Checking in on NFC Playoff Picture, Week 11 Edition

Here we are. Only seven weeks remain in the 2013 NFL regular season. If that doesn’t make you sad, the following will. About one quarter of the NFL is currently out of the playoff race. If you are a fan of one of those teams, it’s time to take a look at the youngsters, prepare for the draft (seven months away) and make sure your alcohol content doesn’t boil over.

For the remainder of the NFL, it’s all about playoff jockeying and seeing where your team stands through 10 weeks. In what will be a weekly feature here on Pro Football Central, we check in on the NFL playoff race, beginning with the NFC.

 

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

 

East

Courtesy of ESPN: The NFC East may come down to Philly and Dallas in Week 17.

Courtesy of ESPN: The NFC East may come down to Philly and Dallas in Week 17.

 

Dallas Cowboys: 5-5

Remaining Strength of Schedule: 24-31 (.436)

It doesn’t appear that this team will ever find itself more than one game over .500. Whether it is following up a two-game winning streak with a losing streak of just as many games, Dallas hasn’t been two games over .500 since December of last year. Dallas’ performance last week against the New Orleans Saints was nothing short of atrocious. It allowed the most first downs (40) in the history of the NFL as the Saints tallied over 620 total yards of offense. With injuries to Sean Lee, Anthony Spencer, J.J. Wilcox and Morris Claiborne, among others, the Cowboys’ defense may in fact be in trouble. It obviously doesn’t help that the’re on pace to give up the most passing yards in the history of the NFL.

The more interesting dynamic here is that Dallas is in a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and will host them in Week 17. With the New York Giants and Washington Redskins two games back in the win column, we could very well be looking at another Week 17 matchup to decide the NFC East. Ask Cowboys’ fans how that has turned out in each of the last two seasons.

 

Philadelphia Eagles: 5-5

Remaining Strength of Schedule: 26-30 (.464)

Nick Foles is playing some damn good football right now. If he continues at his current pace, the second-year quarterback will put up one if the best single-season performances in the history of the NFL. The issue with that is that he isn’t going to continue with this ridiculously hot play and the Eagles are just .500 with him playing at this level. Once Foles’ performance levels out, Chip Kelly and Co. could be in trouble. Their defense is a dumpster fire of futility and cannot maintain a level of play that enables the team to rely on it moving forward.

With pretty much the same strength of schedule as Dallas, it does appear that the Eagles will be forced to win in AT&T in Week 17 to nab the division title. Do you have confidence that Foles will continue this ridiculous level of play and the Eagles defense can improve? That’s what it’s going to take.

 

New York Giants: 3-6

Remaining Strength of Schedule: 35-29 (.547)

Don’t look now, but the Giants are in the midst of a three-game winning streak and will be taking on a Green Bay Packers team who is going to be without the services of Aaron Rodgers. Considering how weak the NFC East is this season, it’s not without reason that the Giants cannot come back and win the title. They will have to leap the two teams ahead of them in the standings and possess the toughest remaining schedule in the division. Games against the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions in the final quarter of the season will be telling. Outside of Green Bay, the Giants don’t play another team currently over .500 until then. A lot of their success will depend on how well Eli Manning plays under center. After throwing 15 interceptions in the first six games of the season, Eli has thrown just one in the last three games.

 

Washington Redskins: 3-6

Remaining Strength of Schedule: 33-32 (.508)

Those who believe Washington stands a chance in the NFC East in the second half of the season point to its seven-game winning streak to end the regular season last year. Unlike last year, the Redskins defense has been downright atrocious this year. They rank 26th against the pass, are in the middle of the pack against the run and rank 27th in total defense. They are also 31st in the NFL in scoring defense. Say what you want about the play of Robert Griffin III this season, Washington’s biggest downfall has been its defense. With games remaining against the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, it’s hard to imagine the Redskins putting up a similar winning streak as last season.

 

 

South

Courtesy of USA Today: With two games remaining against one another, Panthers and Saints are in a dog fight.

Courtesy of USA Today: With two games remaining against one another, Panthers and Saints are in a dog fight.

New Orleans Saints: 7-2

Strength of Schedule: 34-31 (.523)

Up until last week, I had concluded that the Saints were nothing more than a pretender. That changed after they put up 49 points and a league record 40 first downs against the Dallas Cowboys last week. New Orleans stands second in the NFL in scoring offense behind the Denver Broncos and Drew Brees is playing some ridiculous football. He’s tallied 12 touchdowns compared to two interceptions over the last three games. In addition, New Orleans’ defense has improved a great deal under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Its fifth in the NFL in scoring defense and rank seventh in total defense. With games remaining against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as well as two more outings against the Carolina Panthers, the Saints will be tested a great deal in the second half of the season. It’s not even a foregone conclusion at this point that the Saints win the NFC South. If not, they are going to struggle making an impact in the second season away from the Superdome.

