We are nearly three quarters of the way through the 2011 season and three of our NFC North teams remain in the thick of the NFC playoff race. The Green Bay Packers could clinch a playoff spot and the division as early as Sunday, while the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions make up half of the four teams in realistic contention for the conference's pair of wild-card spots.
I want to focus on the latter for this week's Have at It extravaganza. Who will be a part of the 2011 playoff field? The Bears? The Lions? Both? Neither?
The chart shows that the Atlanta Falcons have the easiest schedule the rest of the way. The New York Giants have the most difficult schedule. The Bears and Lions are in between. For the purposes of this discussion, we are assuming that the surging New Orleans Saints, winners of four of their past five games, will win the NFC South.
Feel free to use ESPN.com's Playoff Machine to find out how various weekly results will impact tiebreakers between now and the end of Week 17. A few points to keep in mind:
The Bears are 14-5 in their last 19 regular-season games when Jay Cutler starts at quarterback. Cutler is expected to return from a fractured thumb by the end of the season.
The Lions have lost four of their past six games, but all four of their losses have come to teams of equal stature in the playoff hunt: the San Francisco 49ers, Packers, Falcons and Bears. Point: They've lost to good teams.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown nine of his 13 interceptions this season over the past three games, all while wearing a glove to protect his fractured right index finger. The Lions are 1-2 over that stretch. Before that, Stafford had thrown five interceptions in his previous 11 starts. Stafford wasn't wearing the gloves Tuesday in practice and is expected to play without them in Sunday's game at the Saints.
Presumption of the Saints' NFC South championship is based on their one-game lead in the division, their Week 10 victory over the Falcons and the fact that the teams' Week 16 rematch will be played at the Superdome. The Falcons have won five of their past six games, but the Saints are in the proverbial driver's seat.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, I'll publish a representative sample -- along with my own take -- by the end of the week. Have at It.