NFL Playoff Picture: Breaking Down the NFC Playoff Contenders

Clayton ShadeckContributor IIDecember 6, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture: Breaking Down the NFC Playoff Contenders

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    The NFL season is hitting the home stretch, and once again it is still up in the air who is going to be suiting up for the postseason and who is going home to sit on the couch.  

    With only two of the divisions locked up, the NFC playoff picture is very unclear.  

    While we don't know which teams will earn those last few playoff spots, here are the teams that have the best chances of making a push for the Lombardi Trophy.

Green Bay Packers (12-0)

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    The Green Bay Packers are showing that last year's Super Bowl wasn't a fluke (if winning it via fluke is even possible).

    The Packers are off to the best start in team history.  Reeling off 12 straight wins, the Packers have proven they are head and shoulders above everyone else in the NFL.

    That offense is virtually unstoppable.  Aaron Rodgers has thrown for over 3,800 yards and 37 touchdowns while only surrendering five picks.  At this rate it is very possible he will break Tom Brady's single-season record of 50 touchdown passes.

    While the rushing attack is almost non-existent in the Packer offense, the passing game has more than made up for it.  Rodgers has hit 8 different receivers in the end zone this season.  Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are both on pace to have over 1,000 yards this year, while Jermichael Finley can come close with a strong finish in the last four games.

    If there is one thing that could be criticized about this team it's the defense.  They Packers are second to last in the league in yards allowed per game, giving up nearly 400.  This defense is more of a bend but don't break defense.  While they are giving up insane yardage numbers, they allow less than 22 points per game.

    When your offense leads the league with 35 points per game, you can give up as many yards as you want.

San Francisco 49ers (10-2)

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    The 49ers are no doubt the biggest surprise in the NFL this season.

    While they play in what may be the worst division in football, no one outside of the 49er organization would have predicted the success this team is having this year.

    At 10-2 the 49ers have already wrapped up the NFC West title.  Head coach Jim Harbaugh has his team believing they can succeed and they are playing some of the best football in the NFL.

    Quarterback Alex Smith is having a career year.  While his personal statistics aren't comparable to those of Aaron Rodgers, he has thrown for 15 touchdowns while only throwing five interceptions.

    Running back Frank Gore has rushed for almost 1,000 yards again this season.  Wide Receiver Michael Crabtree is starting to look like the player the 49ers drafted and tight end Vernon Davis has been a solid option in the passing game.

    If you look in the dictionary under the word 'dominance' you will probably see a picture of the 49er defense.  They haven't allowed a 100 yard rusher in 33 games and haven't allowed a single rushing touchdown all season.  Giving up an average of less than 14 points a game, this defense is playing at an extremely high level.

    They have already locked up the division title and the rest of the schedule looks relatively harmless.  They do have to play host to the 9-3 Pittsburgh Steelers in two weeks, but other than that they play the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks.  Don't be surprised if this team earns a first round bye in the playoffs.

New Orleans Saints (9-3)

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    Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?  Right now it doesn't look like anybody.

    2011's version of the greatest show on turf has been putting opposing defenses to shame all season. The Saints' offense is averaging nearly 450 yards a game and are scoring just under 33 points per game.

    If it were any other year Drew Brees would be the favorite for the MVP award.  His 4,031 passing yards lead the NFL and he is on pace to break Dan Marino's single season yardage record.  He has thrown 30 touchdown passes to eight different receivers this season.

    While the numbers Brees is putting up are mind-boggling, the fact that the Saints have so many weapons is even more amazing.  The Saints have six different players with multiple touchdown catches.  Led by tight end Jimmy Graham (1,046 yards, 8 touchdowns), any one of this team's receiving options can turn a catch into six points real quick.

    The running game of the Saints is also something to be feared.  They have three backs with over 400 yards rushing this season and their backs have combined for over 100 receptions this season.  The Saints utilize the screen pass as good as any team in the NFL, and with the speedy Darren Sproles and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram catching those passes in space with room to run, the Saints don't look like they are going to be slowing down anytime soon.

    The one downfall of the Saints is their poor showing on the road.  Their three losses this season are all on the road.  They have two road games left against Minnesota and Tennessee.  While the Titans pose a threat to beat the Saints, the dome atmosphere in Minnesota bodes well for New Orleans.  They finish the season with home games against divisional rivals Atlanta and Carolina.  

    With a two game lead in the division, all the Saints have to do is keep taking care of business the way they have been doing all season.  

Dallas Cowboys (7-5)

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    The NFC East, formerly referred to as the NFC Beast, should change it's name to the NFC Least.

    A division that is normally one of the best in the NFL has been filled with mediocrity and underachievement the entire season.  The dream team from Philadelphia hasn't panned out.  The Redskins are who we thought they were.  The Giants are 6-6, sometimes spectacular and sometimes awful.

    Then there are the Cowboys.  The Cowboys are one of the most talented teams in football.  While they are 7-5, they could easily be 11-1.  Fourth quarter meltdowns against the Jets, Lions, Patriots, and questionable clock management last week against the Cardinals have led to heartbreaking, single digit losses this season.  

    Tony Romo has shown signs of brilliance this year.  Passing for over 3,300 yards and 22 touchdowns, Romo is putting up great numbers.  The problem lies with his play in the fourth quarter.  Whether it is stupidity or arrogance, Romo continues to make poor decisions and attempts difficult throws at the wrong time.  There is no doubt he has the capability to play quality football late in games and he does, more often than not, get it done in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately people are remembered more for what they do wrong than what they do right.

    The emergence of DeMarco Murray (872 yards) at running back has been a huge part of the Cowboys' recent success.  Receiver Laurent Robinson has emerged as one of Romo's favorite targets with Miles Austin sidelined due to injury. 

