By: Jacob Gallipeau @nflfanaticpod
*Image from Good Morning Football video below.
NFC Playoff Picture
Another week has passed in the NFL, and with each passing week, the playoff picture becomes more clear.
There are some teams that reinforce their dominance most weeks, but there are many others who go back and forth and are hard to read. And with such a competitive conference of teams in the NFC, there are loads of teams still in the race.
The same can’t really be said for the AFC, they look much less dominant. If you didn’t read my article last week about the AFC playoff picture, go check it out.
So the AFC article is done. It’s time to talk about the NFC. Almost every team is still in the race, so there’s a lot to discuss. Let’s take a look at each team’s chances to make it into the playoffs.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings (8-2)
The way the Vikings have struggled with injuries this year, you couldn’t blame the Vikings if they weren’t playing well. They lost their star rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Stefon Diggs, the emerging receiver, has fought off injuries all year. And they’ve had a tough draw at the most important position in football: they lost starting QB Sam Bradford early on in the year. Teddy Bridgewater was already injured. So they turned to their third string, Case Keenum, and the rest is history (and current, I suppose).
I’m not sure that any 3rd string quarterback has ever performed as well as Keenum has. He’s thrown 12 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions on the year, along with nearly 2200 yards. He’s done exactly what the Vikings have needed from him. They’ve beaten some pretty good teams, too: including the Saints, the Packers (albeit without Aaron Rodgers), the Redskins, and most recently the Rams. Keenum has played so well that even now that Bridgewater is healthy, Keenum will remain the starter, at least for the time being.
But the Vikings succeed because Keenum doesn’t have to do everything. Even without Cook, they’ve gotten consistent production in the running game with Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray – in fact, the team ranks 8th in the NFL in rushing.
Not only that, but their defense is well known across the NFL. They are 7th overall in defense, and their team is filled with stars, including Xavier Rhodes, who has allowed a passer rating of 39.2 to quarterbacks throwing his way, which leads the league.
And the emergence of Adam Thielen, who is second only to Antonio Brown in yardage this season, has really emerged alongside Stefon Diggs. Thielen has also performed very well when Diggs missed games with injury. When these two are both healthy, they are the top WR duo in the league. When you add all that up, that makes for a legit contending team. The Vikings are unquestionably one of the top teams in the NFL right now because of how well balanced they are.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints (8-2)
This Saints team is legit. In past years, when you thought of the Saints, you thought of Drew Brees. But this year, the best part of their team is the rushing attack. They had six rushing TDs in one game two weeks ago. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are the best RB duo in football. Ingram is averaging 101 yards a game, and Kamara is averaging 90, which rank 7th and 10th in the league, respectively, at RB. They are also 5th and 6th in total touchdowns, with 8 for Ingram and 7 for Kamara. When you consider both of them are on the same team, that should give you an idea of just how crazy good these Saints RBs are.
The team has also shown the ability to perform in the clutch. Down 15 points with 6 minutes to go, Drew Brees engineered two touchdown drives late, and took the team into overtime, where they eventually won 34-31 over the Washington Redskins.
They are the #1 team in football in total offense – 3rd in the NFL in total rushing yards, and 2nd in total passing. And their defense isn’t half bad either: 13th in the NFL, which is a far cry from where they were last year.
This Saints team is different from years past: It’s not just Drew Brees holding the team together. They have stars everywhere, and their balance is what makes them so dangerous. The Saints should compete for a first round bye in what looks like should be a three-team race between the Saints, Vikings, and Eagles.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles (9-1)
The Eagles look nearly unstoppable at this point in the season. Their offense has scored 26 points or more in EVERY single win this season. They’ve steamrolled defenses like Denver Carolina (#2 in the league). They also crushed the rival Redskins (twice) and Eagles, along with the Giants, bringing their division record to 4-0.
We’ll start with their defense, which has been fantastic through 9 games. They’re 9th in both total defense and scoring defense. They’re tied for 4th in the league in sacks with 29, and come in 2nd place in interceptions with 14. Only Baltimore has more, and if Brett Hundley hadn’t thrown three against them this past week, the Eagles would lead the league in that category.
And the defense isn’t even the best part of this team. The Eagles are the #1 scoring offense in the league, 17 points ahead of the LA Rams. They have a four-headed monster at RB, including the newly acquired Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner, who have all gotten involved in one way or another. Even without Darren Sproles, this team has produced in a major way at running back.
