NFC Midseason Review and Playoff Predictions
The first half of the NFL season is in the books and it has once again proven that no one knows anything about this league. The last team to lose last year is one of the last to record a win this year. The Saints are proving that defense is overrated and no lead is safe. The Broncos are proving that defense wins championships. (what a Super Bowl match up that would be) Nine weeks ago I told you who was going to be good and who was going to be bad. I told you who would win and who would lose each division. I was wrong. Now that I'm more enlightened to the fact that no one can predict this game I'm going to try and predict the second half. Wish me luck.
What I Knew Then
The Cowboys can run the ball. (when healthy) Marion the Barbarian is on his way to another solid year. Throw in Felix Jones and the surprising effectiveness of Tashard Choice and you have a running attack that rivals the best in the league. Too bad Tony Romo showed us all once again that he cannot consistently produce on the big stage. They still haven’t figured out how to get production out of the wide receiver position. Roy Williams has done nothing this year and has started to complain about his use in the offense. TO and now Williams. Maybe the wide receivers aren’t the problem. Miles Austin has had a nice year, but he is still doing it against teams number two corner. He is not a number one receiver.
The Eagles can score. DeSean Jackson may be the most explosive wide out in the league right now. He can score from anywhere on the field and his threat downfield softens defenses allowing McNabb and the rest of that offense to move the ball underneath. Brent Celek has turned into a solid fantasy tight end and is a weapon across the middle of the field and on the goal line. LeSean McCoy (besides making the Eagles the team with the most double capital letters in players names in the league) has done a decent job filling in for the ever injured Brian Westbrook and they’ll need both backs down the strectch if they want to make some noise. Their defense is still suspect, however. If you take away the Carolina game when Jake Delhomme threw four picks and couldn’t muster over 100 yards the D has been unimpressive against some really bad offensive units. Luckily for them the Eagles are able to put up points early forcing teams to throw the ball, in turn allowing the defense to only have to focus on defending the pass. They have to travel to San Diego and Atlanta still along with rematches against division foes New York and Dallas. The defense will have to prove themselves if the Eagles want to win this division. Let’s see how well this pass happy team holds up in the cold weather too.
The Redskins are bad. Need I say more? Jim Zorn will be lucky to survive the season.
What I Thought I Knew
The Giants defense is good. This may be the most perplexing development of the year. They’re secondary was never that great to begin with. Losing Kenny Phillips for the year has really hurt and neither Aaron Rouse nor C.C. Brown have been able to fill the void. Aaron Ross’s nagging hamstring injury has depleted the secondary even more. Still the most concerning thing for Giants fans is the disappearance of the pass rush. During their four game skid they’ve sacked the QB six times, compared with 18 in the first five games. The lack of pressure on opposing teams QBs has lead to the secondary being torched. Their offensive woes aside, h if this team can’t create pressure to protect the secondary they don’t stand a chance in December.
What I Still Don’t Know
What is the Giants offense? I don’t think the Giants can even answer that question right now. Mario Manningham and Steve Smith have stepped up in a big way and have some in New York saying “Plaxico who?” Despite this emergence (or maybe because of it) the Giants can’t decide what type of offense they want to be. This has lead to erratic play calling and a misuse of their biggest weapon, the running game. Despite productive days Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw haven’t been able to consistently pound the ball the way they have the last several years. Baby Eli has been inconsistent, possibly due to his plantar fasciitis, leading to general disarray on offense. Kevin Gilbride better figure this out soon or the Giants will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
With the relative weakness of the rest of the conference three teams could come out of this division. Each team (Dal, Phi, NYG) has one or two more tough games and a couple of division games. I see all of them finishing 10-6 with the division winner (pay attention to the division records) getting home field to open the playoffs.
