Every season we get anywhere from one-to-three teams that don’t deserve their postseason berth. You can find examples in every season. Remember when the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley in the 2014-2015 season? Or in the next season, when the Texans got to 9-7 and won the always terrible AFC South despite TJ Yates, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet and Brandon Weeden all starting games? Or last year, when three of the four AFC Wild Card teams consisted of the Bills, Titans and Texans, making for a cringe-worthy Wild Card Saturday?
This year, it’s the NFC’s turn to supply us with low-quality playoff teams.
This is not what was expected to happen this season. I said before the season that my six playoff teams in the NFC (Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Packers, Eagles and Rams) would be the six teams, guaranteed. It seemed like a murderer’s row, and those six made sense before Week 1. There was nothing radical predicted there! I never saw the scenario we are in now happening.
Now we’re going to evaluate how and why that’s happening, and if it can be “fixed”, or essentially if there’s any chance my predictions come back around.
Guaranteed, deserving playoff teams: Rams, Saints, Bears
Only one surprise here! Everyone had the Rams and Saints in, but there are a couple surprises built within them. The insane, high-powered offenses these teams have instituted this season are on the verge of revolutionizing the league. We all knew the Rams and Saints had offenses that could put up 40 on any day and would finish in the top five in practically every offensive metric. But no one saw numbers like averages of 37.2 and 35.4 points per game being put up. This could be blamed on the Chiefs, who rank 2nd in points per game and have surprised me greatly. The Chiefs air-raid, “we’ll worry about defense later (or not at all)” strategy could be what has turned the league into an offense-first one for real this time. We knew this was coming, but the Rams and Saints weren’t putting together offensive displays like this last season. 45-35, 43-40 and 54-51 scores weren’t being put up between the league’s top teams last season. Defense still mattered.
No one predicted that, and no one predicted that a Mitchell Trubisky-led offense would be surviving in the middle of it, either. I was conflicted on the Bears heading into the season; even after the Kahlil Mack trade. Trust in Trubisky was low, and his adaptation to a new offense and new weapons concerned me. The defense was gonna make them interesting; I didn’t expect it to keep them that way.
Chicago’s survived. The defense has been better than even imagined, and is ranked 1st by DVOA. It hasn’t just been the front seven either. The secondary ranks 2nd by DVOA, thanks to guys like Eddie Jackson making plays. And the offense has benefitted from it. Matt Nagy has Trubisky playing well. He’s experimenting with the deep ball, though the North Carolina product hardly makes those throws accurately. But most of Trubisky’s success has been due to the investment Chicago made in weapons over the offseason. Anthony Miller and Trey Burton have each caught five touchdowns, and Allen Robinson has recovered well from his Achilles injury by returning to No.1 receiver form. Tarik Cohen’s been great for getting yards when they use him; he ranks tied for 10th in the NFL in total yards after the catch, and he’s a running back.
Chicago’s losses have made sense. Aaron Rodgers did an Aaron Rodgers thing in Week 1. Every team loses one dumb game, and that was the Week 6 crapfest against the Dolphins. And the Bears got out-scored by Tom Brady in Week 7. They haven’t lost since. I’ll roll with those L’s.
The Bears are in the NFC’s top three, and while it’s incredibly surprising, it at least makes sense. I’m willing to concede on leaving them out in early September.
On the cusp: Vikings, Panthers
It’s odd writing this right after Minnesota handled Green Bay decently well the other night, but we can’t let that performance overshadow what’s been a pretty underwhelming season for the Vikings so far.
The Vikings just haven’t hit the expectations we set for them. They sit at a “meh” 6-4-1 on the year. It took the defense awhile to start playing well, and Kirk Cousins has made fantastic throws while also being mostly responsible for the Vikings ranking 9th in turnovers. He’s had multiple brutal interceptions, and has already lost the Vikings one game solely on a fumble.
They seem to be turning it around though. The defense is up to 6th in DVOA, and they actually contained Aaron Rodgers quite well in the 2nd half of Sunday night’s game. They got a stop they desperately needed, and it paid off.
