The New York Giants have lost six of their last seven games and have played worse than uninspired football for the entire second half of the season. Yet if they win Saturday night in Washington, they almost surely will make the playoffs.
That's because the Giants control almost all the tiebreakers among the five 7-8 teams vying for the NFC's last wild-card spot. They are tied with Green Bay for the best conference record at 6-5, and their strength of victory and strength of schedule is prohibitively better than the Packers.
The scenario is simpler in the AFC, where
Denver and the New York Jets (both 9-6) just have to win and they get the fifth and sixth spots. Both are at home to Bay Area teams - the Jets to dismal Oakland (2-13) and the Broncos to improved but still building San Francisco (6-9).
Because of all that mediocrity, 20 teams are alive going into the last weekend of the regular season, the most since 1970, when the NFL merged with the old AFL. Nine teams have clinched and 11 more are in the running for three berths, although some are real long shots.
No team with a losing record has made the NFL playoffs during a nonstrike season.
The NFC is a mess, in large part because the so-called "good" teams - the Giants, Carolina, and defending conference champion Seattle - have been anything but, especially down the stretch.
Among those three they have lost 11 of their last 15 games, and one of the wins was by New York over the Panthers. Seattle (8-7) is in the playoffs, backing in as champions of the West last week when San Francisco lost to Arizona. But the Seahawks, who play in Tampa on Sunday, have lost three straight, not the kind of momentum you want to take into the postseason.
New York's scenario for the playoffs is simple. Beat Washington, then wait until Sunday for the right result in any one of 10 other games. The chances of all 10 going against the Giants are astronomical.
The simplest would be the most obvious: a win by Dallas (9-6) over Detroit (2-13) at Texas Stadium. That would make it impossible for Green Bay to get the "strength of victory" edge even if it wins at Chicago in a game that is meaningless for the Bears (13-2), who already have clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
The Cowboys will play hard in that one because they still have a chance to win the NFC East if Philadelphia (9-6) loses at home to Atlanta (7-8).
If the Giants lose, that opens it up to the other 7-8 teams. Green Bay leads that group in tiebreakers, followed by Carolina, which is at NFC South winner New Orleans (10-5); Atlanta, and St. Louis, which is at Minnesota (6-9). The best chance for the Panthers is that the Saints rest players - they clinched a first-round bye Monday when the Eagles beat the Cowboys.
In the AFC, San Diego (13-2) currently has home-field advantage for the playoffs, but could lose it to Baltimore (12-3). That would happen in the unlikely event Arizona wins in San Diego. Baltimore would then get it by winning at home against Buffalo.
If the Jets or Broncos lose, Cincinnati (8-7) has the best shot at a wild-card spot.
The Bengals, who lost in Denver last week when the snap on what should have been a game-tying extra point was botched, get in if New York loses and they win at home over Pittsburgh. If Denver loses, the Bengals make it with a win and a win by Kansas City at home against Jacksonville.
The Chiefs, Jaguars, and surprising Titans, all 8-7, also have shots, but they would need a lot of help. The most remarkable of those is Tennessee, which started 0-5, but has won six straight with rookie Vince Young at quarterback. The Titans need to beat the AFC East champion Patriots at Nashville, then have the Chiefs win and the Broncos and Bengals lose.