NFC playoff picture: Three teams from the South? ‘Hawks out?

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

Ah, what a tale of two conferences we have.

First, there’s the NFC. Properly stratified by contender, pretender and future-seeker, this half of the National Football League allows us to have a decent idea of what’s going on. Everything is fairly tidy. Bandwagons are open for business (act fast — I hear Philadelphia’s is starting to fill up). Let us head into the winter!

Then, there’s the AFC. The conference is a morass of nonsense. I get irritated just looking at the standings. Optimists will vouch for how everyone still has a chance! But really, very few have a chance, because most are too busy tripping over themselves every other week. There’s bad, there’s good, and there’s .500 and close to it. That last group represents the majority over there.

Fortunately, for this exercise on this glorious Wednesday the 29th of November, 2017, we get to stay in the NFC. (Apologies to my colleague Edward Lewis, who’ll spend Thursday in the AFC bog. I know that my time with the problem child comes soon. Karma spares no one.)

On to deciphering the NFC!

Prepare for takeoff

1) Philadelphia Eagles: Don’t count me in this group, but I’ve felt with each passing week that the football world wants a team to clip the Eagles‘ wings. Prove they’re mortal! Prove they aren’t for real! The problem for that band of nonsensical haters is this: Philadelphia is most definitely a legitimate Super Bowlcontender. We can rave about the MVP-caliber season Carson Wentz is having, and while that is a primary reason for why the Eagles are 10-1 and not slowing down anytime soon, this team is so much more than just its quarterback. Philly has a receiving corps chock-full of weapons, with multiple wideouts experiencing peak levels of performance and a tight end in Zach Ertz who is in the discussion for the top three in the league at his position. The Eagles also have a stable of running backs who complement each other, and an offensive line that has weathered the loss of a top-tier left tackle (Jason Peters) more smoothly than I can recall a unit doing before. They haven’t missed a beat. Oh, and that defense — first in the league against the run, sixth in total defense — is pretty darn good, too. A quick reminder: This team hasn’t lost since Week 2. Week 2! Where were you in Week 2?! That’s practically before the proliferation of color TV!

Philly gets a good road test this Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks, who still don’t have an offensive identity and have suffered two major losses in the secondary, but should be respected until proven otherwise.

2) Minnesota Vikings: I’m hoping Minnesotans don’t come at me with their snow shovels in January for this, but I’ll say it loud and I’ll say it proud: I believe in these Vikings. I believe because, even with Case Keenum under center (who is excelling, I might add), this team hasn’t given me a reason to think otherwise. Minnesota has endured the loss of Dalvin Cook, while making Adam Thielen a top three receiver in the league in 2017. The Vikings ride their fantastic defense to wins by small and large margin. Their victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11 was as convincing as they come in a game between two contending teams. This is the best Vikings team since Brett Favre was still slinging it in a purple, horned helmet. I won’t mention where the postseason ends, though, because much like perfect games in baseball, I believe in jinxes. No, I did not go there. This does not count.

3) Los Angeles Rams: Chris Wesseling compared rookie head coach Sean McVay to a young Bill Walsh on Sunday’s Around The NFL Podcast. That’s a ringing endorsement you usually won’t get unless it’s entirely deserved — and right now, McVay’s squad is playing lights-out football. Loss to Minnesotaaside, the Rams proved their worth in a Week 12 victory over the Saints that included two excellent touchdown drives led by Jared Goff, a breakout game from rookie Cooper Kupp and a clamp-down performance from the Los Angeles defense, especially late. The Rams are loaded at receiver, their O-line is vastly improved and Goff is succeeding as a result. Aaron Donald anchors a defense that is a force with which to be reckoned. Sunday’s win was, as Wesseling called it, a yardstick game. How do these Rams measure up? In the top three of the conference, at least in the opinion of this writer.

Nervously checking the rear-view mirror

4) New Orleans Saints: Don’t take this the wrong way — I still very much believe in the Saints, especially with the way their running attack is looking. But that NFC South is looking tough, and after last week’s loss to the Rams, the Saints find themselves suddenly knotted up with the Panthers with a separation game directly in front of them this week. With the winning streak now snapped, New Orleans needs to start a new one to create a little space between it and Carolina (and don’t look now, but Atlanta is knocking on the door, too). What makes me nervous about this Saints team is, surprisingly, Drew Brees. The quarterback didn’t look like himself against Los Angeles and has me concerned that, for the first time in his Saints career, he might be one of their weaker links. Then again, Brees could come out and drop 350 yards and three touchdowns on Carolina and crack an egg on my face while he’s at it. Now’s not the time to get sloppy, though.

Still working on their elevator pitch

5) Carolina Panthers: After watching Carolina escape a wonky game at MetLife Stadium with a win over the Jets, I turned to our fearless Digital Content Manager (and proud Panthers proponent) David Ely and told him his team is the least convincing 8-3 team I’ve ever seen. After watching the Panthers play in, eh, half of their games this season, I’d have totally believed you if you told me this team was .500. Carolina hasn’t convinced me it can win a playoff-caliber game (although that win at New England was impressive back in Week 4), but there are a few encouraging details that have emerged as of late. After the abomination that was a Week 7 loss to Chicago, the Panthers have made more of a concerted effort to run the ball, and they’ve freed Cam Newton to make plays however he pleases. That last detail is the more important part, because that’s what makes Carolina dangerous. I’m not sold, but there’s still time to coax me. A win over the Saints this week would be a good start.