 

Carolina Panthers: 6-3

Strength of Schedule: 33-30 (.524)

Winners of five consecutive games, the Panthers are now a sexy pick to surprise in the NFC. They boast the second-best overall defense in the NFL and have a young quarterback in Cam Newton that seems to be taking the next step. Going from playoff contender to conference championship contender might prove to be difficult here. Prior to their win against the 49ers last week, Carolina had not defeated a team that is currently over .500 all season long. Unfortunately for Panthers’ fans, they have four more games against teams with a winning record. At the very least, that’ll give Carolina tough tests heading into what is a possible playoff berth.

 

Atlanta Falcons: 2-7

Strength of Schedule: 31-32 (.492)

At 2-7, the Falcons’ season is pretty much over. Injuries to Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson and Sean Weatherspoon really put this team behind the proverbial eight ball. While injuries are a part of the game, Atlanta relies a great deal on its skill-position players and losing them was a big deal. The Falcons primary focus for the remainder of the season will be to get some young defenders a look, most notably seeing how Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford progress at cornerback. They can also play spoiler within the division. Moving forward, the larger issue will be head coach Mike Smith and whether he’s going to return in 2014.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 1-8

Strength of Schedule: 34-30 (.531)

Tampa finally got off the snide and won its first game last week against the Miami Dolphins. The remainder of the season will be spent evaluating rookie quarterback Mike Glennon as well as the Buccaneers’ coaching staff. Considering the utter mess that Greg Schiano has been in his second season with the franchise, it’s hard to believe that he’s going to return in 2014. More importantly for the long-term fate of the organization, Glennon needs to show he can be the true franchise guy. If not, Tampa Bay will likely exhaust what promises to be a high first-round pick on a quarterback.

 

 

North

Courtesy of Getty: The Packers/Lions matchup on Thanksgiving may decide the NFC North.

Courtesy of Getty: The Packers/Lions matchup on Thanksgiving may decide the NFC North.

Detroit Lions: 6-3

Strength of Schedule: 23-41 (.359)

At 6-3 and with one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NFL, Detroit looks to be a lock for the playoffs. Matthew Stafford has returned to form with 19 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in the first nine games of the season. Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson has recently started to absolutely tear apart opposing defenses. Add into the equation electric play from Reggie Bush and solid defense in the front seven and the Lions are looking downright scary at this point. Their biggest second-half matchup will come against the second-place Green Bay Packers at home on Thanksgiving. A win there and the Lions will be viewed as front runners in an ultra-competitive NFC North.

 

Chicago Bears: 5-4

Strength of Schedule: 29-36 (.446)

Chicago has played pretty well with Josh McCown under center in lieu of the injured Jay Cutler, who suffered yet another injury against the Detroit Lions last week. Cutler is expected to miss multiple weeks with a high-ankle sprain. At 5-4 and one game behind the aforementioned Lions in the NFC North, every game from here on out has to be considered a must win. Sundays matchup with an under .500 Baltimore Ravens team is no different.

In what has to be considered somewhat of an anomaly for recent Bears’ teams, their defense has been below average this season. It ranks 26th in the NFL in total yards against and 27th in scoring. That side of the ball will have to pick it up big time in the second half of the season if the Bears expect to make it to the playoffs. The good news here is that Chicago has only one game remaining against a team with a winning record; Week 17 at home against the Green Bay Packers.

 

Green Bay Packers: 5-4

Strength of Schedule: 26-39 (.400)

For the next couple weeks it’s going to be all about maintaining a winning record until Aaron Rodgers returns, likely against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Green Bay fell short against the Eagles at home last week and will have to travel to New Jersey to take on a suddenly hot Giants team that has won three in a row. New starter Scott Tolzien played pretty well in replacement of an injured Seneca Wallace last week and looks to take advantage of a bad Giants’ pass defense defense this weekend. Green Bay’s offense has reversed trend this season, as it’s starting to rely more on the ground game with Eddie Lacy than the passing game. That cannot change against a stout Giants run defense. Green Bay will then host the last place Minnesota Vikings before traveling to Detroit on Thanksgiving.

If its able to at least split these next two games until Rodgers returns, that sets the Packers up for a late-season run and a shot at the NFC North. If not, we could be looking at a disappointing end to the season. Yes, these next two games are vital.

 

Minnesota Vikings: 2-7

Strength of Schedule: 40-26 (.606)

Minnesota is one of a handful of teams in the NFL that is just playing out the string with the hopes that it gets a look at the youngsters and finds a solution to what has been a disastrous quarterback situation. A season that started out with lofty expectations after earning a surprise trip to the playoffs in 2012 has not morphed into quarterback and head coach battling for their jobs. After a horrible start to the season by Christian Ponder, the Vikings brought in former Tampa Bay’ first-round pick Josh Freeman, who got the starting nod just 10 days after signing with the team. Freeman proceeded to put up one of the worst statistical games for a quarterback this season and suffered a concussion in Minnesota’s 23-7 loss to the then winless New York Giants. It’s been all about Ponder since, as he has started all three games, winning against the Washington Redskins last week.

