Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Resizing the NFC Playoff Race


This morning, with many teams having played 7 games already while others are still on 6, I thought it might be enjoyable to take a quick roll call on where everyone is in the NFC race to finish in the Top 6.  We seldom have the opportunity to look around and evaluate where the Cowboys sit, so let's make room for that exercise right here and right now.
Teams that are completely on to next season:  Chicago  (1-6) and San Francisco (1-6) -- These two teams have really had no impact on the season thus far aside from providing some teams with a confidence-builder Sunday along the way.  Somehow, the Bears beat the Lions and the 49ers took out the Rams, but both of these teams are miles and miles away from contending.  We have already written more than they deserve.
Teams that are pretty unlikely to factor in this race: New Orleans (2-4), Los Angeles Rams (3-4), Tampa Bay (3-3), and Carolina (1-5) -- I confess that I hate to quit on Carolina, because for some reason I can still see them going on an 8-2 run to finish in the wild card race, but perhaps I need to give it up.  I just remember the Panthers have a pretty salty roster that lost twice last season with once being in the Super Bowl.  It really makes no sense.  Otherwise, New Orleans can't stop anyone, the Rams can't score and has no QB play at the moment, and Tampa Bay likely is in a similar boat -- although maybe I should not put them any lower than Detroit on this list.
Teams that I still am not really buying despite a shiny start to the year:  Detroit (4-3) and the Giants (4-3).  The Lions still are a team that seems to have very little on defense at the moment and the Giants spent all that money and still never touch the QB and don't even pretend to run the football.  I really don't buy it and I am happy to tell you I expect swoons that take them out of the race for the Top 6 as the season moves on.
So, I have dropped 8 teams out of a 16 team race where the top 6 move on.  So let's do this now in the race for the top:
Washington (4-3) - The Redskins are secretly decent right now, with an offense that is better than you think but a defense that seems to limit their upside.  Their schedule will not help them much as they don't seem to have another softie on their schedule until late, late in the year.  This next stretch looks pretty brutal.  First place comes with a price the next year, and if they make the playoffs, they will have earned it.
Philadelphia (4-2) - This is likely to cause controversy, too.  But, I do not buy that the Eagles are ready to contend.  I believe the book is out on Wentz and that his group of skill position players and the Lane Johnson suspension are killers.  Their defense is legit so they will be in many games, but if you want to see a tough stretch, look at what Philly is about to endure for the next six weeks.  I think they would be thrilled with being 7-5 after 12 games.  But, I suspect 6-6 is about right. 
So, here are your 6 playoff teams from the NFC if someone was to predict on Oct. 25:
Arizona (3-3-1) - This might be a stretch, but I think Arizona is still a very good football team with many of the things I look for when I examine quality.  They have a lot of tough games ahead and that road schedule may be their undoing, but overall, I think the Cardinals will figure out a way to get one of the two spots that the NFC West will surely secure. 
Atlanta (4-3) - The Falcons are very difficult to fully comprehend.  If you didn't know better, you would say they are approaching "Lions with Megatron" status as they continuously force the ball into Julio Jones.  Their defense is still problematic, but they are now at least approaching average in certain categories (like pass rush) and I assume they will win their division (someone has to).  The schedule is no picnic, but they have a running game and a small amount of depth -- which is more than usual in Atlanta.  I don't trust Matt Ryan a whole lot, but they have appeared to have found a bit of a groove.
Green Bay (4-2) - The Packers season has been a mess.  The offense has looked feeble and the injuries have stacked up to where they have no running backs or corner backs and have already had their bye.  They also play four of the next five on the road.  But, they appear to have a strong offensive line, a very good defensive front, and a QB that will now throw 50 times a game that has a pretty decent resume.  I still think they might win the North, but that might be with 10 wins.
Minnesota (5-1) - The Vikings have many weaknesses and their start seems a mirage by just about all statistical accounts.  Their offense just doesn't do much of anything and there are very few signs that will improve down the stretch.  However, the Vikings haven't played Chicago or Detroit yet, so they have a chance at four wins right there on the horizon.  Their defense carries them, but I still assume their defense is only about the third best in this playoff race (Seattle and Arizona).  This many wins in the bank make them a cinch for the playoffs, but their offensive line is going to get their fragile QB hurt if something drastic doesn't change. 
Seattle (4-1-1) - The Seahawks are a pleasure to watch on defense and have been for as long as anyone can remember.  I am not sure they are on the same level as they were, but they are on a level that is plenty good enough.   Their problem is also their offensive line, which is a disaster.  They are very, very bad on offense and have already limited Russell Wilson.  There is no doubt they make the playoffs, but there is also no doubt that they appear too one-dimensional to do much after that.  Their schedule will push them here in the next few weeks, too.
Dallas (5-1) - I can't believe this, but the Cowboys look like they have an easier schedule than just about anyone, fewer question marks due to injury, and are no longer reliant on Tony Romo staying healthy.  They actually now have Tony Romo insurance.  So, not only do they have the best record in the NFC, but also the easiest schedule going in, and players returning from injury.  Not only are they the favorite to win the division now, but they are also a favorite for a bye week in the playoffs.  Even 3-2 in the next five through Thanksgiving puts them at 8-3, which should keep them on top of the NFC entering December. 
In other words, I think the NFC is asking to be won right now.  All of the normal heavyweights look flawed.  And the Cowboys look rested. 
That is the way I see it.  But, that doesn't really matter.  Let's see what happens next.  On any play in any game, an injury might change this whole thing.  But right now, the Cowboys position looks ideal.

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