NFL Playoff Picture: NFC Contenders And Pretenders
That is, of course, excepting the hapless teams who have already managed to extricate themselves from the playoff conversation: the Dolphins, Browns, Jaguars, Colts, Redskins, Vikings, Buccaneers, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams.
One more, the Eagles, smells equally putrid but will be drawn into postseason talks from now until the first light of Hanukkah because, hey, they move the needle.
Fans care so much about the Eagles they’re willing to give them the longest funeral celebration since Mike Jackson passed, but that doesn’t change the fact that the “Dream Team” has gone full insomniac. No sleep till…(guitar riff)…2012. They’re done. They lost to a Cardinals team quarterbacked by John Skelton for crying out loud. I refuse to talk about them as playoff contenders.
I will, however, talk about the remaining NFC teams who are capable, in varying degrees, of making a postseason run.
Let’s separate the contenders from the pretenders. You can find my AFC list here.
Green Bay Packers (9-0)
Remaining tough games: @DET, @NYG, vs. CHI
Can any game truly be called tough for the Packers? They have the league’s best quarterback, the league’s best offense and one of the league’s best coaching minds. Nobody prepares like Mike McCarthy. Nobody executes like Aaron Rodgers. They’re the Marty Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio of the NFL, and this season is their The Departed – headline stars, a great supporting cast, the right guy steering the ship. The result is a team that’s not only effective, but also entertaining as hell to watch week in, week out.
If anyone takes the Packers down in the regular season, it’ll be a team that forces them away from the pass and preys on their secondary (which allows 280+ yards per game). The Lions are too banged up to do it this week, but look for them to be a legitimate upset candidate on Jan. 1. Either way, the Pack will take the top seed in the NFC, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Diagnosis: Contender (the best)
San Francisco 49ers (8-1)
Remaining tough games: @BAL, vs. PIT
New Orleans Saints (7-3)
Remaining tough games: vs. NYG, vs. DET, @TEN, vs. ATL
Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles. It’s the league’s most underappreciated juggernaut offense. While everyone talks about the Packers and the Patriots, the Saints are second in the league in scoring average (31.3 points per game) and first in yards per game (436.9). More impressive still is their conversion percentage on third down: 53.3 percent. Yes, the Who Dat boys are a serious liability on the road (all three losses have come away from home), but their path to the postseason is paved in gold. And black. Of their remaining four “challenge” games, three are at home (where they’re undefeated), and they’re getting Mark Ingram back this week. Look for them to have the division sewn up by the time they play the Falcons again in Week 16.
Chicago Bears (6-3)
Remaining tough games: vs. SD, @GB
The Bears had the misfortune of beginning the season with the toughest stretch of their schedule: vs. ATL, @NO, vs. GB. They decimated the Falcons, though, and have looked solid since their Week 5 slip up against the Lions on “Monday Night Football.” The return of Jay Cutler’s favorite target (fellow Vanderbilt Commodore Earl Bennett) has bolstered an already-potent offense, giving the Bears the allure of one of those old souped-up Acura Integras. You know it’s not going to last long, and you know it’s toast if you get into any kind of accident, but it looks good and you like it – at least the way it looks right now. After the Saints take a baseball bat to their proverbial sun roof, I probably won’t like the Bears much anymore. Until then, though, they’re fun to watch, and, given their relatively easy schedule from here on out, I’m picking them to win a wild card spot.
Remaining tough games: vs. GB, @NO, @OAK, vs. SD, @GB
Matthew Stafford’s busted finger, an anemic run game and one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules (they still have to play the Packers…twice) puts the Lions’ playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. Detroit has lost three of the last four games after starting the season undefeated and, no matter how much they underplay it, Stafford’s fractured finger is a major concern. Calvin Johnson (right) leads the league (by far) in touchdown receptions, but even his production has slowed recently – he has just three TDs in four games after beginning the season with eight in four.
The organization is blaming wind conditions for Stafford’s four interceptions against the Bears Sunday, but the real problem is obvious. Jahvid Best’s absence takes away any semblance of multidimensionality on offense. This team is going to pass, pass, pass. And with Stafford injured that is going to prove extremely problematic. Look for the Lions to get back on track against the Panthers this weekend; then implode for good following back-to-back losses to the Packers and Saints.
New York Giants (6-3)
Remaining tough games: @NO, vs. GB, @DAL, @NYJ, vs. DAL
Looking at the games the Giants have left, it’s tempting to assume they’ll lose the division race to the Cowboys. Logic says they’ll lose to the Saints (on the road), the Packers and the Jets (in Jersey), and go 9-7 – putting them just behind the theoretically 10-6 ‘Boys. Eli Manning has defied logic so far this season though. He’s in the midst of his finest season and is starting to master the art of the game-winning drive to the point that football minds are putting him in (admittedly out-of-the-box) Hall of Fame conversations. His newfound poise has been contagious. With the exception of the Seahawks game, the Giants win the games they’re expected to win and hang close with everybody else.
The Giants have been one of the league’s steadiest teams. They’re never out of a game – they converted two fourth quarter fourth downs in San Francisco en route to a close loss that easily could have been a win – and have performed well despite a challenging schedule. I wouldn’t discount them in any of the three games mentioned above, or in the AFC East title conversation. Even if they end up with the wild card, they’ll be strong playoff contenders. They’re a balanced, dangerous team and they play as well on the road as they do at home.
Remaining tough games: vs. TEN, @HOU, @NO
It’s tough to put a cap of any sort on the Falcons. They’re dodgy. They have so many weapons offensively and, at least on paper, it seems like they’re combining them well, but that hasn’t been showing up in the win-loss column. They’re enigmatic to say the least. Sometimes they win when Michael Turner goes over 100 yards rushing. Sometimes they lose. And in the three games Matt Ryan has passed for 300 yards or more, they’ve lost all three. How does that make sense?
Ultimately, the Falcons are one of the league’s most balanced offensive teams, run/pass-wise, but they’re just one game over .500 and they’ve lost all but one of their “challenge” games (the Lions in Week 7). Symptomatically, it’s difficult to target what’s wrong with them, but the infamous botched 4th-and-1 in overtime against the Saints seems to be a microcosm for their season. They’re like an 80-year-old trying to get onto a conference call. They’re just not dialed in.
Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
Remaining tough games: vs. NYG, @NYG
Relying on Tony Romo is like eating at Subway. Sometimes you get fresh bread, fresh veggies and delectable meats. Other times the bread is stale, the tomatoes are green and the turkey is sweatier than Stallone’s face at the end of Rocky. The point is this: Romo can be very good, but he’s not very good every time. He’s a gamble, just like every Subway off of I-5. As revitalized as the Cowboys’ offense looks, and as easy as their schedule is from here on out, they’re still bound for a letdown or two with Romo at the helm. I can’t see them beating the Giants in East Rutherford on Jan. 1 for the AFC East title. Thanks to DeMarco Murray’s breakout (583 yards rushing in the last four games) they’re good enough for the wild card though.
NFC East winner: New York Giants
NFC North winner: Green Bay Packers
NFC South winner: New Orleans Saints
NFC West winner: San Francisco 49ers
NFC wild card winners: Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears
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