    The defense of the Cowboys has been a bright spot this year.  Led by DeMarcus Ware (15.0 sacks), the Cowboys are second in the league with 35 sacks this season.  They hold opponents to just over 20 points per game.  If they can stay healthy the Cowboy defense can be a definite threat to any team in the league.

    The Cowboys' remaining schedule is not as easy as it looks.  While they don't have a game left against a team with a winning record, three of the four games are against division rivals.  

    They should be able to handle the Buccaneers, but they still have games against the Eagles (who destroyed Dallas earlier this year) and two games against the Giants.  Those two games will ultimately determine who wins that division.

Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

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    It has definitely been a frustrating season for the Atlanta Falcons.

    Last season they had the best record in the NFC.  Now they are fighting for their playoff lives each and every week.

    Nothing seems to be easy for the Falcons this season.  Quarterback Matt Ryan, while throwing for over 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, has thrown 12 interceptions in as many games this season.  He only threw nine picks all of last season.  

    It has no doubt been an offensive struggle.  They have averaged just a little more than 22 points per game while giving up around 20 points per game.  While they have outscored their opponents, they aren't making things easy on themselves.

    There is no doubt their  best offensive weapons are performing.  Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez have combined for over 1600 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Michael Turner (992 yards, 8 touchdowns) is having another solid season.  While these guys are getting it done, they seem to be the only ones stepping it up.

    Injuries have no doubt played a role.  One of their biggest playmakers, wide receiver Julio Jones, has had trouble staying healthy.  If the Falcons can get him back and at 100 percent, their chances of making the playoffs will increase dramatically.

    The remaining schedule looks relatively easy.  They have games against Carolina, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.  If the Falcons can simply beat the teams they are supposed to beat (all those teams minus the Saints), they should be able to earn one of the two NFC wild-card spots.

Chicago Bears (7-5)

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    While earlier this season it looked like a given the Bears would be in the playoffs, they have suddenly found themselves deep and possibly lost in the woods.

    Crucial injuries have definitely put a damper on what the Bears hoped would be another trip to the Super Bowl.  Starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a broken thumb and running back Matt Forte will be sidelined between two and six weeks with a knee injury.

    At 7-5, the Bears currently have the tie-breaker for one of the NFC's precious two playoff spots. Unfortunately, the Bears will have to rely on running back Marion Barber and quarterback Caleb Hanie to lead them to the promised land.

    Thus far Hanie's numbers have been downright awful.  He has only two touchdowns passes while throwing six picks.  His passer rating has been a dismal 40.8 this year.

    While Forte is out for a few weeks, Marion Barber is capable of picking up the slack.  With five touchdowns this year and averaging 3.7 yards per carry, the former Cowboy will see those numbers rise as he gets the bulk of the carries.

    The Bears defense has shown they can be all the offense Chicago needs this season.  One of the fastest and most ferocious defenses in the league, "The Monsters of the Midway" will need to step it up in a big way if the Bears hope to make the playoffs with a less than desirable offense.

    The schedule is a little rough from here on out.  With games at division leading Denver and Green Bay, the Bears will definitely need to win the other two games remaining against Seattle and Minnesota to have any chance of making the playoffs. 

Detroit Lions (7-5)

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    The Detroit Lions have been the comeback kids all season.

    Winners of their first five games, the Lions looked to be for real this season.  Lately, however, it has been a different story in Detroit.

    Losers of five of their last seven since that hot start, the Lions seemed to be losing their edge.  While earlier in the season they were focusing their energy on winning football games, in the last two months that energy has been transformed into dumb penalties and lackluster football.

    Matthew Stafford and the offense haven't been the problem.  His 3,500 yards and 27 touchdowns are one of the few bright spots for the Lions.  Receiver Calvin Johnson has caught 69 passes for over 1,000 yards and twelve touchdowns.  Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew have all had solid seasons and make things a lot easier when Megatron is being double-teamed.

    The rushing game has been a disappointment this year.  With starting running back Jahvid Best unable to stay healthy, the rest of the backfield has been unable to step it up.  They are ranked 23rd in rushing averaging just over 102 yards per game.

    With man-child Ndamukong Suh serving one more game of his two game suspension, the rest of that defense needs to buckle down so the Lions aren't forced to make any more of those late game, multiple touchdown comebacks.

    The rest of the schedule may be an issue for the Lions.  They have a game this week against an improving Minnesota Vikings team.  They then have to travel to Oakland, host a Chargers team that looked very good last night, and finally travel to undefeated Green Bay for the season finale.

New York Giants (6-6)

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    At 6-2 the Giants looked like the team to beat in the NFC East.  They've been anything but that lately.

    Losers of their last four, the Giants have forgotten how to play defense, giving up almost 33 points per game during that stretch.  

    Despite Eli Manning's efforts (3,705 yards and 23 touchdowns), the Giants can't seem to get back to their winning ways.  

    The good news for the Giants is that they are starting to get healthy.  Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks looks to be back to his 2010 form and running back Ahmad Bradshaw finally returned from a fractured bone in his foot.  The way this defense is playing right now, the Giants need all the help they can get on offense if they expect to make the playoffs.

    One bright spot for the Giants has been the emergence of young wide receiver Victor Cruz.  Cruz has caught 62 balls for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns this season, most of that coming in the last few weeks while the Giants top two receivers (Marion Manningham and Hakeem Nicks) were in and out with injuries.  Don't expect that production to slow down at all once all the Giants receivers are healthy. Cruz has become Eli Manning's favorite deep threat lately and the Giants aren't shy when it comes to airing it out on offense.

    The Giants, unfortunately, have one of the tougher remaining schedules.  With two games against the division leading Cowboys, the Redskins and the Jets, New York need to get back to their winning ways if they are going to make the playoffs.