The Vikings are good on offense until Kirk Cousins isn’t. The defense looks to be real again. They got off to a slow start, but when everyone is on, the offense is scary. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thelien are two of the ten best receivers in the league, and Dalvin Cook looked really good for the first time in awhile the other night.
The doubt I have with the Viking has to do with their slow start and Cousins. It seems like they’ve turned it around. It’s a little tough to go all-in, though.
The Panthers are similar. I haven’t been able to trust them on either side of the ball, but whenever that doubt comes around, the offense does something ridiculous like it did Sunday, when Christian McCaffrey racked up 243 yards from scrimmage and two TDs.
But Sunday also brought the Panthers a brutal loss, their 3rd in a row, and has them sitting at 6-5 and out of the playoffs.
The Panthers are very Steelers-like. Sometimes the offense just doesn’t like to get going. It’s why losses against Washington and Detroit, two teams that have the same issues yet way less talent, have stolen games away from Carolina. The Redskins and Lions didn’t really shut the Panthers down. Neither defense is good nor played well in those games. The Panthers just killed themselves over and over again.
And when that happens against teams with real talent, like Pittsburgh and Seattle (Though you could make the case those teams have their own offensive issues, especially when it comes to starting games), the Panthers don’t have a chance. The Steelers romped Carolina on Thursday night 2.5 weeks ago; that’s a defense the Panthers should have dominated, given how many receivers the Steelers leave open every week.
Sunday’s game in Seattle was a little different. It was the defense that really let them down, as Tyler Lockett was open down the field multiple times and allowed the Seahawks to go the length of the field on the final drive to win on a game-winning field goal. The Panthers did a good job getting pressure on Russell Wilson, as most teams do, but they failed to back up their work up front in the secondary.
Since November hit, it feels like it’s something new every week for the Panthers. When they were 6-2 and were lighting the world on fire with their offense, it still seemed a little fishy. I was waiting for this. We’re here, and it’s a total pain in the butt.
The Panthers are on the cusp for a pretty good reason, like Minnesota. They’ve been way too inconsistent. But the Panthers have a lot more work to do than the Vikings. They currently sit out of the playoffs thanks to the Redskins (More on them later). The Vikings are in as the 5th seed right now, which is probably about right where they belong given their talent level is higher than Carolina’s when both teams are 100% healthy and fully firing.
Ewwwwwww: Redskins, Cowboys, Seahawks
Two of these teams could be fit for the section above. Dallas and Seattle are teetering on the cusp, and that’s only because I didn’t expect those teams to be in this position. Minnesota and Carolina were expected to be right here, so the Seahawks and Cowboys get the “Ewwww” trait because I still haven’t came around on the fact that they might be good.
Seattle has a better case than Dallas. Their defense is much better, and though the offense isn’t one that’ll compete with the league’s top dogs, it’s certainly more consistent than the Cowboys’. Infrastructure matters, and Seattle has that. Their ground-and-pound, old-school offensive scheme is getting them by at 6-5. And with a top ten defense by DVOA, they, kinda like the Bears, have been able to survive. The Seahawks have three running backs with over 300 yards this season; a major surprise considering the carousel they’ve employed over the past three seasons. Chris Carson has emerged as a No.1 guy despite the horrific offensive line play, which has allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked on a ridiculous 9.9% of his drop backs.
The Seahawks are screwed whenever they face a good defense. Losses to Chicago and Denver early in the season were the result of the running game not being able to get going, and two games against the Rams early this season didn’t help either. They have Minnesota and Kansas City left, which is a good defense and an offense they won’t be able to keep up with. But they can squeak out nine wins thanks to their two 49ers matchups coming up, and their home meeting with Arizona.
Seattle’s fine. They’re just getting by, which might be enough for the 6th seed. Right now it’s not, but as we’ll get to below, there’s no way Washington keeps occupying that spot.
Dallas is less fun. Their three game winning streak is single-handily and unfortunately saving Jason Garrett his job. But it’s also made Jerry Jones look like a genius, as Amari Cooper has given the Cowboys a reliable receiver. A first round pick was, and still is, insane for Cooper, but his big play ability, which was hit-or-miss in Oakland, has came through since being traded to Dallas. He’s actually getting open, and he shredded Washington on Thanksgiving.
