in Week 18 and the Eagles fall to the Giants, the 49ers will usurp the top spot.
3. Minnesota (12-4), NFC North Winner
The Vikings have had the NFC North locked up for weeks, but the Green Bay Packers still dealt them a significant blow with a 41-17 blowout in Week 17. The loss means that the Vikings now have no shot at that very valuable first-round bye. The Eagles hold onto that prize with a win in Week 18 and, as noted, the 49ers would take it with a win and a Philly loss. If both Philadelphia and San Francisco lose, the Vikings could tie the Eagles for the best record in the conference but it wouldn't matter in terms of getting that bye, thanks to Minnesota's Week Two loss at Philadelphia. (And that's not even taking into account the potential role of the Cowboys in this fight for the top seed.) The Vikings could still retake the second spot in the standings with a win and a 49ers loss, but it's unclear if that would be much of an advantage.
4. Tampa Bay (8-8), NFC South Winner
In Week 16, the Buccaneers took care of their own business in the NFC South race with a Christmas night win in Arizona but it wasn't enough to wrap things up because the Panthers stunned the previously-hot Detroit Lions that same weekend. In Week 17, the Bucs had a shot at handling the situation directly and were able to take advantage with a comeback 30-24 win over Carolina at Raymond James Stadium. That clinched the division and eliminated both the Panthers and Saints from playoff contention. Tampa Bay will start the playoffs at home for the second season in a row but what looked like an obvious opponent just a few weeks ago – Dallas – is now anything but. The Buccaneers will be trying to finish with a winning record and build some momentum heading into the playoffs on Sunday in Atlanta, but the games in Philadelphia and Washington are arguably more important to their path ahead.
5. Dallas (12-4), Clinched Wild Card #1 (if not division winner)
Dallas didn't have much trouble with Tennessee on Thursday night, particularly with the Titans playing without an injured Ryan Tannehill and resting Derrick Henry in what was a meaningless game to them. Tennessee was focused on an AFC South winner-take-all battle with Jacksonville in Week 18 and didn't put up much of a fight in a 27-13 decision. Unlike the Vikings, the Cowboys do still have a shot at the first-round bye. They would need to win the division, obviously, and they would also need the Cardinals to upset the 49ers. If all that happened, the Cowboys would either be the division winner with the best record at 13-4, or tied at that mark with the Vikings. And Dallas beat Minnesota, rather handily, in Week 11.
6. N.Y. Giants (8-6-1), Clinched Wild Card #2
As noted earlier, the Giants will stay in the sixth spot in the NFC standings no matter what happens in Week 18, but they appear to be leading towards playing most of their starters in Philadelphia. New York clinched its spot in the dance with a 38-10 blowout of the fading Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The Giants are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016, accelerating what looked to be a rebuild in Brian Daboll's first season as the head coach.
7. Seattle (8-8), Wild Card #3
Here's where it gets interesting. The Seahawks currently have a hold on the final Wild Card spot in the NFC, but it is tenuous at best. Weirdly, that top spot actually hinges on the fact that Detroit beat Green Bay way back in Week Nine, but that's a tiebreaker that will be rendered moot if the Packers even things up with the Lions in Week 18. Since all three teams are tied at 8-8, the first step in the tiebreaker system is to eliminate all but one team from each division. So you begin by applying that Detroit Week Nine win and knocking out the Packers. Then you start over between the Seahawks and the Lions, and Seattle takes it because they won in Detroit in Week Four. If Seattle and Green Bay both win in Week 18, it will be just the two of them in the tiebreaker and the Packers would get in based on a better conference record. Seattle finishes its season at home against the five-win Rams but is going to need some help from the Lions.
On the outside…
8. Detroit (8-8)
It's an unbalanced relationship between the Lions and Seahawks (as one would expect in nature). The Seahawks want the Lions to win but the Lions want the Seahawks to win. The problem for Detroit is that it might all be a moot point by the time they take the field in Green Bay on Sunday night. If Seattle takes care of business against Arizona, the Lions will know they can't make the playoffs even if they do upset the Packers. The Seahawks have to win to stay alive, but in doing so will be stripping Detroit of its motivation to finish the second half of the equation.
9. Green Bay (8-8)
All of which brings us to a ninth seed that somehow controls its own playoff destiny with one week to play. The Packers have won four in a row after running the Vikings out of Lambeau on Sunday and now get to stay home for another week and watch the temperatures drop in Green Bay waiting to welcome the Lions in for a night game. For the reasons elucidated above, the Packers are the only team of the three fighting for the last spot that actually 'controls its own destiny.' Aaron Rodgers and the offense seem to be finding a rhythm finally and Rodgers in particular appears to be brimming with confidence.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers head to Atlanta in search of a third straight season sweep over their division rivals. The Falcons snapped a four-game losing streak in Week 17 with a last-second 20-19 win over the Cardinals and while the offense behind rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder isn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard, the Falcons' defense has been relatively stingy of later. Each of their last five opponents has scored between 17 and 21 points. The Buccaneers don't need the win for playoff positioning but would like to build some momentum heading into the playoffs and don't plan to rest their regulars.