Eight in the Box: Playoff contenders with the hardest remaining schedules
Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season.
Entering Week 14, there were 28 teams -- including every single squad in the AFC -- still mathematically alive in the playoff race. (That number dwindled to 27 Thursday night with Houston's loss).
Not all schedules are created equally, though, so tougher roads await a few of those challengers in December. Here are eight teams that will be put to the test between now and the end of the regular season:
8. Carolina Panthers (at New Orleans, Jets, New Orleans, at Atlanta): The home game with New York and the trip to Atlanta should both be victories, possibly of the cake-walk variety. But doubling down with the Saints over the season's final four weeks will make things tricky for the Panthers as they attempt to claim the NFC South. The plus side of those matchups, of course, is that Carolina controls its own destiny.
New Orleans also appears on this list, closer to the lead, so if Carolina can take care of business at home for a 3-1 finish, it might be enough to capture the division crown.
7. Tennessee Titans (at Denver, Arizona, at Jacksonville, Houston): Already sitting with seven losses, the Titans may have to win out to have a realistic shot at a wild-card. Keeping that dream alive through even this weekend might be asking too much. On paper, the closing three-game stretch after the Mile High visit did not appear too daunting at the start of the season. But now Arizona's 7-5 and Jacksonville is the only team in the AFC with an active three-game win streak.
6. New Orleans Saints (Carolina, at St. Louis, at Carolina, Tampa Bay): Carolina should go 2-0 in its remaining games left against teams other than New Orleans. The Saints ought to do likewise, but matchups against the Rams and Buccaneers lay down some potential landmines.
The Panthers at least get to be home in Week 15, against a Jets team that's ripping apart at the seams. Meanwhile, New Orleans has to spend that week between clashes with Carolina in St. Louis, playing a Rams team that dismantled both Indianapolis and Chicago in recent weeks.
5. Green Bay Packers (Atlanta, at Dallas, Pittsburgh, at Chicago): Getting 3-9 Atlanta at home should be cause for a sigh of relief, but nothing's a given for Green Bay sans Aaron Rodgers. And then even if Rodgers can return in Week 15 and beyond, the damage might have already been done here. All three of those final games are against teams in the postseason hunt themselves, and the Bears already picked up a win against the Packers back in Week 9.
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4. New York Giants (at San Diego, Seattle, at Detroit, Washington): The Giants are a fringe playoff contender, two back in the division (and 0-2 vs. Dallas). Given what's ahead in the next few weeks, we'll probably be able to bury this team's chances soon. Trips to San Diego and Detroit bookending a visit from 11-1 Seattle will make it a very tall task for the Giants to even secure one win, let alone go 3-0 in that stretch as they need to if they want to stay alive.
3. Arizona Cardinals (St. Louis, at Tennessee, at Seattle, San Francisco): There are no gimmes left for Arizona. The Rams already beat the Cardinals in Week 1. The Titans are busy fighting for their playoff lives too.
If the Cardinals can avoid any slip-ups in Weeks 14 and 15, they'll be 9-5 with two games left -- against arguably the two best teams in the conference. A 4-0 finish might be asking too much. Can Arizona get to 3-1 and make a serious run at the wild card?
2. Baltimore Ravens (Minnesota, at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati): Getting back to .500 has not been easy for last season's Super Bowl winners. Making it to the eight-plus wins and the playoffs from here will be even more difficult. Even this week's matchup with Minnesota appears tougher than it once did, with the Vikings going 1-0-1 in their past two and Adrian Peterson ready to challenge a shaky Ravens rush defense.
Those final three weeks will be brutal. The visit to Detroit is on a Monday night, meaning a short turnaround for the game against New England. Baltimore would love to have a shot at the AFC North title in that Week 17 tilt with Cincinnati, but the alternative -- Cincinnati clinches early and has nothing to play for there -- might be just as appealing.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (Detroit, at Minnesota, Chicago, at Dallas): Say hello again to the NFC North. Philadelphia is 1-0 against that division so far in 2013, thanks to a win at Green Bay. The Eagles probably need to finish at least 2-2 in those crossover games to keep pace with the Cowboys atop the NFC East. Getting both Detroit and Chicago at home will help, though those offenses figure to test Philadelphia's improving defense. The trip to Minnesota could be a challenge, too, between those two higher-profile matchups.
The finale at Dallas needs no build-up. The Cowboys and Eagles are deadlocked at 7-5 right now, so that one could be for all the NFC East marbles