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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Still Extremely Premature NFC Playoff Picture

The NFL has reached its midway point. The NFC has three playoff teams from last season on the outside looking into the playoff picture. There is still plenty of football left, but is there enough time for those teams to make a run? Here's what the NFC playoffs picture looks like after Week 9. Click here for the AFC.

One Seed: Arizona Cardinals (7-1) - It's hard to believe the Arizona Cardinals are the only team left in the league with one loss, and that came on the road to the reigning AFC Champions when the Cardinals were resorted to playing rookie quarterback Logan Thomas for a good portion of the second half because of injuries. Arizona swept the entire NFC East, beating Philadelphia and Dallas the last two weeks. Nothing really pops out at you about this team on the stat sheet. The Cardinals are 28th in rushing and dead last in stopping the pass. Running back Andre Ellington's yards per carry is down from 5.5 his rookie season to 3.8 this year, and Larry Fitzgerald has caught just two touchdowns. But there isn't a more aggressive team in the NFL. Coach Bruce Arians runs a relentless vertical passing attack and no one blitzes more on defense. The players have bought into Arians' tactics and have responded. Two games against a desperate Seattle team will be tough, but keep in mind, the Cardinals are the only team to beat the Seahawks over the last 20 games in Seattle.

Two Seed: Green Bay Packers (5-3) - With Green Bay's three toughest games left on their schedule at home, it isn't unrealistic to see Aaron Rodgers and company run the table. They have won four of their last five, losing only in the loud Superdome. Rodgers has 14 touchdowns versus just two interceptions in the last five games. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson have been on fire during that stretch as well. Cobb has 452 yards and six touchdowns while Nelson has 386 yards and five touchdowns in those five games. After Chicago this week, Green Bay plays Philadelphia in a game that has huge implications for which team wins the second bye. If Rodgers is clicking on all cyclinders, Mark Sanchez will not be able to keep up. The other true test for the Packers will be the Patriots in Week 13. That game, along with the season finale against the current division-leading Lions, is at Lambeau Field. 

It is probably a surprise to many to leave the 6-2 Detroit Lions off this list as they have already beaten the Packers. Detroit, however, faces Miami and then visits the Cardinals and Patriots the next three weeks. Then, the Lions finish the season on the road the last two weeks at Chicago and Green Bay. Like last season, Detroit will falter again.

Three Seed: Philadelphia Eagles (6-2) - Two weeks ago, the Eagles were probably the best pick as Super Bowl favorites in the NFC, but two injuries in Week 9 will likely derail their season. Quarterback Nick Foles cracked his collar bone and is out at least six weeks while linebacker DeMeco Ryans torn his Achilles' tendon and is out for the season. Former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez now has the keys to Chip Kelly's offense. With so many offensive weapons, Sanchez is capable of leading the Eagles to a division title. Receiver Jeremy Maclin has 790 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and behind a now healthy offensive line, running back LeSean McCoy has rushed for over 100 yards twice in the last three games. Actually, the Ryans' injury is probably more concerning for the Eagles' faithful. He had 45 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception through eight games. Without him, the Philadelphia run defense is softer and loses leadership in the middle. The Eagles face the Cowboys twice in the last five weeks of the season, which will decide the winner of the NFC East. 

Four Seed: New Orleans Saints (4-4) - There is no doubt the NFC South is the weakest division in the NFL, but it doesn't help the NFC South is matched up against the AFC North, perhaps the best division in the league. New Orleans has already lost to Cleveland, and after it welcomes the 49ers to the Superdome, the Saints face the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers in three straight weeks. These next three weeks before the Pittsburgh game, however, will be the Saints best chance to make a move in the standings because all three games are home. The Saints offfense has been better the last two weeks in large part to tight end Jimmy Graham, who has two touchdowns in those games. After that tough stretch, the Saints play three division opponents in the last four weeks. Drew Brees and the offense has moved the ball effective this season, so Brees and company just need to do a better job of taking care of the ball. The emergence of Mark Ingram is paying huge dividends. After never rushing for 100 yards in a game during his first three seasons, Ingram has posted back-to-back 100-yard contests.

Five Seed: Dallas Cowboys (6-3) - It is hard to believe the Cowboys are the most well put-together team in the league this season, but it could all fall apart because of one injury. Dallas is dedicated to running the ball behind perhaps the best offensive line in the league and controlling the time of possession has benefitted the defense. But without Tony Romo last week, the Cowboys did very little on offense. It is clear backup quarterback Brandon Weeden will not keep the Cowboys a contender in the NFC East let alone a Super Bowl contender. That means the offense will rely even more heavily on running back DeMarco Murray, who is already on pace for over 450 touches. It is difficult to believe Murray can handle an even bigger workload, and it is conceivable to think Murray will wear down by the end of the year. Dallas' season hinges on Romo returning under center and staying healthy.

Six Seed: Seattle Seahawks (5-3) - Seattle has quite a bit of work to do if it wants a shot at defending its title this January. Two of the following four: Eagles, Cowboys, Packers and Lions, will be in the wild card race not to mention the 49ers, who will get a lot of defensive players back from suspension and injury in the second half of the season. Even without Percy Harvin, Seattle has the tools to make a deep run. The Seahawks are fourth in rushing yards and rank in the top six in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and receiving yards allowed per game. They also rank tenth in points allowed. The Seahawks problems are lack of takeaways and the abandonment Marshawn Lynch. In the team's three losses, Lynch has carried the ball on average just 11 times, and Seattle has just 10 takeaways, which limits the defense's big-play ability. Despite lackluster wins over Carolina and Oakland, Seattle controls its own destiny with two games against San Francisco and Arizona. They also play at Kansas City, at Philadelphia and then home versus the Rams, who upset the Seahawks in Week 7.


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