And Carson Wentz is the real star of this team. In just his second year in the league, he is leading the league in touchdown passes with 25 – three more than Tom Brady has to this point. He’s on pace for 45 touchdowns on the year. He’s progressed massively from an up-and-down rookie year, and looks like one of the best QBs in the league. If he continues to play the way he is, this team is going to be incredibly hard to stop. I expect them win the #1 seed and make a legitimate Super Bowl run.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams (7-3)
Even after a disappointing loss to the Vikings, there is a lot to be excited about for the Rams. Sean McVay, in his first full year of being a head coach, has turned this offense from the laughingstock of the league to 4th place in yards and 2nd in points scored. They are also 8th in scoring defense – yet another well balanced team at the top of the division. Funny how that works.
While Jared Goff hasn’t been amazing, he has made quite the improvement over last year. And Todd Gurley is playing at an MVP level. He has 11 touchdowns on the year, the most from any non QB. And Robert Woods has emerged as a very good WR opposite Sammy Watkins (who really hasn’t done much). It was just announced Woods will miss a few weeks, which is a big blow to this team, but one they should be able to overcome as long as Cooper Kupp can step up.
Sean McVay while likely win Coach of the Year, and you’ll understand why when you see the improvement from last year: they scored more points through 8 games this year than they did through the entirety of last year.
The Rams scored 46 points in the first week of the year, the first of three games with more than 40 points. The Rams never scored more than 37 in all of last year.
Last year, they had a two game stretch of 9 points. They have never had less than 37 points in a two game stretch this year.
Regardless of how you look at it, the Rams are a changed team under McVay. They should have no trouble making the playoffs. They might not get a division title, as their upcoming schedule is pretty tough (), but they should make it as a wild card if nothing else.
Wild Card Hopefuls
Carolina Panthers (7-3)
The feature of the Panthers team so far this season has been the defense. They are #2 this year in yards and #7 in scoring, and it has helped them get to the record they have. They also are tied for 4th in the league in sacks on the year.
The offense, however, has been inconsistent. Cam Newton has looked like a stud one week and a complete bust the next. The beginning of the season was the worst: through the first three games, Newton had two touchdowns to his four interceptions and three fumbles. He’s been much better since, but he still has turnover issues: seven interceptions and two fumbles in the past seven weeks. The inconsistency is maddening: he went from 0 touchdowns one week to 4 the next.
However, this team is improving at the right time. In weeks 2-8, a span of six games, Cam was sacked 22 times. Since then, in the past three games, he’s been sacked once, and he’s had his most efficient games running the football since then as well, including games of 86 and 95 yards.
Cam Newton is the key to this team’s success. When he plays well, the Panthers win in blowout fashion, like they did vs the Dolphins last week in their 45-21 victory. But when Newton struggles, the team struggles. 8 of Cam’s interceptions have come in their three losses, along with three of his fumbles – 11 turnovers in three games, out of his total of 16 on the season. As long as Cam can continue to play like he did last week, this team should be fine. But the inconsistency is something to be very concerned about, as a bad performance from him can easily make or break their season come playoff time.
Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
We all know that Seattle has been one of the dominant teams over the last few years. But this year might be a little different.
In past years, Seattle has had the Legion of Boom. At this moment, both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are on IR, and Earl Thomas has been fighting through injury as well. So the LOB is basically gone; Seattle still has a strong front 7, but their secondary is compromised, and that’s going to affect them going forward.
They also aren’t as well balanced as some of the other teams around them. In fact, Russell Wilson leads the team with 376 rushing yards. The next closest? 208 yards. And that’s Chris Carson, who has been on IR since Week 4 and only started three games. Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls combined throughout the whole season barely have more than Carson: their combined total is 255. Their run game is practically non-existent, and that’s really hurting them.
However, this team is still in the running because of Russell Wilson. As long as he is on this team, they will always have a chance, but there isn’t much help elsewhere. Seattle’s O-line has left Wilson running for his life on almost every dropback. Good thing for Seattle though is that Wilson is tough as nails. In a game last week, he had his jaw knocked out of alignment so badly that he could only drink smoothies for two days afterwards, and he only missed ONE. PLAY.
Wilson is the core of this team, and his magic should keep them in contention. But if Wilson goes down, there isn’t much left for the team to work with. And Wilson can’t do it all forever. We’ll see how long this all lasts for the ‘Hawks.
Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
Atlanta has the 10th ranked offense and 10th ranked defense, so they have improved quite a bit after their 0-2 start to the season. They just beat Seattle, and are now tied with them for the #6 spot in the NFC Wild Card race. This team has gotten a lot better since their start to the season, and are starting to look a little more like the team they were last year.
