At the beginning of the season, you certainly wouldn't have had to look far to find people predicting either the New York Giants or San Francisco 49ers to at least represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Actually, you still probably won't.
Certainly it makes sense, as they met in a hotly contested NFC Championship Game last year and each have rosters that would appear ideal to make a deep playoff run with. Well, both of these teams need to hear something and they need to hear it soon.
You're not that good and you're certainly not that safe.
Yes, either the 49ers or Giants can still make a run to a Super Bowl title, but both can quite easily fall woefully short of what their goals certainly were at the beginning of the year. Let's take a look at the two teams.
San Francisco 49ers
Of the two teams, their situation is less pressing. They have a one-and-a-half game lead over the Seahawks in the NFC West, and would be in better position to grab a wild-card berth if it came down to that. Now, that lead with four games to play may seem safe, but take a look at how their schedule stacks up with Seattle.
|Dec. 9||vs. Miami||vs. Arizona|
|Dec. 16||at New England||at Buffalo (Game played in Toronto)|
|Dec. 23||at Seattle||vs. San Francisco|
|Dec. 30||vs. Arizona||vs. Rams|
Let's assume for a second that both teams beat the Cardinals and their AFC East opponent not named the Patriots. OK, that's a push. But those other two games loom rather large.
The Rams are a tough team (as the 49ers will certainly attest to) and they did beat the Seahawks earlier this year. But a 5-0 home record tells me that the Seahawks are just tough to beat in that stadium.
Actually, you don't need the record, just watch them play. They are much better in Seattle than they are elsewhere. so, for the sake of this discussion, I am saying that the Seahawks will beat the Rams in the season finale.
The road for the 49ers is a little bumpier. If they beat the Dolphins and Cardinals and the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, Bills, and Rams, those middle two games are pretty significant. The 49ers would need nothing worse than a split in back-to-back road games at New England and Seattle to lock up the division.
Ironically enough, if they do win three of the next four and go 11-4-1, they're looking pretty good for a bye week. The one thing the 49ers tie versus the Rams did was wipe out the tiebreaker relevance of their wins against Chicago and Green Bay, as well as their loss to New York. The only way the 49ers finish tied with those teams is if they tie another game, or one of those teams ties one. Neither scenario is likely.
The 2011 49ers thrived being under the radar. They took advantage of the fact that they hadn't been good for a while and that the rest of the league still viewed the NFC West as a soft division that had a 7-9 division champion the year before and a 9-7 one two years before that. If the 49ers couldn't even get to that level, how could they reach teams in a real division?
Well, the 2011 team was a different breed than the ones that came before it. They had a punishing running game and a passing game that wasn't spectacular, but never committed big mistakes, a rock-solid special teams unit and a defense that was about as brutal as you will ever see in the NFL again with the consistent moves toward player safety.
People knew the 2012 would be good. They got a lot of preseason hype and continue to get the national spotlight with the weekly saga of the Alex Smith versus Colin Kaepernick QB controversy and Jim Harbaugh doing everything he can (I think quite unintentionally) to keep the spotlight there. People know about this team; they don't sneak up on anybody. As a matter of fact, I would believe that teams like the Vikings, Rams and Giants had their dates with San Francisco circled.
On top of that, the special teams are nowhere near as solid. If they were, they would have beaten the Rams twice and the division would be all but locked up right now. The defense is still strong, but they showed some real weakness against the Vikings and Giants.
They need to play with a chip on their shoulder. They need to look no further than their NFC Championship Game tormentors to see how valuable that actually is.
If they do find that edge, this is the most complete team in the league and it's hard to see them not hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on February 3. If they can't find a consistent edge and keep it, the season will end before that date and will be viewed as a disappointment.
While we're talking about finding an edge, let's see what the defending champions are up to.
New York Giants
I know what they did in 2007 and 2011. Each year they went 3-2 from the beginning of December through the end of the season. Of course, in both years they won the Super Bowl. The problem is that the three years in between weren't quite as pretty. See for yourself.
- 2008: Entered December 11-1, played the final four games 1-3. Still earned a bye week in the playoffs, but were beaten 23-11 in their first postseason game.
- 2009: Entered December 6-5, played the final five games 2-3. Included in that was two losses to finish the season. The combined score of those games was 83-16. Missed the playoffs.
- 2010: Entered December 7-5, played the final four games 3-2. Missed the playoffs.
I will grant that 2010 wasn't a complete choke. A 3-2 finishing record is pretty solid and they were one of a few NFC teams that went 10-6 but missed the playoffs while a 7-9 Seahawks team qualified. Still, the two losses were pretty spectacular.
