NFC Playoff Contenders – Pros & Cons

The NFL season is down to four weeks remaining in the regular season. Last week, we broke down the AFC playoff picture, and now it’s time to check-in on the NFC. With apologies to the entire NFC East, plus the second-tier South Division teams (behind Carolina), it appears to be a five-horse race.

The Favorite

Carolina

  • What’s to Like
    The Panthers are the only unbeaten team in football and they’ve shown they can win both high-scoring games and defensive battles. Carolina averages 31.1 points a game, second in the NFL, and have limited opponents to 20.3 point a contest, ninth best in the league. They appear to be getting stronger, too; during the last four weeks, the Panthers have averaged more than 36 points while yielding fewer than 20 per game. Those decisive victories have the them sitting at a solid 9-3 ATS on the year.
     
    The Panthers also lead the NFL in takeaways and are good at protecting the rock; they sit first in the league in in turnover margin at +14. With a two-game lead over second-place Arizona at the top of the NFC, they look like a virtual lock for home-field advantage.
  • What’s Not to Like
    Dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, among the favorites to win NFL MVP, leads a lopsided offense that ranks third in rushing but 27th through the air. Newton is 15th in passer rating, right between Josh McCown and Kirk Cousins. His only real down-field threat, Ted Ginn Jr., is among the most prolific pass droppers in the league. While Ginn has made three plays of over 40 yards this season, he has caught only 35 of 75 targets.
     
    The Panthers have benefited from a relaxed slate, playing the second-easiest schedule in the NFL thus far, and haven’t had a lot of playoff success in the past; Newton and coach Ron Rivera have only won one playoff game, and it came against a Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals squad last year.

The Top Challenger

Arizona

  • What’s to Like
    At 10-2 overall, and 7-5 against the number, the Cards have a two-game advantage in their pursuit of the second NFC playoff bye with four to play. They’ve won six straight to boot and lead the NFL in scoring at 31.8 points a game. Unlike Carolina, their offense is balanced, ranking top-ten in both passing and rushing. The defense is solid, as well, allowing a shade over 19 points per contest.
     
    Signal-caller Carson Palmer, who led Arizona to an amazing start last year before getting injured, has picked up where he left off and is second in the league in passer rating. Coach Bruce Arians has the special teams operating at a high-level, with both the punting and field goal units ranking among the top-five in the NFL.
  • What’s Not to Like
    We’ll find out a lot about Arizona in their final four games. They host Minnesota, Green Bay, and Seattle while traveling to Philadelphia. If they lose to either the Vikings or Packers, they would drop a head-to-head tiebreaker with the NFC North leaders, who are both 8-4 and also pursuing a bye.
     
    The Cardinals have struggled with turnovers at times, and their ten lost fumbles lead the NFC. Recent history says Arizona will have an uphill climb come playoff time, having lost nine of 14 all-time meetings with Carolina, seven of their last 11 against the Seahawks, five of six versus Minnesota, and seven of nine with Green Bay.

Longshots

  • What’s to Like
    At their best, Green Bay (8-4, 7-5 ATS) appears unstoppable. They began the campaign 6-0 and, even when at their worst in November, picked up a massive road win over Minnesota. The defense can be solid and averages only 19.8 points a game (sixth best in the league), while the offense  – though lacking at the skill positions – is still led by arguably the best QB in the league, Aaron Rodgers (26 touchdown passes versus five interceptions this season).
     
    Minnesota (8-4, 9-3 ATS) is led by a shutdown defense that has given up the fourth fewest points in the league (despite getting blown out by Seattle on Sunday, 38-7). The offense isn’t flashy, but Adrian Peterson leads the league in rushing and the entire unit has only committed 12 turnovers all year. The Vikes are also well coached and have committed the fifth fewest number of penalties.
     
    Seattle (7-5, 5-6-1 ATS) has won three straight and five of six, and has played the toughest schedule among NFC playoff contenders. Four of the five Seahawk setbacks have come against teams currently occupying playoff spots. Seattle leads the NFL in rushing, ranks third in points allowed, and eighth in scoring offense. Quarterback Russell Wilson is third in the league in passer rating and the offensive line looks to be getting stronger as the year goes on.
  • What’s Not to Like
    The Packers and Vikings will both face road games on their path to the Super Bowl, in all likelihood. (Carolina and Arizona are all but assured of snagging the byes.) Green Bay has lost four of six on the road and needed a Hail Mary to beat the Lions in Detroit last Thursday.
     
    The Vikes have been solid on the road (4-2), but have the weakest strength of victory among current NFC playoff teams; they’ve played three games against current postseason squads and lost them all. Minnesota also scores fewer than 20 points a game, 28th in the NFL, and only the Rams have thrown for fewer yards. Two key cogs for Minnesota, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith, left their lopsided loss to Seattle on Sunday with injuries and it’s unclear how long they’ll be out.
     
    Aside from their win in Minnesota on Sunday, the Seahawks lost their other road games against playoff-caliber competition (27-17 at Green Bay 27-17 and 27-24 at Cincinnati). Sitting three games back of Arizona in the NFC West, they will, in all likelihood, need three road wins to reach the Super Bowl.

 

(Photo credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)

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