Around the NFC South: Playoff paths

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With NFC playoff spots claimed by the Eagles and Vikings, and with the Rams highly likely to clinch one, three spots remain up for grabs.

And three NFC South teams remain in prime position to claim those.

The Panthers (10-4), Saints (10-4) and Falcons (9-5) could all clinch at least a wild card berth with a victory this week, but they can't all win since the Saints host the Falcons.

Two weeks remain, exclusively featuring division matchups, but let's take this one week at a time. Here's a look at the four possible combinations of outcomes this Sunday and how they'll shape things for Week 17 and beyond.

Panthers beat Buccaneers, Saints beat Falcons: In this scenario, the Panthers and Saints both clinch playoff spots, with New Orleans moving into position to win the division in Week 17 with either a victory at Tampa Bay (4-10) or a Carolina loss at Atlanta.

While this is the worst-case scenario for the Falcons, their outlook remains relatively bright. They enter Week 16 with a one-game edge for the final wild card spot over 8-6 teams Dallas, Seattle and Detroit and have tiebreaking victories over all three. Although with the Cowboys and Seahawks facing off this Sunday, at least one team would join Atlanta at 9-6 in this scenario with just one playoff spot (assuming the Rams secure one) still up for grabs.

Panthers beat Buccaneers, Saints lose to Falcons: In this scenario, the Panthers and Falcons both clinch a playoff spot and set up a matchup for the division title in Atlanta. Win the division in this manner, and the Panthers could conceivably still earn one the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

The Saints would still be in really good position to claim a wild card but could no longer win the division that they've seemed to be in control of for so long.

Panthers lose to Buccaneers, Saints beat Falcons: On the other hand, the Saints run away with the division crown in this scenario, leaving them in the running for a top two seed if the Vikings slip up this Sunday against the Packers.

Three NFC South teams in the playoffs remains a possibility. The Panthers are still in with a Week 17 win and could still be in even if they lose out – though they'd have some sweating to do with the Lions and this week's Cowboys-Seahawks winner capable of joining them at 10-6. The Falcons also would be in with a Week 17 win, and even with a loss Atlanta could get in at 9-7 if neither the Cowboys, Seahawks or Lions rise up to 10-6.

Panthers lose to Buccaneers, Saints lose to Falcons: This is the one scenario where we go to Week 17 with all three teams still in position to win the division.

The Falcons would go into the finale assured of a playoff spot and would win the division title by beating Carolina. The Panthers would wrap up a playoff spot by beating Atlanta but could only win the division if the Saints also lose to the Buccaneers in Week 17. If the Saints and Panthers both win in Week 17, New Orleans claims the division and all three NFC South teams are in the playoffs regardless of anything else that happens around the league.

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Packers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez

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