Still, the Dallas offense ranks a paltry 24th in offensive DVOA. The ranking is mostly due to their previous struggles; ones that came pre-winning streak and pre-Cooper trade. Since, it’s been a whole new offense. Ezekiel Elliot is running like he did in his rookie year, and Cooper has massively opened things up for the play-action.
But I just don’t trust this to continue. As Stephen A. Smith always says, the Cowboys are an accident waiting to happen. I believe that to be true this year. There’s no way Jason Garrett doesn’t not start screwing things up, and the bad start to the Cowboys year offensively is probably just being corrected now by a crazy hot streak. There has to be some regression. Elliot finally suffering from the pretty-banged up offensive line? Cooper returning to his inconsistent, drop-prone self? It’s coming.
And then there’s Washington, who currently occupies the 6th seed solely thanks to their crazy 6-3 start which has came crashing down for multiple reasons, some warranted and some very obviously not.
DVOA is a stat that looks at how far above or below average a defense or offense preforms or allows a team to preform. “Average” is a word you could use to describe this Washington team so far this season, and the stats back it up. The Redskins are currently 23rd in offensive DVOA and 14th in defensive DVOA, which is as close to the middle of the road as you can get. Those numbers are much more indicative of what this Washington team is, and ever was, than their 6-3 start.
I hate to harp on Alex Smith, who might have suffered a career ending injury, but it’s a point that has to be made to pump the brakes on the Redskins. There was one game in which Smith started this season where his yards per attempt exceeded ten. His 2nd highest total was 8.5
That’s only going to get worse with Colt McCoy under center. If Smith brought anything, it was stability and consistency. With McCoy, that goes up in the air, and we got a good example of it on Thanksgiving. Smith may not have actually thrown the football, but he didn’t make mistakes. With McCoy, mistakes are bound to happen.
Smith’s injury sucks because it’s going to make Washington look a lot worse than they actually are when the regression hits.
The Redskins won’t make the playoffs. I thought that was something that’d be a safe guarantee before the season, but here we are in Week 13 and it’s somehow a possibility. I’m willing to guarantee it again. If they sneak in, then the point of this column looks pretty good given that Colt McCoy would be getting a team into the playoffs.
At the end of the day, either of these three teams making the playoffs feels underwhelming. Dallas and Seattle at least makes sense, but the fact that they’re in this race is still something I’m still warming up to. Washington would be a disaster for the league; they’d be an automatic bid for that crappy Saturday playoff game. The Redskins in the playoffs would be so horrific that it might justify one of these teams below getting in.
What’s wrong with you?: Eagles, Packers, Falcons
Two of these three teams are more complicated than the other. The Falcons have been absolutely ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball, and you can’t totally blame them (or me!) for that. They have an excuse.
But the Eagles and Packers really don’t. Philadelphia is having a classic Super Bowl hangover season along with a brutal injury year like Atlanta, creating a special mix of bad luck and the season from hell, while Green Bay overall just doesn’t have enough talent; it’s at such a lack that even Aaron Rodgers can’t survive it.
The Eagles defense has slipped all the way to 24th in DVOA. Their secondary has been extremely banged up; Sidney Jones, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox are all players who have missed time this year, are out for the year, or will miss Monday’s game against Washington. The front seven has suffered less, but guys like Derek Barnett and Jordan Hicks have missed time, or in Barnett’s case, are out for the year.
The Eagles have left people open in every game. Sunday against the Giants featured one of their most pathetic performances all season; New York was actually able to move the ball down the field on them. A lot of that was thanks to Saquon Barkley, but when the Giants needed to turn to the Eli, they were able to, and comfortably.
It’s hard to blame Philly’s defense. Last week they played with guys I’ve never heard of. Braxton Miller is playing some cornerback for them. The deficiencies in the secondary just can’t be made up in the front seven.
But you’d think they’d be able to made up by the offense, and that just hasn’t been the case. Philly starts every game slow offensively, suffering from the Panthers and Steelers’ syndrome. The offensive line went through serious struggles early; because of that they’re in the 9th in the league in sacks allowed. Jay Ajayi went down for the season, which was a huge blow to a running game that struggled to get going even with Ajayi active.