Atlanta’s offense, as expected, fell back to earth this year. Matt Ryan has not thrown more than 2 touchdowns in any game yet this season. The tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman hasn’t been as much of a factor in games as last year. And Julio Jones has only one touchdown on the season.
However, part of the reason Atlanta is still playing well is that their defense is vastly improved from last year. Last year, they were worst in the league in scoring defense. This year, they are up to 13th. They are also the 7th best pass defense this year, as the combo of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are playing very well.
Atlanta’s balance is vastly improved, and that was their weakness last year. The way they are playing right now, they should definitely be in competition for a wild card spot. However, they are third in their division right now, behind the Panthers and Saints. Here’s their upcoming schedule: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, Carolina. So 5 of their remaining games are divisional, so they are pretty much in control of their playoff destiny.
Detroit Lions (6-5)
For all the Lions’ success in the win column, they haven’t really translated it to overall production. They rank 16th in total offense and 23rd in total defense – not the most inspiring stat line for a team with playoff aspirations.
But they have had a very tough slate of games thus far. Their losses have been to the Falcons, Panthers, Saints, and Steelers, each of which have six or more wins on the season. They’ve played three divisional games thus far – one against each team – and won them all, so that will help them significantly in the race for a wild card spot.
And their upcoming schedule is very easy: at Baltimore, at Tampa Bay, Chicago, at Cincinnati, Green Bay. All of these teams have a record of .500 or worse, so the Lions should in all likelihood have a pretty good chance at the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
The Cowboys started off the season pretty well, but have been just decimated as of late. They lost Ezekiel Elliott, who finally lost his appeal of suspension and will be gone for almost the remainder of the season. LT Tyron Smith has missed the last two games, and his replacements have been awful: Dak has been sacked 12 times in those two games, after being sacked only ten times in the first 8 games. Sean Lee has been lost on the defense, which has caused a lot of struggle, as he is clearly the leader of that defense.
Dak Prescott threw three interceptions and zero touchdowns two weeks ago. Here’s an idea of how bad a game it was for him: if he had taken all 31 of his passes and just thrown them into the ground, he would have had a better passer rating than he actually got in that game.
Prescott needed to step up big when Zeke’s suspension was upheld. He hasn’t. And while that’s not completely his fault, there just isn’t really much chance for the Cowboys to make the playoffs the way they are playing right now. The Cowboys have lost a few key players, and unless Tyron Smith and Sean Lee are able to get back and do it soon, the Cowboys hopes at the playoffs are basically gone.
Green Bay Packers (5-5)
This article is being written by a Packers fan, and even in my biased opinion, the Packers suck right now. There are no two ways about it. Brett Hundley has shown a few signs of potential but overall has played terrible. The defense, aside from last week’s decent showing against the Ravens, has not played well. Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery are hurt, and Jamaal Williams hasn’t done that much in their absence. The receivers outside of Davante Adams aren’t getting open. The Packers are a mess without Aaron Rodgers, and I would be shocked if they were somehow able to get into the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers hides a lot of problems on that team, and now that he’s gone, they are being exposed.
Washington Redskins (5-6)
The Redskins are not a bad football team, but this is just not their year. They’ve been just crushed with injuries across their offensive line, starting a different group of lineman in almost every game this season. Rob Kelley has been fighting through injury all year and was recently placed on injured reserve. Chris Thompson, the biggest playmaker on that offense, just went to IR. Terrelle Pryor (granted, he hadn’t been doing much, but still) just went to IR as well. Playmaking tight end Jordan Reed has missed almost half the year with various injuries. Despite all this, they’ve managed to rank 5th in total offense thus far.
And their schedule has been incredibly difficult, the hardest of any team this year. Just look at their last 5 matchups: the 9-1 Eagles, the Cowboys (before they lost Zeke and started playing terribly), the 6-4 Seahawks, the 9-2 Vikings, and the 8-2 Saints. They’ve also played the 9-1 Eagles in week 1, the 7-3 Rams in week 2, and the previously undefeated Chiefs in week 4.
This is a good football team, they’ve just had a ton of opposition this year. While it’s looking unlikely they make the playoffs this year, this is a good football team and one that should be respected despite its record. And I expect them to make a late season push, even if it may not end up being enough.
Follow Jacob Gallipeau on Twitter at @nflfanaticpod to get notified on any new articles or episodes of his unaffiliated football podcast.