What I Knew Then
The Cards can score. They’ve put up at least 24 points every week since their bye five weeks ago. Warner is completing his normal 65% of his passes and is already over 2,000 yards (though he has already thrown 11 picks). They can’t, however, run the ball. They’re second to last in the NFL in rushing yards per game and neither Tim Hightower nor Beanie Wells have been impressive. Their defense has fallen back to earth, too (as predicted). They have given up at least 17 points in all but one game this year. They’ve got four remaining division games, which in the NFC West is a good thing. They’re only real test will be Minnesota week 13. Despite their inconsistent play Warner and Larry Fitzgerald should be able to continue to put up points against bad defenses, protecting their own questionable defense and lack of running game.
The Niners have quarterback issues. Shaun Hill had a nice little run from the middle of last year but I’m hard pressed to find anyone who really believed he was the answer to the Niners QB issues. Now Alex Smith is back and despite his performance against Houston in week seven, he’s still Alex Smith. Frank Gore is having a solid year, but this offense has a long way to go before they can really be considered contenders.
The Seahawks can’t run the ball. They’re ranked 30th in the league in rushing yards per game and are averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry. Matt Hasselbeck has had a respectable season since missing two plus games with a bruised rib but their offensive line still has issues. Their defense has been respectable, pitching two shut outs (I don’t care that it was against the Rams and Jags, they’re still shutouts). They’ve got some youth on that side of the ball as well meaning they have room to grow. So far, the defense has been the one bright spot for this team. Beyond that, they’re just not very good.
The Rams can run the ball. Steven Jackson, despite only one touchdown, has been a beast for the Rams. He’s third in the NFL in rushing yards and nearly single handedly gave the Rams their first win in 17 games. They’re defense has been predictably bad. First year coach Steve Spagnuolo has jettisoned a bunch of the Rams defensive starters from a year ago as he tries to rebuild the defense to fit his style. The Rams are exactly where I thought they’d be through the midway point. They still have potential to make a run if they can get their turnovers and penalties under control (keeping Richie Incognito off the field should help with the latter). Theoretically this team could win seven games given their easy second half schedule. They could just as easily lose every game for the rest of the year.
What I Thought I Knew
The Cards could stop the pass. In fact, it has been quite the opposite.Their run defense is third in the NFL (though I still think that’s because of the points their offense puts up), but it has been their secondary that has let them down. They’re ranked 28th in the league and despite the addition of Bryant McFadden they haven’t been able to stop anyone’s passing attack. This team better figure something out on the defensive side of the ball if they expect to even contend for the NFC again. After DeAngleo Williams going nuts against them on the ground in week eight, not much is looking good for the Cards.
The 49ers could play defense. They’re ranked in the bottom third of the league in every category except rush defense despite playing some ineffective offenses. Patrick Willis continues to lead this unit, but the rest have underperformed. With the struggles this team was bound to have on offense they needed the D to step up in a big way. They haven’t. Things don’t look as good now as they did at the beginning of the season in San Fran.
What I Still Don’t Know/Playoff Bound
I’m pretty proud to say I think I had this division right from the outset. The Cards are an unimpressive team with major fatal flaws, but the rest of the division is so bad it doesn’t really matter. The Seahawks have disappointed, but they do have a shot to bounce back in the second half playing only one team with a winning record (Min). I don’t know if the Rams can turn it on and win some games. Same could be said for the Niners who have an even more favorable schedule. Still despite the opportunity for these teams to make up ground, none of them are good. The Cards hold on to the division and once again are the sole NFC West representatives in the playoffs.
What I Knew Then
The Bears defense is bad. Though they remain ranked in the middle of the pack in most defensive statistics anyone who has watched this team knows better. The loss of Brian Urlacher certainly hurt but this unit had limited potential even before that injury. Devin Hester has proven that he is not a threat at wide receiver. Poor Jay Cutler wants nothing more than to be back in Denver throwing to Brandon Marshall with a good defense. (who would have ever though that the Broncos would be the better defense)
The Lions won a game. Ok that may not be a revelation but ask any Lions fan and they’ll still tell you they were surprised. This is still a bad team but there are some bright spots. Matt Stafford hasn’t sucked, which out of a rookie QB is pretty good. (just ask the Jets over the last few games) Calvin Johnson continues to prove that they kept the right receiver and single handedly can keep the Lions in a game. Yes, this win came against a bad Skins team and they also lost to the Rams, but they’re improving and after a winless year, that’s the best you can ask for.
