It's not a travesty that in the NFC four 6-6 teams and three 5-7 teams are fighting for a playoff spot. First of all, I HATE when 8-8 teams make the playoffs, even if it's the Vikings. My feeling is that if you go 9-7, maybe you make the playoffs, maybe you don't, but either way you've had a winning record and could justify a spot in the playoffs but have screwed up enough that it's out of your hands. 8-8 playoff teams luck in based on the conference. I say this even though in 2004 the 8-8 Vikes gave me one of my favorite football memories, upsetting the Packers at Lambeau. That said, in 2003 and 2004 the Vikes were 9-7 and missed the playoffs. If one or two 8-8 teams make the playoffs, I'll be disappointed (though it's happened before without disaster, and on Madden these teams sometimes end up 12-8 Super Bowl champs). If a 7-9 team gets into the playoffs, I'm ready to call that a travesty.
But I am fairly certain that won't happen.
Surprising teams often get into the playoffs by playing their best football in December. All of these teams could go on a run of very good football to reach 9-7 or 10-6; most of these teams are capable of winning playoff games.
Let's concede the NFC division winners (even though Carolina has a legitimate chance to catch New Orleans; if Carolina wins out, including a week 17 game against the Saints, and the Saints manage to lose just one other game, the Panthers win the division). Let's say Chicago (which has already clinched), Dallas, Seattle, and New Orleans all win their divisions.
I'm willing to make this prediction before looking at the schedule:
If one of the remaining 6-6 or 5-7 teams wins out, that team will make the playoffs.
I don't think it will be out of their hands; I think if any of the current playoff contenders can win the next 4 games, those teams will be in the playoffs.
Now let's look at the schedule for these teams to see what's real and mathematical about the possibility of winning out. Listed are the NFC teams still capable of a winning record and the remaining schedule.
Giants (6-6): @ Carolina, Philadelphia, New Orleans, @ Washington
If the Giants win out, they will make the playoffs, since they will have dropped the Panthers and Eagles to 7 losses and could only be tied by Atlanta.
Philadelphia (6-6): @ Washington, @ New York (giants), @ Dallas, Atlanta
If the Eagles win out, they will make the playoffs, since they will have dropped the Giants and Falcons to 7 losses and could only be tied by the Panthers
Falcons (6-6): @ Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina, Philadelphia
If the Falcons win out, they will make the playoffs, since they will have dropped the Panthers and Eagles to 7 losses and could only be tied by New York.
Panthers (6-6): New York (giants), Pittsburgh, @ Atlanta, @ New Orleans
If the Panthers win out, they will make the playoffs because they will have dropped the Giants and Falcons to 7 wins, and Philadelphia could only tie them.
Vikings (5-7): @ Detroit, New York (jets), @ Green Bay, St. Louis
The only playoff rival the Vikings can directly affect is the Rams.
49ers (5-7): Green Bay, @ Seattle, Arizona, @ Denver
The 49ers cannot directly affect a playoff rival.
Rams (5-7): Chicago, @ Oakland, Washington, @ Minnesota
The only playoff rival the Rams can directly affect is the Vikings.
So there you go: since each of the 6-6 teams have two matchups against the other 6-6 teams remaining, those teams are mathematically guaranteed a playoff spot if they win all their remaining games. They control their own destiny.
The 5-7 teams could win out and still mathematically miss the playoffs. However, given that the 6-6 teams have games scheduled against each other and will likely be splitting some of those matchups, I still feel that if any of these 5-7 teams wins out that team will make the playoffs.
We'll see in a week or two whether I have to acknowledge any of the 4-8 teams or even (shudder) the mathematically alive 3-9 teams (who would need to win out and have all sorts of ties occur to make the playoffs). Detroit is 2-10 and mathematically eliminated because even if all the 6-6 teams don't win another game, they would need to have all sorts of ties and would then still finish with a better winning percentage. I can't believe I even had to write that last sentence.
Check out the Pro-Football-Reference.com blog for some interesting stuff on the AFC playoff race.