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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, December 10, 2012 at 9:47 PM

The Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears currently lead the Wildcard race in the NFC. Sports bettors must pay close attention to the race dynamics from this point forward, because the two spots assigned behind the division winners are still very much up for grabs.

Seattle currently owns the #5 seed thanks to a heads-up win over Chicago (both have 8-5 records). But the Seahawks still have to play the hated San Francisco 49ers in their next-to-last game. That high profile encounter will have a dangerous look-ahead spot the week before (vs. Buffalo in Toronto), and the week after (vs. St. Louis). The Seahawks must keep winning…they can’t just worry about San Francisco!

Chicago currently owns the #6 seed. But, they’ve dropped four of their last five games after losing in Minnesota Sunday. They’re trending in the wrong direction as Jay Cutler continues to make too many mistakes. A home game with red-hot Green Bay this coming Sunday will be a big challenge. A loss there would drop the Bears to 8-6, and would bring a crowded field of contenders into tie-break scenarios. Also ahead are road trips to Arizona and Detroit, which aren’t automatic wins when Cutler is struggling.

Let’s dig a bit deeper to see who might be able to catch Seattle or Chicago from behind in these final three weeks of the season.

NFC WILDCARD RACE (top 2 qualify)

Seattle 8-5 (6-4 in the NFC)

Chicago 8-5 (5-4 in the NFC)

Washington 7-6 (6-4 in the NFC)

Dallas 7-6 (5-5 in the NFC)

Minnesota 7-6 (5-5 in the NFC)

St. Louis 6-6-1 (5-3-1 in the NFC)

Tampa Bay 6-7 (3-6 in the NFC)

The first tie-breaker is always a head-up meeting. There are way too many possibilities there to run through right now given how cramped the NFC has gotten in a very competitive season. The next step is conference records, which is why we included those above. That could favor Washington if they keep winning, and St. Louis if the Rams can maintain their recent competitive form and get some help elsewhere. Tampa Bay is even further off the pace than it seems after Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia. Their only hope would be to land in exactly a two-way with Minnesota, who they beat in a Thursday Night game back in late October.

You know the big picture. Now, let’s run through the remaining schedule for each team. We’ve already talked about Seattle (looking at a 10-6 as probably the most likely scenario, with 11-5 possible) and Chicago (probably also looking at 10-6 but in danger of slumping to 9-7). The rest…

WASHINGTON: at Cleveland, at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas

The Redskins will be favored in all three games if RGIII’s knee is going to be okay. But, they can’t pencil in a win at Cleveland just yet because that’s a tough place to play and the Browns are on a nice roll. Philadelphia isn’t going to lay down either in a revenge spot after developing some recent confidence in Nick Foles. That’s not a brutal finish by any means, because there aren’t any divisional leaders…and two of the three remaining opponents are non-contenders. It’s possible that Dallas will also be a non-contender by the time that game arrives. Sports bettors must remember that Washington’s current four-game win streak has them primed for a letdown.

DALLAS: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. New Orleans, at Washington

That’s a tough finish. Pittsburgh needs to win badly in the AFC Wildcard race (more on that in the Wednesday edition of the NOTEBOOK. New Orleans will keep throwing passes at you all day. And, Washington may be fighting for a playoff spot in the season finale. A win Sunday vs. Pittsburgh is essential in one of this week’s showcase games. Still a longshot…but beating Cincinnati this past Sunday kept them in the hunt.

MINNESOTA: at St. Louis, at Houston, vs. Green Bay

Ouch…that’s a very tough stretch because the Rams are responding well to good coaching down the stretch…while Houston and Green Bay are playoff bound. There’s a chance that Green Bay won’t need the season finale…and Houston may be flat within an Indianapolis sandwich. Not all hope is lost. But this is a team that’s going to need a string of lucky breaks to crash the postseason. And, Christian Ponder isn’t the kind of quarterback who makes his own luck.

ST. LOUIS: vs. Minnesota, at Tampa Bay, at Seattle

The loser of this Sunday’s Minnesota/St. Louis game is probably out of the mix unless there’s a conference wide collapse. Then, St. Louis and Tampa Bay follow up the next week in what surely would be an elimination game if they’re still alive. It’s great that St. Louis controls its own destiny. You’d have to think that playing a string of nailbiters is going to wear them down eventually…particularly with the last two games coming on the road. We’re impressed with how far this team has come under Coach Fisher. We’re still not sold that Sam Bradford is going to be a winner at this level. Tough to see as storybook finish here with the help that’s needed above.

TAMPA BAY: at New Orleans, vs. St. Louis, at Atlanta

The fact that Greg Schiano consistently struggled at Rutgers vs. quality opposition but has managed to contend in the NFL has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 football season. The bubble may have popped last week vs. Philadelphia however. It may be tough to finish at .500 with that remaining schedule, depending on how much intensity they run into. The Bucs may luck into three straight games that have minimal meaning to their opponents. But they’re bringing a fading defense to the party on a team that looks like it’s running out of gas.

The frontrunners are still in the best position because of their current lead and their ability to control their own destiny. Nobody behind them is obviously positioned to fly past Seattle and Chicago. None of the chasers are playing Kansas City, or Jacksonville, or Oakland, or even Arizona. Seattle is the best bet from today’s discussion to be playing in January. If Chicago loses to Green Bay Sunday…then we could have quite a logjam at 8-6 with two games to go.

Early lines for this Sunday’s Wildcard contenders.

*Green Bay at Chicago: no line yet pending the status of Jay Cutler. Green Bay will probably be a very small favorite over Cutler, then add a few points if Campbell gets the call.

*Tampa Bay at New Orleans: the Bucs opened as a field goal underdog on the road.

*Minnesota at St. Louis: the Rams opened as a field goal favorite at home.

*Washington at Cleveland: no line yet pending the status of RGIII. Washington would probably be a small favorite with Griffin, with the Browns a small favorite or pick-em vs. Kirk Cousins.

*Seattle vs. Buffalo (in Toronto): Seattle opened at slightly higher than a field goal, laying -3.5 to -4 depending on the early shop.

*Pittsburgh at Dallas: The Cowboys opened at -1 or pick-em depending on the store.

We’ll talk about the NFL’s divisional leaders later this week because San Francisco of the NFC and New England of the AFC square off in the Sunday Night game on NBC…in a showcase that falls after NY Giants/Atlanta and Denver/Baltimore on a loaded Sunday schedule. Our early week coverage will continue to focus on the Wildcards as we discuss the AFC tomorrow. Can the Jets really sneak into the playoffs again? Tune in Wednesday!

Tuesday Night basketball is available right now here at the website. The beginning of the two-week countdown to Christmas features Knicks-Nets on ESPN and an interesting college slate. Daily winners are always available for credit card purchase. Today’s a great time to check out the “end of season” package that takes you through the college bowls and the NFL playoffs. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453. The football schedule is about to get VERY busy with the bowls starting Saturday. Take care of business now!

Stocking stuffers are already available daily at JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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