The Packers defense is questionable. Ok so questionable may not be quite strong enough. Their D has been just plain bad. Take out the home shutout of the Lions and the Browns game when they gave up a field goal (which has turned out to be a ton of points for that offense) and they’ve been gouged over and over, especially on the ground. Stud defensive end Aaron Kampman hasn’t had the impact since moving to linebacker and despite flashes, the secondary hasn’t lived up to the hype or potential.
The Vikings are, well, good. AP is still the best back in the league, even if he isn’t setting the league on fire quite like he did last year. They stop the run with the best of them and with Jared Allen getting pressure their secondary has looked pretty decent too despite the loss of Antoine Winfield for much of the first half. This may be the most complete team in the NFC (no offense New Orleans) They can play in the dome at home or on the road in the cold. They’ve had some close games that probably shouldn’t have been so close but they’re so balanced they stand a chance no matter who they play. They’ll be around late into the playoffs.
What I Thought I Knew
The Bears can run the ball. Matt Forte has been one of the biggest disappointments of the year. He’s getting less than 4 yards per carry and at one point lost a significant number of carries to (the other) Adrian Peterson. As a team they’re 30th in the league running the ball. With no real weapons on the outside the Bears need to run the ball to try and protect Cutler and not allow teams to sit on the pass. So far, they’ve failed miserably.
The Packers offense (and Aaron Rodgers) will have a breakout year. This may be my worst prediction of the year. (though I will point out I’m not the only one who had them making a run at the Super Bowl) They’re offensive line is atrocious. Ryan Grant is having a mediocre year with only one 100 yard game. A far cry from the breakout year I saw coming. (though some of that may have to do with the o-line) The biggest disappointment, however, has been the man at the helm. Rodgers has a prodigious problem of holding the ball too long, exacerbating their protection issues. He’s been ineffective in getting the ball to his weapons Greg Jennings and Donald Driver and is completely unable to get the ball down field. Their members don’t look bad, but as they’re record shows they simply can’t stay in games. They still have to play Pitsburgh and Baltimore, both of which should just add to their problems.
Brett Farve will be a detriment. So far, he’s proven this wrong. Quite possibly the best signal caller ever, Farve continues to do it with his patented youthful enthusiasm. (and with those weapons, who wouldn’t have fun) He has won a few games for them and is an obvious leader on the team. The major question is if he keep it up for the rest of the year. He fell apart down the stretch last year, but apparently did it with a torn tendon. They’ve played more close games than you’d like out of a Super Bowl favorite but if Farve can continue to play like this it’s hard to imagine them falling short of the NFC Championship game.
What I Still Don’t Know/Playoff Bound
How good the Vikes are. They seem to have it all put together with a very balanced team and a nice blend of youth and experience. Still they haven’t really played anyone (a Ravens team we’re not really sure is that good and a loss to the Steelers are they only .500 or better teams) and had a competitive game the mediocre Niners that required some Brett Farve magic to get the win.
If the Packers can turn it around. They’ve looked really bad at points, but they’re still 5-4. Their only losses are to the AFC North leading Bengals and two to the Vikes. Those are two really good teams (I think). Too bad they went and crapped the bed against the Buccaneers making it impossible for anyone to think they’re legitimate contenders, but they may not be as bad as everyone thinks.
That being said I think they’ll hang around in the Wild Card hunt. They’ve still got to play the Ravens and Steelers so the road won’t be easy, but the other contenders in the NFC don’t have the easiest of schedules either. The Vikings will win the division and probably join the Saints with a first round bye.
What I Knew Then
The Falcons defense is bad. The 21 points a game their giving up puts them in the middle of the pack but their other defensive numbers are pitiful. They’re giving up 370 yards a game including 130 per game on the ground. The loss of starting cornerback Brain Williams certainly didn’t help the situation. John Abraham has only 3.5 sacks and has been a non-factor.
