Packers control NFC playoff race but have no margin for error

There is a way for Green Bay to gain some breathing room


GREEN BAY – Well, suddenly things are a lot less complicated than they were a week ago.

With the Packers having secured the NFC North title and tied the Saints for the best record in the NFC at 10-3 – with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand – Green Bay needs no more help in order to secure the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs. With that top spot comes the only first-round bye in this year's new playoff structure, plus home-field advantage of course.

All the Packers have to do is win out, but this is the NFL, so of course that's no cinch. In that context, this examination will include the Week 15 matchups that could impact Green Bay's status in the event of a loss, and therefore which outcomes would give the Packers some margin for error.

It obviously has to start with the Saints, who are hoping to win out and have the Packers lose once to take back the conference's top spot. New Orleans (10-3) hosts current AFC top seed Kansas City (12-1), and it's a no-brainer to cheer for the Chiefs to beat the Saints.

There are three other teams that, mathematically, still have a chance to finish with a better record than the Packers and move ahead of them in the playoff seeding.

Two of those are the Rams and Seahawks, both 9-4 and fighting for the NFC West title. Only the division winner, not both, would have a chance to earn a higher playoff seed than Green Bay. These two will play each other next week, possibly to decide the NFC West crown, but in the meantime it wouldn't hurt from the Packers' perspective for either or both to pick up a fifth loss.

So, with Seattle (9-4) playing at Washington (6-7) and Los Angeles (9-4) hosting the New York Jets (0-13), pull for Washington to knock off the Seahawks and for the Jets to upset the Rams.

The only other team with a chance to leapfrog the Packers in the playoff pecking order is the Buccaneers, who are 8-5 and own a head-to-head tiebreaker over Green Bay. Tampa Bay would have to take the NFC South from New Orleans first for the conversation to be relevant, but at two games back with three to play, the Bucs still have a chance to do that.

Naturally then, in order to eliminate the longshot possibility of such a strong, late move, as Tampa Bay travels to Atlanta (4-9), root for the Falcons to drop the Bucs.

Last but not least is a game that won't impact the Packers' playoff status, but will factor into the NFC wild-card race. The division rival Bears and Vikings are squaring off with identical 6-7 records. The winner will remain in the playoff chase with the loser possibly (or all but) eliminated.

There isn't necessarily a right answer here. It's more a preference based on possible scenarios.

Next week, Minnesota plays New Orleans, so if the desire is for Minnesota to still have something to play for in that game, then hope for the Vikings to win. That choice would also line up with potentially giving Chicago nothing to play for against the Packers in Week 17.

But, NFC North fans can have strong feelings, and some would just as soon see the Vikings knocked out, given that they beat the Packers back in Week 8. In that case, siding with the Bears might be more attractive.