Coming in hot

6) Atlanta Falcons: I’m starting to come to grips with the fact the NFC South might produce both wild cards. Why? Well, for the first time since very early this season, Atlanta looks like the team we saw last season. The Falcons finally awoke Julio Jones from his schematic slumber on Sunday in a win over the Buccaneers, with the freak wideout eclipsing 250 yards receiving and notching a couple scores. The trickle-down from there made Atlanta’s offense pretty again. Pairing that with a sneaky-good defensive front, the Falcons are trending upward at the perfect time. At 7-4, they’re one Carolina/New Orleans slip-up from being right back at the top of the division. I expect this team to be higher than sixth when we do this again.

On the tightrope

7) Seattle Seahawks: Because of their recent history of success under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks must be taken seriously until they blatantly prove you otherwise. That’s fine, and we’ll do that, but the cupcake run is over. Seattle (7-4) hosts Philadelphia this week, then travels to #Sacksonville next week, and then hosts the Rams in Week 15. I think we’re entering the turning point of Seattle’s 2017 season. Thanks to a few key injuries and a lack of offensive identity, that tightrope is looking mighty thin right about now.

8) Detroit Lions: When I was growing up, the Lions were always in one of the Thanksgiving games (as tradition maintains to this day), and they almost always lost, because the Lions were not good. As a result, I root for them on Thanksgiving, and this time around, I really thought they’d pull out a Turkey Day win (spoiler: they didn’t). For the majority of their season, the Lions flirt with victory almost every week, but only secure the win around 50 percent of the time. Basically, Matthew Stafford and Co. are entertaining enough for me to tune in on a weekly basis, but I’ve got a big wall around my heart. They can’t break it. I’ll be here if they make it across to the other side, though there’s a reason circuses hang big nets beneath the tightrope.

Floating into the new year

9) Green Bay Packers: Brett Hundley sure made us stick around to the very end of “Monday Night Football,” but let’s face it: The Packers‘ season ended when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The quarterback was seen warming up with intensity before Green Bay’s prime-time loss to Pittsburgh, but truthfully, there’s no reason to risk his return. The most unfortunate (and perhaps, redeeming) aspect of the injury is that it revealed how lacking Green Bay is in multiple areas. Rodgers was a Band-Aid that covered up a whole lot. Without him, that’s been exposed, which can also aid the Packers‘ front office in approaching this offseason. Silver linings, folks.

10) Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboyshave failed to score 10 points in three straight games for the first time in franchise history. That’s how things are going for them right now. Darren McFadden just retired on Tuesday, shortly after being released. Simply put, this season took a nosedive as soon as No. 21 began serving his suspension. It’s not going to turn around any time soon, either, even with a couple advantageous matchups ahead in Washington and New York.

11) Washington Redskins: Injuries have wrecked this team, but credit everyone for soldiering on. The Redskins take on the rival Cowboys in a collision of two rafts floating aimlessly in the ocean with no actual destination in sight. Right now, Washington (5-6) is in the precarious area that usually ends in 8-8, but might finish closer to 9-7 or 10-6 thanks to a schedule that includes meetings with a limping Dallas team, the all-but-buried Broncos and the one-win Giants in its final five.

12) Arizona Cardinals: Bruce Arians warned a reporter not to count out his Cardinals just yet after their surprise win over Jacksonville on Sunday, but Arizona’s hopes rest on the arm of Blaine Gabbert. The quarterback was effective (22 of 38 for 241 yards and two touchdowns against one pick), but we also know where his ceiling resides. The final five weeks aren’t exactly appetizing, either: home vs. the Rams, vs. the flummoxing Titans, at Washington, vs. the Giants and at Seattle. Four of those games could very easily end in losses. This might be a team that plays spirited to keep its coach around, though. And at 5-6, the Cards are technically still in it, even if I don’t believe it. (Sorry, Bruce.)

13) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Talk about a rudderless ship. Ryan Fitzpatrick is doing his best old-man QB job for this offense, but that comes with a lot more of what was that? than actual success. Doug Martin has been a mixed bag at running back (thanks in part to inconsistent line play) and the defense strikes fear in very few teams. A franchise that had a ton of promise and excitement — shoutout to the annual “Hard Knocks” hype machine — has wilted. And at 4-7, Tampa’s two losses away from finishing with a losing record.

All hail, the new kid under center

14) Chicago Bears: Time for hope! Well, for Chicago, the hope exists in 2018, perhaps with a new coach on the sideline to tutor quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The rookie has shown signs that he might be the guy in the right system — just not John Fox’s system. The good part about this portion of the schedule, though, is Bears fans have a reason to watch, and it’s wearing No. 10. Time to pick apart his play and find positives to lean on as the snow piles up along Lake Michigan.

15) New York Giants: In much less exciting quarterback news, Eli Manning has been benchedfor — gulp — Geno Smith. Oh, and Davis Webb is going to get some snaps, too. It’s fairly rare that a team, during Week 13, blatantly throws in the towel like it’s the fourth preseason game, but hey, here we are. Buckle up for some GenoCoaster and, um, Webb’s World action. It’ll be about the lone reason to watch this team, which has been an utter disappointment and frequent cause for disbelief.

16) San Francisco 49ers: IT’S JIMMY G TIME! The recently acquired messiah was flawless in an extremely brief period of action during the loss to Seattle, which was enough to usurp C.J. Beathard for the starting gig this week. The Faithful (John Lynch capitalizes it, so I will too) will surely be crowded around their televisions this week to watch the anointed one play a full game, which coincidentally comes against the team just two spots above in this category. This will (hopefully) be fun, especially if San Francisco can keep Garoppolo upright.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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