With just a month and a half left to secure a playoff berth, no fewer than eleven teams have realistic hopes of making the postseason from the NFC.
Last week, we shook things out in the AFC (though now that list should really just contain the Broncos and Pats). Now it's time to figure out who has the best shot of meeting the AFC champ in the Super Bowl.
From the favorite Seahawks to hard charging Panthers to the underdog Cardinals, let's break down who can make postseason noise, and who should be polishing up the golf clubs for a long winter's nap. Note that all rankings are by DVOA unless otherwise noted.
Playoff Odds: 99.8% (94.5% of a first-round bye)
Best Stat in their Favor: The Seahawks rank second overall in DVOA behind Denver. They also rank third on defense. Throw in a top-two special teams unit to go with a top-10 offense, and you have an obvious Super Bowl favorite. Seattle has been one of the best teams in football all year, and they have a terrific home-field advantage. The only game they lost was a fluky road loss in Indianapolis. When you have the best pass defense in football, you always have a chance.
Reason to Worry: If you are looking for reasons to doubt Seattle, Russell Wilson's sack rate would be it. At 9.8%, he's taking entirely too many sacks (28). Anyone who takes that many hits is an injury risk. So even with an all-around team, Tavaris Jackson playing meaningful snaps is a big reason to worry.
Verdict: Contender. The Seahawks are playoff tested and has been at the top of the conference all year. The road to a championship goes through Seattle.
San Francisco 49ers
Playoff Odds: 64.8%
Best Stat in their Favor: San Francisco is no lock to make the playoffs, but with four games left against teams with losing records, they do have the inside track. Games with Seattle and New Orleans will tell us a lot about where they stand, but if you can make the playoffs in the NFC even as the six seed, the reward will likely be a trip to Detroit or Chicago. That's a game the 49ers can win.
Reason to Worry: San Francisco is staring at a six seed. They've lost to the Panthers and the Seahawks, and are on the outside looking in for any tie-breakers. They simply can't afford another mistep or their road to a championship gets awfully complicated. As things stand, they would likely head to Seattle in the second round of the playoffs. They lost there by a score of 29-3 in Week 2.
Verdict: Pretender-ish. It's not that the 49ers can't win it all. They are still a formidable opponent. It's just that their path to victory is extremely complicated. They are a better version of the Chiefs in the AFC. Being a contender isn't always about the strength of a team. Sometimes it's about the route you have to take through the postseason.
Playoff Odds: 19.7%
Best Stat in their Favor: Guess who has the number two defense in football? Yeah. They are that good.
Reason to Worry: Guess who has the 29th best quarterback in football? Yeah, Carson Palmer is that bad.
Verdict: Pretender. Bruce Arians deserves Coach of the Year votes for his work with the Cardinals. They have a real shot at .500, and if they were in the AFC or if they had a better quarterback, they'd get the contender label. In fact, I'd love to see them play Kansas City. I'd take the Cardinals. The bottom line is that is they will likely need 11 wins to make the postseason, and it's hard to see even five wins on their second-half slate, let alone six.
New Orleans Saints
Playoff Odds: 88.6% (45.8% of a first-round bye)
Best Stat in their Favor: Let's avoid the obvious for a moment because "they have Drew Brees" isn't a stat. The Saints have a fantastic pass defense. They can't stop the run for crap, but that's not nearly as important in the grand scheme of things. The Saints have scored the second-most points in football but allowed only the fifth-most. That's great defense to go with "they have Drew Brees". Their point differential fo +102 (third in the NFL) screams "contender".
Reason to Worry: The run game is highly overrated, but the Saints give up 5.0 yards per carry. The only team with a run defense that bad to win it all was the 2006 Colts. Only four teams have ever even made the playoffs with that mark and three of them lost in the first round.
Verdict: Contender. The Saints may not be able to get past Seattle on the road without being able to contain Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, but I'd put them up against anyone else in the conference at home.
Playoff Odds: 84.3%
Best Stat in their Favor: They are second in points allowed in the NFL, giving up just 12.8 a game. When you only need two touchdowns to beat your opponents, you are going to win games. They lost three of their first four, but have found their groove, allowing 20 points or more just twice on the season. They are third in the NFL in DVOA, so it's difficult to argue with their depth of quality. They may be only slightly above average on offense, but the top defense by DVOA is something they can count on.
