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Is it a 4-team race for the final NFC playoff spot?

The key for Minnesota likely requires winning on the road against two top NFC teams.
Kirk Cousins

Sunday's improbable 28-27 win over the Carolina Panthers kept the Vikings in the thick of the NFC playoff race, but just as big was the Arizona Cardinals losing on the road against the New England Patriots. 

Throw in the 49ers beating the Rams and all of a sudden the seventh and final spot in the NFC playoff picture appears to be down to four teams: Cardinals, Vikings, 49ers, Bears. 

And really, based on how bad the Bears have been – 5 straight losses – it could be a three-team race over the final five weeks of the regular season, assuming the Bears continue to flounder while the group of 4-7 teams (Washington, Giants, Falcons) don't appear to be big threats. 

So who between the Cardinals, Vikings, 49ers and Bears has the easiest remaining schedule? 

Cardinals: vs. Rams, at Giants, vs. Eagles, vs. 49ers, at Rams

Barring a huge run by the backup-QB-led 49ers, the two remaining matchups between the Cardinals and Rams will likely decide the NFC West champion, with the runner-up likely being the team battling for the seventh and final playoff seed. 

The best-case scenario for the Vikings is to see the Cardinals get swept by the Rams, because Arizona is going to be favored to beat the Giants, Eagles and probably the 49ers. If the Cardinals get to 10 wins, it'll mean the Vikings likely need to win out to have a chance. 

Vikings: vs. Jags, at Bucs, vs. Bears, at Saints, vs. Lions

Minnesota should win this week at home against Jacksonville to get to 6-6, then will likely be underdogs against the high-powered Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. If they fall to 7-7 they're going to need a lot of help to sneak into the playoffs – and with the NFC-leading Saints awaiting at the Superdome in Week 16 it'll be critical for the Vikings to pull an upset against Tom Brady and Tampa. 

The most realistic finish for Minnesota appears to be 8-8, but let's not forget that the Vikings should've beaten the Titans, Seahawks and Cowboys. Had they not choked those wins away, they'd be sitting pretty with a record of 8-3 and in the mix for the NFC North title and a shot at the top seed in the playoffs. 

That alone means Minnesota is at the very least capable of winning at Tampa or New Orleans (especially if Taysom Hill is starting at QB for the Saints). 

49ers: vs. Bills, vs. Wash., at Cowboys, at Cardinals, vs. Seahawks

San Francisco is a tough team to decipher. They swept the Rams but their only other wins are against the winless Jets, the hapless Giants and the Patriots at a time when New England was really struggling. Odds are they lose to the Bills to drop to 5-7 before toss-up games against Washington and Dallas. Even if they were to win those games to get to 7-7, the Niners have a tough finish against Arizona and Seattle. 

Bears: vs. Lions, vs. Texans, at Vikings, at Jags, vs. Packers

The Lions are terrible so the Bears could easily be 6-6 headed into the final four games. They could get to 7-6 with a home win over a pretty lousy Texans squad. If that happens, the Vikings are the key to stopping Chicago in its tracks in Week 15. If Minnesota doesn't, the Bears could be staring at a 8-6 record with the Jags and Packers to go. 

All of that is nice, but Chicago has looked like one of the worst teams in football since starting the season 5-1, and it really doesn't seem to matter who plays quarterback. 

Who takes the cake?

Arizona (or the Rams, whoever doesn't win the South) is definitely in the driver's seat, but if the Vikings can prove capable of finishing teams off late in games the way they should have against the Titans, Seahawks and Cowboys, they could very well take the field with a playoff spot on the line in Week 17. 

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