Sorting out the NFC: Contenders and Pretenders

William CaultonContributor IIIOctober 15, 2013

Sorting out the NFC: Contenders and Pretenders

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    The New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks are the early leaders in the race to make the playoffs in the NFC. San Francisco doesn’t look far behind.

    But what about some of the other NFC teams sitting with three or four wins? Come January, which of those teams will bust into the postseason? Which teams will resign to busting out the bean dip?

    In examining eight of these "borderline" NFC teams, four jumped out as contenders, three seem destined for mediocrity and one team, which everyone is ignoring, may turn some heads by snagging a wild-card spot.

Dallas Cowboys (3-3)

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    The Good

    In giving the Denver Broncos a run for their money in Week 5, the Cowboys displayed just how good their offense can be. They’ve got firepower in Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant and a solid offensive line led by RT Doug Free, currently rated as the No. 1 offensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    On defense, Demarcus Ware (27 QB pressures) and Jason Hatcher (23 QB pressures) lead an imposing front line.


    The Bad

    The Cowboys are getting outgained by 63 yards per game. The 413 yards they give up on a weekly basis is third worst in the NFL. Even with a decent push from their front four, opposing QBs have tallied a 98.3 passer rating.


    The Verdict

    The Cowboys have played one of the tougher schedules, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs (Week 2) and the Denver Broncos (Week 5). Their third loss, at San Diego in Week 4, doesn’t look so bad after the Chargers knocked off the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night.

    There are question marks with the defense, but some statistical measurements show they are not doing as poorly as their yards allowed indicates.

    In a weak NFC East, the Cowboys are playoff CONTENDERS.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-3)

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    The Good

    The Eagles rack up yardage and points with the best of them. Their 179 rushing yards per game lead the NFL. Credit LeSean McCoy, maybe the most dangerous running back in the NFL not named Adrian Peterson, and guard Evan Mathis, who ranks as the No. 1 run-blocker in the league.

    Through the air they are just as dynamic. Michael Vick and Nick Foles average 8.9 yards per passing attempt.


    The Bad

    They give up the most yards in the league. Unlike the Cowboys, advanced stats aren’t helping the Eagles here. Their pass rush and pass coverage defenses rank among the worst in the NFL.


    The Verdict

    At this juncture, it seems only one team from the NFC East will make the playoffs. When comparing the Cowboys and Eagles, it’s noteworthy that they’ve both lost to the exact same opponents—the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.

    The schedules become a little easier for both teams the rest of the way, but in all likelihood, the division crown will come down to their head-to-head matchups. Philadelphia still seems to be figuring itself out, whereas Dallas seems to improve each week.

    For this reason, I don’t see the Eagles flying into the playoffs. This year, they are PRETENDERS.

Detroit Lions (4-2)

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    The Good

    The offense looks just as high powered (379 yards per game) but less mistake prone (only eight giveaways) than in previous years. Reggie Bush playing like everyone expected him to coming out of college gives Detroit another dimension to its offense.

    One the other side of the ball, the Lions lead the NFC with 10 interceptions.


    The Bad

    Interceptions aside, the Lions can’t stop anyone on defense. They give up 393 yards per game. Even with Ndamukong Suh and his 32 QB pressures, the defense is below average at disrupting opposing quarterbacks.


    The Verdict

    The toughest part of the Lions schedule is behind them. Ahead of them are four games that should be automatic wins—a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 10), home games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 11) and New York Giants (Week 15) and a visit to the Minnesota Vikings (Week 16).

    If they take care of business in these matchups, they need only another victory or two against a slew of borderline playoff teams to make the postseason.

    Their easy road makes them a playoff CONTENDER.

Chicago Bears (4-2)

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    The Good

    Jay Cutler’s 73.5 QBR trails only Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. The wide receiver tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery looks like one of the most potent one-two punches in the league. The offense (369 yards per game) may be just getting started as it continues to evolve under a new head coach and coordinator.

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears are turnover-generating machines—their 17 takeaways ties them with Seattle for the NFC lead. They also have one of the NFL's most reliable kickers in Robbie Gould, who is especially lethal from long range.


    The Bad

    The Bears can’t tackle, and they can’t get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The problem may trace back to the injuries suffered by their starting defensive tackles, or perhaps the issue is simply an aging defense under a new system. Either way, the Bears defense, a strength for over a decade, has become a liability.

    Another long-time strength, Chicago's special teams, has become a head-scratching weakness, as the coverage unit continues to give up big returns.


    The Verdict

    With the easy part of their schedule completed, the Bears have a tough road from here on out.

