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NFL playoff picture: NFC wild-card race coming into focus

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The NFC wild-card race and the Detroit Lions' path to the playoffs are coming into focus with three weeks left in the regular season.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Unless the Atlanta Falcons upset the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, there won't be any changes to the NFC playoff picture this week. The Detroit Lions, for example, are still in control of the sixth seed, and all of the matchups are currently the same as last week. Take a look:

  1. Arizona Cardinals (10-3) *NFC West champion*
  2. Green Bay Packers (9-3) *NFC North champion*
  3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) *NFC East champion*
  4. Atlanta Falcons (5-7) *NFC South champion*
  5. Seattle Seahawks (9-4) *Wild card*
  6. Detroit Lions (9-4) *Wild card*
  7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4)
  8. San Francisco 49ers (7-6)

Bye: Cardinals, Packers | Wild-card round: Eagles vs. Lions, Falcons vs. Seahawks

If Green Bay wins on Monday night, the playoff picture will remain exactly the same. If the Packers lose, however, then the Lions will jump back into first place in the NFC North and once again have the No. 2 seed in the conference. An upset seems unlikely, but a Falcons win would be quite nice for the Lions.

Speaking of upsets, the Oakland Raiders pretty much eliminated the San Francisco 49ers from playoff contention with their surprising win on Sunday. The 49ers are now 7-6, and although they're not mathematically eliminated just yet, their playoff hopes are pretty much dead.

What this means is that you now really have three teams competing for two wild-card spots: the teams in second place in the NFC West, NFC North and NFC East. Based on the current playoff picture, those teams are the Seattle Seahawks, Lions and Dallas Cowboys. The Seahawks hold the tiebreaker over the Lions, and the Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Cowboys. And, for what it's worth, the Arizona Cardinals hold the tiebreaker over the Lions, and the Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Basically, the Lions are in great shape when it comes to the wild-card race because they own the tiebreaker over both NFC East teams. What's more, the Eagles and Cowboys play each other in Week 15, so unless they manage to tie, one of those teams is going to have at least five losses. For the Lions, this means that the only thing really standing between them and a playoff berth is two more wins. With the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears on the schedule next, those two wins should come in the next two weeks. There are obviously no guarantees, but the Lions are in a spot where they simply need to take care of business in two extremely winnable games and they will almost certainly be headed to the playoffs regardless of what happens in Week 17.

And let's talk about that Week 17 matchup at Lambeau Field with the Packers. Even if Green Bay wins all of its games to that point, the Lions will still control their own destiny for the NFC North title and a first-round bye. If the Lions win their next two games and beat the Packers in Week 17, they will finish 12-4, which would put them no worse than second in the NFC.

It's going to be a tight finish with only two wild-card spots available for three teams, and the Lions still don't have a lot of room for error going forward. However, they have to like the spot they're in right now. They're basically two wins away from clinching a playoff berth, and if they manage to win their final three games, they will have a division title and a first-round bye.