Pregame: The Playoff Race

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With all of the hand-wringing over the Falcons' losing four of the last five games -- and, frankly, there is nothing good about that performance other than that brutal part of the schedule is now complete -- it's time to take a look at where the Falcons stand in the NFC Wild Card playoff race and what their chances might be for a second-straight playoff appearance.

In the standings entering today's game with Tampa Bay, they trail the Green Bay Packers (7-4), Philadelphia Eagles (6-4) and [New York Giants](http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=37.7667,-122.432803&spn=1.0,1.0&q=37.7667,-122.432803 (San Francisco Giants)&t=h "San Francisco Giants") (6-5). Two teams will earn Wild Card berths, so the Falcons, at 5-5, will need to leap frog two of those teams. (This also assumes that the current division leaders -- Dallas 8-3 in the East, Minnesota 9-1 in the North, New Orleans 10-0 in the South and Arizona 7-3 in the West -- will win their respective divisions and that the teams below them in the standings, all of which the Falcon have beaten at least once -- Carolina (4-6), San Francisco (4-6) and Chicago (4-6) -- will stay there.)

Just looking at strength of schedule, the Falcons hold the edge.

The combined records of the Falcons' opponents' (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay -- twice -- New Orleans, Buffalo and the New York Jets) is 25-35. The Giants, who helped the Falcons' cause with their loss on Thanksgiving night to Denver and could be tied with the Falcons at the end of the day, have the most difficult schedule. Their remaining opponents' records are 30-21: Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina and Minnesota. That Giants' season finale at Minnesota could be especially difficult -- unless the Vikings choose to rest Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and some other key performers to get ready for the playoffs. The Eagles have the second-hardest schedule remaining, as their opponents' records are 33-30 (Washington, the Falcons, Giants, San Francisco, Denver and Dallas). Finally, Green Bay's remaining opponents are 25-25, but there are some deceptively difficult games in there, including 5-5 Baltimore and road trips to 4-6 Chicago, 6-4 Pittsburgh and 7-3 Arizona, which, since a 2-2 start, is beginning to play like the defending conference champion with a 5-1 mark in their last six games.

The point to emphasize here is that the relative strength or weakness of the Falcons' schedule as compared to their opponents' only matters if they take advantage of it. More specifically, they hold that edge in strength of schedule mainly because of three games: today's with 1-9 Tampa Bay, the Dec. 27 date with Buffalo (3-7) and the Jan. 3 game at Tampa Bay. If they win those, they greatly enhance their chances to make the playoffs. Lose any of them and it gets a lot harder or they need a lot more help from their competitors to lose. Going on the road and defeating the Jets, who also have a losing record at 4-6, also would be would make the path easier.

If all of that happens, it might just come down to which team wins next week's game with Philadelphia, with which the Falcons are in direct competition. Of course, that is if everything goes as expected based on the strength of schedule. But it rarely does.


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