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Still a lot to sort out in NFC playoff field

49ers-Rams game potential key to how everything shapes up in Week 18


GREEN BAY – Well, it's that time again.

With the Packers' postseason position solidified, it's time for Path to the Playoffs to become Road to the Super Bowl.

Green Bay has the NFC's No. 1 seed locked up, making this week's regular-season finale at Detroit immaterial to the team's playoff prospects. The Packers will have a bye on wild-card weekend and will play in the divisional round on either Jan. 22 or 23.

There is still a lot to be sorted out regarding the NFC playoff field, though, so this week's installment will focus on that.

For starters, there's one wild-card spot still up for grabs, and it will go to either San Francisco or New Orleans.

At 9-7, the 49ers are one game up on the 8-8 Saints and are therefore in control. If San Francisco beats the L.A. Rams, the 49ers are in the playoffs. If the Rams win that game, then the Saints can grab that last wild-card spot by beating the Falcons and, in the process, winning the conference-record tiebreaker over San Fran.

There's a ripple effect of implications if the 49ers win, though, because a Rams loss would open the door for the Cardinals to win the NFC West and relegate the Rams to a wild card.

Currently, the 12-4 Rams are one game up on the 11-5 Cardinals, but if they finish tied, the division title goes to Arizona on the basis of a better division record (the teams split their two head-to-head meetings). The Cardinals will be playing the Seahawks while the Rams are playing the 49ers.

The Rams at the moment are the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but if they don't win the NFC West, they would fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and be playing on the road in the wild-card round. The Cardinals, currently the No. 5 seed, would be no worse than the No. 3 seed if they win their division.

If the Rams lose, the 12-4 Buccaneers would be in position to grab the No. 2 seed with a win over the Panthers. If the Buccaneers lose and the Cardinals win the NFC West, Arizona would be the No. 2 seed.

Also jockeying for position is 11-5 Dallas, which is likely headed for the No. 4 seed but still has a chance to move up with a victory over the Eagles on Saturday night.

The Cowboys could climb as high as the No. 2 seed with a win plus losses by the Rams, Cardinals and Bucs.

Got all that?

This outline doesn't cover all the possibilities, but it illustrates how much the seeding from 2-5 in the NFC could shuffle around if the 49ers beat the Rams. That's really the key game that could start a cascade of changes.

Which brings this column to the question as to which outcomes Packers fans should root for this weekend.

There aren't necessarily any right answers here. It's really about fans' perceptions of the other teams in the NFC field.

Keep in mind that with the No. 1 seed and first-round bye, the Packers could play any one of four opponents – the No. 4 through 7 seeds – in the divisional round. Green Bay would face the lowest remaining seed.

The teams that get the No. 2-3 seeds would be possible opponents only in the NFC title game, should the Packers reach it, and Green Bay would not be facing both of those teams during a playoff run, just potentially one.

So the best advice in the context of rooting interests in Week 18 would be this: If you have strong feelings about which two teams would be the Packers' most formidable playoff opponents, hope for them to get the 2-3 seeds, so Green Bay wouldn't have to beat them both to reach the Super Bowl.


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