With just two weeks left in the regular season, the NFC remains a gorgeous mystery. Are the Minnesota Vikings capable of dominating any opponent? Can we trust the Dallas Cowboys? Is anybody going to win the NFC South? When will we see Jalen Hurts on the field again? Which are the real Giants -- the team that started hot, or has recently faded?
Christmas has come and gone without bestowing the gift of clarity. With next weekend shaping up to be another wild one, here's a look at the biggest NFC winners and losers through Week 16.
It may not feel like a win when the Bucs watch most of the offensive film from their 19-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, but a late surge was good enough to come from behind to force overtime and put Tampa back on the brink of the playoffs again. The Bucs can clinch the NFC South title with a win in a monster showdown with the Carolina Panthers (6-9) next Sunday. If the Panthers win, they will move into first place, with a chance to then lock up the division against New Orleans (6-9) in Week 18.
Time to push pause on the Aaron Rodgers retirement talk. The Packers beat the Dolphins 26-20 on Sunday, their third straight victory, to stay alive in the NFC wild-card race. The Packers are 7-8, the same record as the Seahawks and Lions, all of whom are looking up at the seventh-seeded Washington Commanders, who still have a win-and-in path to the playoffs at 7-7-1. But if the Commanders falter, the Packers are in prime position to take advantage -- they finish the regular season with home games against the Vikings (12-3) and Lions (7-8). Most impressive Sunday was the defense, which forced four turnovers, including three consecutive interceptions on the Dolphins’ final three drives.
The 49ers won their eighth game in a row, 37-20 over the Washington Commanders, and yes, of course we know they are powered by their defense. But the rookie quarterback is now 3-0 as a starter and while San Francisco was 1-of-5 in the red zone, Purdy connected twice with George Kittle for touchdowns. The 37 points was the most the offense has scored with Purdy as a starter. Most importantly, he has shown uncommon poise and has avoided mistakes in a pressure-packed situation as the 49ers surge toward the postseason.
The defense gave up a lot of yards and a lot of points to a backup quarterback in a 40-34 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, but it also had four takeaways, which keyed the victory. That kept the Cowboys alive to win the NFC East, and they are guaranteed to be no worse than the top NFC wild-card team. Nearly as important is that Dak Prescott rebounded from an early pick-six to bring his team from behind when the Eagles threatened to pull away, finishing the game with 347 yards and three touchdowns through the air. On third-and-30 midway through the fourth quarter, he hit on a 52-yard connection with T.Y. Hilton on the drive that ended with the tying touchdown. There will be questions about whether the defense can be entirely trusted in the playoffs, but after the collapse against the Jaguars last week, this should be a confidence boost as the playoffs approach.
Without Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson, and with a reinvigorated Sam Darnold, the Panthers' interim head coach has his team in control of its future after a 37-23 thrashing of the Lions. If the Panthers (6-9) win out, including beating the Bucs (7-8) on New Year's Day, they win the NFC South. When owner David Tepper fired Matt Rhule with the Panthers at 1-4 and made Wilks the interim, he said Wilks would be in consideration to get the job permanently if he did "an incredible job." This qualifies.
Their 17-10 victory over the Browns means the Saints are still alive for the NFC South crown. They will need the Panthers (6-9) to tie or beat the Bucs (7-8) in Week 17 -- and they themselves need to win (or tie, if the Bucs lose) at Philadelphia (13-2) for their season finale versus Carolina to have division title implications.
Losers with silver linings
A blocked punt. An interception. Dropped passes. Penalties. Struggles on third down. The Giants were just a bit too sloppy Saturday and still had a chance to beat the Vikings on the road (for what that says about Minnesota, see above). In losing, New York blew an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot and failed to win for the fifth time in six games. The loss, though, was mitigated by losses by the Seahawks (7-8) and Lions (7-8), which allowed the Giants to remain the sixth seed and set up a win-and-in scenario in Week 17 at home against the Colts or, failing that, in the season finale against the Eagles.
Their loss to the Cowboys meant the Eagles did not wrap up the NFC's top seed Saturday. That means they will have a decision to make about whether quarterback Jalen Hurts, who missed Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, should return to play the Saints (6-9) in Week 17. But it's hard to worry too much about a team that put up 442 yards and 34 points on the road with a backup quarterback, while sacking the opposing quarterback six times. Tackle Lane Johnson was injured in the fourth quarter and if that turns out to be serious, the silver lining wouldn't shine quite so bright. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Lane Johnson will miss the final two games of the regular season with an abdominal injury.)
Before they even stepped on the field, losses by the Seahawks and Lions put the Commanders into the seventh seed. That was a win. And then came the losses. With the team trailing, coach Ron Rivera benched Taylor Heinicke for Carson Wentz -- news that was received by Heinicke with a slammed helmet. Rivera now has a quarterback decision to make. The Commanders are still the seventh seed and still hold a win-and-in road to the playoffs. But in falling to 7-7-1, their margin for error has become razor thin, with the Seahawks and either the Packers or Lions (they play each other in Week 18) still able to finish 9-8. Most daunting is that the midseason push that got the Commanders into the race has faded. Washington hasn't won in a month.
The defense, the Lions' Achilles' heel all season, gave up a stunning 320 yards rushing to the Panthers on Saturday, stalling the playoff push of one of the league's hottest teams. The Lions tumbled to 7-8 and the NFC's ninth seed. They've still won six of their last eight games, but they now need help to get into the playoffs.