Reason to Worry: Carolina does play a difficult closing schedule. They have the fifth-toughest closing slate. It includes the Patriots and Saints twice. However, a win in even one of those games all but ensures a playoff berth. They should be able to manage the Dolphins, Bucs, Jets and Falcons. The problem is that the odds are against them winning the South. Three road games isn't an impossible path to glory, but it is a difficult one.
Verdict: Contender. The Panthers are absolutely for real. This team has been trending up all season after a rough start. Ron Rivera has finally learned to embrace fourth down, and Cam Newton is evolving into the player his promise always foreshadowed. You think Seattle wants any part of them? You think the New Orleans and their 5.0 YPC defense isn't just a little unnerved by the Panthers? Carolina beat them twice last year. No one wants to play this team.
Playoff Odds: 74.2%
Best Stat in their Favor: Detroit plays just one team with a winning record the rest of the year. It's Green Bay at home on Thanksgiving. Aaron Rodgers is questionable for a return that week. Like the Lions or hate them, they are going to the postseason.
Reason to Worry: For all the offensive fireworks, the Lions still field a poor defense. The unit is 23rd against the pass. Even if they win the North and get a home game, they are likely going to play New Orleans in the second round. Good luck beating Drew Brees on the road with a bottom-10 pass defense.
Verdict: Pretender. The Lions are going to the playoffs, but the rest of the conference is just too good. They'd have a real shot in the AFC, but it's difficult to imagine the offense overcoming the defense for four-consecutive weeks.
Playoff Odds: 39.3%
Best Stat in their Favor: Chicago has scored the third-most points in the NFL. Their largest loss is by just eight points.
Reason to Worry: Chicago has given up the sixth-most points in the NFL. They have just one win by more than seven points.
Verdict: Pretender. Chicago has been in every game and played them all close to the vest. If Jay Cutler were healthy, I'd call them a sleeper in the NFC. Marc Trestman has done wonders with the offense, but the mountain in the NFC is just too high. Even with just one game left against a winning team, it's too easy to see the Bears on the outside looking in after giving up 40 to the Eagles or 35 to Aaron Rodgers in Week 17. The two-point conversion fail against Detroit may be too much to overcome for Chicago.
Green Bay Packers
Playoff Odds: 21.9%
Best Stat in their Favor: With Aaron Rodgers, this is one of the best teams in the league. They have just two narrow losses on the road against playoff-caliber teams with Rodgers under center.
Reason to Worry: Aaron Rodgers is out. Assuming he misses three more weeks, the Packers have to find a way to win twice. Oh, and Seneca Wallace is out for Week 11 as well. So now they are down to Scott Tolzien and have re-signed Matt Flynn. Reason enough to worry for you?
Verdict: Pretender. The Packers were my preseason Super Bowl choice, and they may still finish the season as the best team in football, but aren't getting a postseason trip as a reward. They need a minimum of ten wins, and even then would lose a tie-breaker to the 49ers. If somehow they can get to seven wins without Rodgers, I'll still take them in the NFC, but it's hard to see how the math and tie-breakers work to get them in at this point.
Playoff Odds: 59.5%
Best Stat in their Favor: No one in their division is over .500.
Reason to Worry: Neither are they.
Verdict: The most entertaining pretenders ever. It's hard to take the Cowboys seriously when they keep finding new and creative ways to blow football games. They put up the points, but have found ways to lose a series of heart-breakers. Eight wins would be an optimistic finish.
Playoff Odds: 43.4%
Best Stat in their Favor: The Eagles are 3-1 in games started by Nick Foles, and they one they lost he didn't finish. Foles has a passer rating for 132.5 and has 16 touchdowns and zero picks. As Elmer Fudd would say when he saw Bugs Bunny dressed up like a girl rabbit, "Hummina hummina!"
Reason to Worry: As cool as Chip Kelly's offense is, the defense is ranked 28th in the NFL. The special teams is ranked 25th. This isn't a complete team yet. They are going to be a force in the NFC, but it'll take another year.
Verdict: Terrifying pretenders. The Eagles have to be considered favorites to come out of the East at this point, and no one is going to want to go into Philly in the Wild Card round. They don't have the defense to hang with Seattle in the second round, but just making the playoffs would validation enough of Kelly's controversial tactics.
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