    Three opponents stand out as very beatable—the Washington Redskins (Week 7), St. Louis Rams (Week 12) and Cleveland Browns (Week 15)—but all of those are road games. With two games still to play against Green Bay and no real gimmes, Chicago may top out at nine wins. That said, nine wins might be enough this year in the NFC.

    For that reason, Chicago is a playoff CONTENDER.

Green Bay Packers (3-2)

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    The Good

    The Packers average 450 yards per game, second most in the NFL. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, they’re explosive through the air (8.9 yards per attempt).

    The combination of Eddie Lacy and James Starks in the backfield has also given Green Bay a pretty strong running attack. The Packers' 141 yards rushing per game and 5.2 average rank fifth and second, respectively.


    The Bad

    Injuries. Both Randall Cobb and James Jones were knocked out of Green Bay’s Week 6 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. Jones is probable vs. the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but Cobb will likely miss multiple weeks.

    Like their NFC North rivals, the Packers offense is light years ahead of their defense. They give up 372 yards per game, but unlike the Bears and Lions, Green Bay's defense hasn’t been able to force turnovers (just six).


    The Verdict

    When you’ve got Aaron Rodgers as you’re starting quarterback, you’re always a contender. In addition, the toughest part of the Packers schedule is over. Four of their first five games were against teams that appear playoff bound. Chicago and Detroit are the only teams above .500 remaining on Green Bay's schedule.

    For this reason, the Packers are clear-cut CONTENDERS.

St. Louis Rams (3-3)

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    The Good

    Sam Bradford continues to improve. After a dismal Week 4 showing against the San Francisco 49ers, he’s since tossed six touchdowns with no interceptions. The Rams have a decent win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 and a convincing Week 6 win over the Houston Texans.

    They’ve only chalked up six giveaways, the lowest mark in the NFC. On other side of the ball, defensive end Robert Quinn, who has posted 33 QB pressures, may be the best edge-rusher in the league right now.


    The Bad

    Even with Bradford’s continued development, the Rams offense is dreadful. They average just 296 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Conversely, they give up 389 yards per game, ranking near the bottom of the league.


    The Verdict

    The Rams appear to be a team on the rise, but almost all of their remaining games are tough matchups: Seattle twice, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago and Indianapolis. They’re going to be lucky to reach seven wins.

    For now, the Rams are PRETENDERS.

Arizona Cardinals (3-3)

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    The Good

    The Cardinals haven’t chalked up any bad losses, and they’ve beaten at least one quality opponent, the Detroit Lions. Cornerback Patrick Peterson has been in lockdown mode—opposing quarterbacks are completing only 44 percent of their passes thrown his way.


    The Bad

    The Cardinals struggle on offense. Carson Palmer (11 interceptions), Rashard Mendenhall (3.3 yards per carry) and Larry Fitzgerald (30 receptions) are just not getting it done. The offensive line may be partly to blame for the team's woes on that side of the ball. Pro Football Focus grades them as the worst pass-blocking unit in the league (subscription required).

    On defense, the Cardinals are only marginally better, giving up 351 yards per game.


    The Verdict

    The Cardinals are a team without a strong identity. They struggle to move the ball, and in a league where offense has become increasingly important, that’s a big problem.

    The Cardinals, at 3-3, are PRETENDERS.

Carolina Panthers (2-3)

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    The Good

    Despite their 2-3 record, the Panthers have the third-highest point differential in the NFC. Ask statisticians like Jeff Sagarin or Kenneth Massey, and they’ll tell you that point differential is one of the biggest indicators of a team’s quality.

    Looking at some of the numbers, the Panthers don’t appear to have any glaring weaknesses. With Cam Newton under center, they’re a dangerous offensive team. They do have low overall yardage totals, but that’s partially because their 153 passing attempts is the fewest of any NFL team. Defensively, the trio of defensive end Greg Hardy, outside linebacker Thomas Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly lead a unit that gives up just 299 yards per game, third best in the NFL.


    The Bad

    The Panthers have played one of the easiest schedules thus far but have won only two games. Bad losses to Buffalo and Arizona have them slated in the mid-20s in most team rankings. In addition, their defensive numbers may be overstated because they haven’t played a high-flying offense yet.


    The Verdict

    Don’t be surprised if the Panthers reel off three straight wins against St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. On the other hand, Carolina's inconsistency could keep it winless over that stretch.

    Nonetheless, this is a team with talent, and in a weak NFC, you heard it here first, the Panthers are CONTENDERS.