The Eagles are just average on 3rd downs this season, and just don’t have the same energy surrounding them. It’s felt like they’ve missed offensive coordinator Frank Reich desperately, which makes sense considering the show he has the Colts putting on.
But it also feels like the Eagles have turned it around. Despite Sunday’s underwhelming performance against one of the worst teams in football, the Eagles are starting to look like their selves from last year. Josh Adams has emerged as a No.1 running back for them, which is little surprise to me as he single-handily carried Notre Dame’s offense last season. While Barkley dominated the first half Sunday, Adams dominated the 2nd, and sparked multiple Eagles drives to get them to rally late. Carson Wentz made throws to set them up for the game-winning field goal as well. For that 2nd half, the Eagles looked like the Eagles again.
It’s hard to say whether it’s going to stick. The Eagles are probably gonna stink in the first half against Washington Monday night, leading to a thrilling 0-0 or 3-0 halftime score. At the same time, Josh Adams could run all over the Redskins front, and Colt McCoy is the quarterback a defense should be able to contain.
That’s the problem with the Eagles. Every week, we just don’t know what we’re going to get. One week we go “Hey look, they’re back!” and the next it’s “Oh, they still suck!”
But the difference with the Eagles is that even if this is their best mold, they’re still the best option out of any of these teams for a playoff spot. They have the highest ceiling. How much would it really surprise you if the Eagles end up in the NFC Championship Game? Weren’t they supposed to be there in the first place?
That’s the problem with the Packers. We saw a scenario where this would happen; my season prediction for them was strictly based on Aaron Rodgers doing Aaron Rodgers things. And he has at times this season; take Week 1’s comeback against the Bears for example. But it’s also time to admit that Aaron Rodgers has had moments over the past two weeks that don’t totally resemble the Aaron Rodgers we’ve become accustom to. He’s missed throws in big spots, costing Green Bay a game or two.
But that doesn’t mean we solely blame Rodgers either. It’s a combination of everything. The Packers defense still is bad, ranking 20th in DVOA, and they still lack quality receivers. Rodgers is throwing to rookies out there, and these aren’t top draft picks. And Mike McCarthy’s offense isn’t any better, though the emergence of Aaron Jones as a No.1 running back has certainly taken some of the heat off of his seat.
The Packers can get around it, but that’s going to be up to Rodgers and some luck. The defense has to improve just a bit; to a level where it doesn’t totally compromise everything else, and Rodgers has to go into “R-E-L-A-X” and “run the table” mode. We’ve seen that before, and it’s terrifying. And it’s why the Packers, despite mathematically being close to out of it, still can’t totally be counted out. Are we sure they’re worse than the Redskins, or even the Cowboys? The Seahawks beat Green Bay two weeks ago, in a game where Rodgers did all he could and the defense let him down. In that game, the Seahawks hit their peak, their “Hey, we might actually want them in the playoffs” selves. The Packers didn’t. Is that the deciding factor?
The NFC is one of these two things. It’s either really good like we expected it to be, but just in a different way, or it’s full of a bunch of teams we don’t have a real feel for yet, and don’t totally trust for certain reasons. The case that it’s good looks like the Rams, Bears and Saints dominating the top, the Vikings and Panthers in as their peak selves, and either the Packers or Eagles in as their peak selves. Sorry Seattle, Dallas and Washington. Green Bay and Philly are much scarier in the 2nd round of the playoffs. By then, they’ll be hot, and that’s something I want no part of.
Or the NFC sucks, and we have the three at the top and inconsistency everywhere else. The underachievers, Green Bay, Philly, Minnesota and Atlanta all continue to underachieve, the Redskins don’t totally get worse with Colt McCoy under center, Seattle continues to grind out wins yet doesn’t pass the eye test, and Dallas and Carolina revert back to teams that are middle of the road with offensive issues and bad defenses.
Ya’ll want to watch Colt McCoy on a January Saturday? I’ll pass. Let’s root for the first scenario.