Fans who give up on a season because of one or two or six heart-wrenching losses and a losing record heading into December tend to forget the one key facet of the NFL playoffs:
Being good isn't a prerequisite to getting there.
Sometimes, all it takes is professional perseverance, somehow scratching out a way to be less awful than the teams around you and then catching a December wave you hope carries you farther than anyone could have expected.
Heading into Week 13, four NFC teams were 5-6. Any one of them would have sat 13th out of 16 AFC teams. In the NFC, they sat seven through 10 as the primary combatants for the conference's seventh and final playoff spot.
One of those teams, New Orleans, has since lost. The Saints thought Taysom Hill would be less awful as a starting quarterback than Trevor Siemian. Four ugly interceptions in a Thursday night home blowout loss to the Cowboys later, they were grossly mistaken and are fading badly with a five-game losing streak.
That leaves Washington, the Vikings and Atlanta to focus on this weekend.
Here's a closer look at each team, in order of their current seed:
No. 7: Washington
The Football Team is the hottest and most confident with a three-game winning streak kickstarted by an upset of the reigning Super Bowl champion Bucs. Washington holds the tiebreaker over the Vikings by virtue of its 5-2 conference record.
Coach Ron Rivera seized on that win by jumpstarting what's becoming a spirit-lifting "David vs. Goliath" metaphor in Washington. He threw a stone in the locker room after the Bucs were slayed. This week, he had quarterback Taylor Heinicke, the former Vikings backup, throw a rock at a whiteboard during a team meeting.
"We've had some ups and downs," receiver Terry McLaurin said. "We've leaned on each other to right the ship. ... The David vs. Goliath story was where we were at, but I think we're going to continue to get better and see where we can go from there."
That's the feel-good part. Now, the bad part: Washington plays at Las Vegas (6-5) Sunday and then faces the Cowboys (8-4) twice in three weeks. It also has the league's worst third-down defense (51.37%).
No. 8: Vikings
While the other two play teams with winning records on Sunday, the Vikings travel to winless Detroit (0-10-1). They should end the day holding the seventh seed. The key word, of course, being "should."
The Vikings also have the easiest of the three remaining schedules, with opponents that are a combined 29-36-2.
"Yeah, with the 17th game, it kind of makes things interesting with the expanded playoffs," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said when asked if it's strange to have a bad record and a good chance of making the playoffs.
Now for the bad:
Despite the so-called "easy" remaining schedule, the Vikings do have a three-game stretch in which they play at Chicago, where they are usually awful, home against the 7-4 Rams and at Green Bay (9-3).
No. 9: Falcons
Atlanta and the league's worst pass rush face the Buccaneers and Tom Brady at home on Sunday. The last time they met, Brady threw five touchdown passes in a 48-25 rout in Week 2.
After Sunday's game, the Falcons hit the road for three road games — at Carolina (5-7), San Francisco (6-5) and Buffalo (7-4) — in four weeks. But they also get Detroit at home in the middle of all that.
Cordarrelle Patterson, the former Vikings first-round pick, has been exciting to watch with his well-balanced 911 yards from scrimmage, five receiving touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns. But quarterback Matt Ryan has been held to 183 or fewer yards passing in four of the past five games.
The Falcons also have been outscored 82-24 in their last three games, losing 43-3 to the Cowboys and 25-0 to the Patriots while squeaking by the Jaguars 21-14.
In other words, Atlanta, like a lot of other teams, isn't good.
So, as you look around at the Vikings' main competitors, it's not out of line to hear Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland say: "I feel like we're in a good position. Football don't start 'til November, December."
The key is not giving up after thinking one or two or six heart-wrenching losses have ruined a season.