I don't think any fan will ever forget blowing a 31-10 fourth quarter lead at home to the Eagles, culminating the DeSean Jackson's walk off punt return. The next week was ugly from the opening kick, as they lost 45-17 to the Packers.
A few questions might be entering your mind. Wasn't this the team that crushed the 49ers in San Francisco? Didn't these guys just blow the Packers out two weeks ago? Am I really saying that this team could miss the playoffs?
Yes, I am. Because while this team does have some big wins, they also have a few pretty bad losses, like a 31-13 whooping by the Bengals, an opening night no-show vs. Dallas, and a loss to the lowly Eagles who by the way, have not won a game since. They were also very fortunate to beat the Buccaneers, Redskins (the first game) and Cowboys (the second game).
But something else should be worrisome for the Giants: the schedule. Take a look and remember that at 7-5, they're only one game ahead of the Redskins and Cowboys, who are both 6-6.
|Dec. 9||vs. New Orleans||vs. Baltimore||at Cincinnati|
|Dec. 16||at Atlanta||at Cleveland||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Dec. 23||at Baltimore||at Philadelphia||vs. New Orleans|
|Dec. 30||vs. Philadelphia||vs. Dallas||at Washington|
I really don't like the Cowboys to make up a game with that schedule. So let's throw them out for now and compare New York to Washington.
First, the common opponents.
Both have to play the Ravens, who are quite unpredictable but are much better at home than on the road. So, even if it's only slight, that's an advantage to Washington.
Then, the Eagles. Philadelphia has had the better of both teams in recent years, but I'm not expecting either to lose. I just watched the Eagles completely outplay Dallas for most of a game that but they still found a way to lose, even needing a fantastic last-minute punt return to make it a one possession game. So, that's a push.
So, that leaves the Giants home game vs. the Saints and road game in Atlanta against the Redskins trip to Cleveland and home finale against the Cowboys. That's actually a pretty big Redskins' advantage. The problem is actually muddier for New York.
The Giants need to have a better record than the Redskins and Cowboys, because they will not win a tiebreaker over either team. Here is what the tiebreaker looks like (per ESPN).
- Head-to-head Result: Push. The Giants are done with their season series' against both Washington and Dallas, going 1-1 against each team. If it ends in a three-way tie, it is combined winning percentage in the games between two of the three teams. In that case, Washington could beat Dallas in the season finale, moving their record in relevant games to 3-1, with New York at 2-2 and Dallas at 3-3. But even if Dallas wins that and all three push, the Giants lose out on the next one.
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division Result: Unclear, but it can't possibly go to the Giants. New York is 2-3 in the division with only one game remaining. Washington is 3-1 with two games remaining, while Dallas is 3-2 with one game remaining. But the Redskins and Cowboys play each other once more, so one team is guaranteed to finish with a better percentage.
In case you were wondering, the Giants lose the next one, too. That tiebreaker is record in common games, so each team would have to drop two. The Giants would lose their wins against the 49ers and Packers, the Redskins would lose their loss to the Rams and win over the Vikings, while the Cowboys would lose losses to the Seahawks and Bears.
So, let's say that Cowboys beat the Redskins and all three teams finish 9-7. In the 14 counted games, New York would be 7-7 and Washington would be 8-6 while Dallas would be 9-5. It's a terrible tiebreaking order as it would basically have New York's two best wins come back to hurt them, but that's another discussion for another day. Fortunately it won't come down to that.
As if losing the tiebreakers wasn't enough, the Giants road to a championship is less clear than the 49ers. Even if the 49ers do lose their division, they'll likely go 10-5-1 and earn a wild card. Disappointing? Yes, but they would be in the dance.
The Giants on the other hand are probably looking at a 9-7 season (at best) if they don't hold on to the division. With 10-6 or better are very likely possibilities for the team that doesn't win the NFC West between Seattle and San Francisco, and the team who doesn't win the NFC North between the Bears and Packers.
Now, I am aware of one thing. No team since the Jets in Super Bowl III and Chiefs in Super Bowl IV has done a better job of winning games that were lost on paper. We saw it in 2007 and 2011, and you had better believe Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and the rest of the Giants know how to win those games.
Unfortunately, they've also shown in years past that they know how to collapse at the end of the season. With the schedule they have remaining and the extremely tight rope they're walking, the Giants need to know just how beatable they are and find the chip that made them Super Bowl champions in 2007 and 2011. Without it, they'll be watching the playoffs.