For Minnesota, the remainder of the season will be spent giving Ponder one final opportunity to earn the starting job beyond 2013. It will also be spent to check in on youngsters such as Cordarrelle Patterson and Xavier Rhodes, two of its three first-round picks from this past April.

 

 

West

Courtesy of ESPN: The next few weeks will decide whether the Seahawks/49ers early-December game means anything in the division.

Courtesy of ESPN: The next few weeks will decide whether the Seahawks/49ers early-December game means anything in the division.

Seattle Seahawks: 9-1

Strength of Schedule: 27-28 (.491)

At 9-1 and with the best record in the conference, Seattle has some breathing room between itself and the second-place 49ers. Its also prepared to get Percy Harvin back into the fold either this week or at some point this month. Either way, things are looking real good for the conference championship favorites. Its now all about maintaining this high level of play and getting healthy along the offensive line. While Russell Wilson has played great football as of late, Seattle did struggle during a three-game stretch prior to last week, mainly do to the fact that it was missing 60 percent of its starting offensive line.

With games remaining against the 49ers in San Francisco as well as the New Orleans Saints, Pete Carroll’s squad needs to keep on keeping on. This means that they simply cannot pretend that a division championship and first-round bye is locked up. Simply put, Seattle needs to continue to put the 49ers on notice.

 

San Francisco 49ers: 6-3

Strength of Schedule: 31-34 (.477)

The fact that San Francisco went from legit conference title contenders to playoff hopeful in the matter of the last week just goes to show you how fickle the NFL can be. Of course, most of this has to do with a national media that has decided to question whether quarterback Colin Kaepernick has regressed in his first full season as the starter. Despite struggling big time on offense against the Carolina Panthers last week, San Francisco has won five of six and is getting a ton of key reinforcements back into the mix. Remember, it played the majority of last Sundays game without the services of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis as pass-catching options. Davis figures to return this week with Crabtree a week or two behind. That’s going to to be huge for the 49ers.

Listen, San Francisco is in pretty much the same position as it was at this point last season when it entered Week 11 with a 6-2-1 record. It needs to forget about the Seahawks atop the division and worry more about improving its performance on the field. Outside of matchups against Seattle and New Orleans, the 49ers have a somewhat easy road ahead.

 

Arizona Cardinals: 5-4

Strength of Schedule: 35-31 (.530)

Don’t look now, but the Cardinals are now right in the thick of the NFC playoff race. After starting the season 1-2, the Cardinals have won four of their last six games and have a pretty friendly matchup against a one-win Jacksonville Jaguars team this week. Their keys to success over the past six games have been fewer turnovers from Carson Palmer and the passing game and a consistently good ground game to go with what has to be considered a top-10 overall defense.

If Arizona is able to continue its high level of play there is no reason to believe that it will fall out of the playoff race before December when it has to take on all three of its divisional rivals, including games against Seattle and San Francisco to wrap up the season.

 

St. Louis Rams: 4-6

Strength of Schedule: 33-22 (.600)

Unfortunately for the Rams, they play in the wrong division. Put them in the NFC East or NFC North and they’d still have a shot for the division crown. With three teams ahead of them, all with winning records, the Rams are likely playing out the string with backup quarterback Kellen Clemens under center. Much like I indicated with other last-place teams, it’s all about acquiring an understanding where certain players stand.

Can Tavon Austin continue what was a dominating performance against the Indianapolis Colts last week? Is Zac Stacy the franchise running back moving forward? Do the Rams possess an elite defense? These are all questions that will have to be answered before Jeff Fisher and Co. head into what should be an interesting offseason. The bad news here is that St. Louis isn’t able to judge Sam Bradford, who tore his ACL a few weeks back. That’s going to be the biggest decision of the offseason for a team that is clearly behind the other three franchises in what has become one of the best divisions in football.

 

 

 

Playoff Standings

1. Seattle Seahawks

2. New Orleans Saints

3. Detroit Lions

4. Dallas Cowboys

5. Carolina Panthers

6. San Francisco 49ers

————————————————————————————–

Chicago Bears (-1)

Green Bay Packers (-1)

Arizona Cardinals (-1)

Philadelphia Eagles (-1.5)

 

If the Playoffs Started Today

 

NFC Wildcard (Bye: Seattle and New Orleans) 

San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions

Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys

 

Conference Awards

MVP: Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Offensive Player of the Year: Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions

Defensive Player of the Year: Earl Thomas, Safety, Seattle Seahawks

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Green Bay Packers

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals

 

Final Predictions

russell_wilsonNFC East: Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

NFC South: New Orleans Saints (12-4)

NFC North: Detroit Lions (10-6)

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Wildcard (1): San Francisco 49ers (11-5)

Wildcard (2): Carolina Panthers (10-6)

 

Wildcard Round (Bye: Seattle and New Orleans) 

San Francisco over Dallas

Carolina over Detroit

Divisional Round 

Seattle over Carolina

San Francisco over New Orleans

NFC Championship

Seattle over San Francisco