The Panthers are bad. Just watch this team (if you can). They’re in the bottom third in every offensive category other than rushing yards and they’re scoring less than 20 points a game. Steve Smith is openly unhappy about his use (what happened to the screen pass?) and has been virtually nonexistent. Jake Delhomme has been horrid. The only bright spot to this team, and the only way they’ve won any games is their tenacious running game. Johnathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are putting up nearly 160 yards per game, good for 3rd in the NFL. Julius Peppers has been a beast, as always, but he’s the extent of the talent on that side of the ball. They’re giving up 130 yards per game on the ground and are in the bottom third in the league in defensive points per game As I said at the beginning of the year they’re playmakers will make plays (you know, other than Steve Smith) but the rest of the team sucks.
The Saints can score. This was pretty obvious. Drew Breese is having his name thrown around in the MVP conversation (and rightly so). Marques Colston is finally turning into the number one receiver he was suppose to be. Jeremy Shockey is having a bounce back year after failing to score a touchdown last year. It’s hard to tell if Breese has tons of weapons or if he has created some of those weapons. Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas are having a better year than expected, getting 150 yards per game, good for 5th in the league. They’re first in yards and scoring and pretty much the most dominate offense we’ve seen since the fall of the Patriots Dynasty.
The Bucs are a mess. They’re on their third starting quarterback of the year with rookie Josh Freeman now at the helm. Derrick Ward left New York to be a starting running back, and has failed again losing his job to Cadillac Williams. They’re near the bottom in all offensive categories. They’re defense is even worse. They’re second to last in points and rushing yards surrendered and 29th in total yards given up. It’s hard to find many bright spots on this team. Raheem Morris took it upon himself to purge the franchise of aging veterans in favor of youth, especially on defense. That’s backfired so far and given his lack of coaching experience Morris may not have much time to turn this franchise back around (some may argue he actually set the team back).
What I Thought I Knew
The Falcons offense would be epic. They’ve been good, but not as explosive as I thought. They’re middle of the pack in every offensive category despite the apparent weapons they have. (Keep in mid this team was 10th in points and 6th in yards last year and ADDED arguably the best tight end ever) Michael Turner’s injury doesn’t help. He hadn’t fallen off as much as expected after his 376 touches last year, but the injury could create some questions about his long term durability (even though the injury may not have to do with his number of carries). They’re playmakers are making plays (Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are top 10 in most receiving categories for their given position) but the overall offense just can’t seem to break out. Given the way their defense has played they’re going to need that to change if they want a shot at the playoffs.
The Saints defense would be terrible. They’re not great, but they’re not as bad as expected. In fact, their one of the top scoring defenses in the league with 7 touchdowns. They’re not losing the game, which given their offense is all that this team needs. They’re schedule hasn’t turned out to be all that tough (Philly and Atlanta are the only teams .500 or better) and that doesn’t change the rest of the year. The Patriots week 12 will be the only real test with winnable games at Atlanta and home against Dallas. If they’re D can keep doing what they’re doing (even without the defensive scores) they should be in really good shape.
What I Still Don’t Know/Playoff Bound
If the Falcons are real contenders. This team has been spastic all year long. They’ve yet to beat a good team (losses at NO and NE). They lost to a bad Panthers team and a Cowboys squad that I still have major doubts about. After their miracle run last year they’ve come back down to earth. Still they’re 5-4 with a shot down the stretch to make the playoffs. Week 11 at the Giants may answer this question once and for all.
The Saints may be the best team in the NFC. They’ll have the advantage of avoiding bad weather by locking up home field for the divisional playoffs (after their first round bye). Given the makeup of this team that is huge. Offensive talent can be neutralized in bad weather, it’s nurtured inside. Add to the fact that the other prohibitive favorite in the NFC (Minny) plays inside the Saints have a real shot at getting to the Super Bowl in Miami.
The Falcons will be there down the stretch. They still have the Eagles and Saints at home and the aforementioned Giant’s game making it difficult for them. Last year’s NFC south champs probably won’t return to the playoffs.
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