Let's take a look at the crowded NFC playoff picture with 3 weeks left in the regular season. If it ended today, this is how it would stand.
1. Seattle (first-round bye) 11-2
2. New Orleans (first-round bye) 10-3
3. Philadelphia 8-5
4. Detroit 7-6 (wins tiebreaker with Chicago due to series sweep)
5. Carolina 9-4 (higher than 49ers due to head-to-head win)
6. San Francisco 9-4
Outside looking in: Arizona (8-5); Dallas (7-6); Chicago (7-6); Green Bay (6-6-1)
First-round playoff games the weekend of Jan.4-5:
Carolina at Detroit
San Francisco at Philadelphia
Here are the remaining schedules for the 10 NFC teams in playoff contention:
CAROLINA: New York Jets (6-7); New Orleans (10-3); at Atlanta (3-10)
NEW ORLEANS: at St. Louis (5-8); at Carolina (9-4); Tampa Bay (4-9)
SEATTLE: at New York Giants (5-8); Arizona (8-5); St. Louis (5-8)
ARIZONA: at Tennessee (5-8) at Seattle (11-2); San Francisco (9-4)
SAN FRANCISCO: at Tampa Bay (4-9); Atlanta (3-10); at Arizona (8-5)
PHILADELPHIA: at Minnesota (3-9-1); Chicago (7-6); at Dallas (7-6)
DALLAS: Green Bay (6-6-1); at Washington (3-10); Philadelphia (8-5)
DETROIT: Baltimore (7-6); New York Giants (5-8); at Minnesota (3-9-1)
CHICAGO: at Cleveland (4-9); at Philadelphia (8-5); Green Bay (6-6-1)
GREEN BAY: at Dallas (7-6); Pittsburgh (5-8); at Chicago (7-6)
Panther analysis: Winning two out of the final three should virtually assure a Panther wild-card spot, and it really helps that the Panthers beat San Francisco by harassing Colin Kaepernick so well (see above picture).
In case of a three-way tie for the wild card -- with San Francisco, Arizona and Carolina all finishing 11-5 -- the Panthers would win the three-way tiebreaker and get the No.5 seed, San Francisco would be No.6 and Arizona would be out (In that case, 49ers and Arizona would use the two-team tiebreaker, eliminating Cards due to 49ers' better NFC West record, and then Carolina would be seeded higher than 49ers due to head-to-head victory).
Note: Carolina could actually clinch a playoff spot this week, but it would require ALL of these things to happen: Carolina wins, and Arizona, San Francisco and Dallas all lose; OR Carolina wins and Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia all lose (in the Eagles' case only, a tie would also work).
Winning the NFC South division for Carolina would require New Orleans to go 1-2 over its final three games and the Panthers to go 3-0 (New Orleans wins the tiebreaker if the teams both finish 12-4). So the Saints need only to win two of three games for a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. (Or New Orleans could go 0-3 and Carolina 2-1, although the Saints ain't going to be going 0-3).
Most likely, the Panthers will not host a home playoff game now. If they are the No.5 seed, they could host the NFC championship, but only if the No.6 seed also advances to that game.
If Carolina goes 1-2 over its final three games, the Panthers would finish 10-6 and stand a chance at being caught by a variety of teams -- that's when it gets dicey, as I point out in my Tuesday column. A 10-6 Chicago team did not make the playoffs in 2012. And an 0-3 ending would likely doom the Panthers, although I don't see that happening.
General NFC analysis: Arizona has the most difficult schedule remaining of the playoff contenders, and Panther fans should cheer for Cardinals to lose every week. Seattle needs to win two of three to assure homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs by virtue of its win over New Orleans.
Detroit and Chicago are tied atop the NFC North, but Detroit's sweep of the Bears means that the Lions would win the tiebreaker. Philadelphia has a fairly favorable schedule and a strong chance at winning the NFC East, although it will likely come down to the Eagles' season-ender at Dallas. Remember, all four division champions get one home playoff game, regardless of record.