NFC Playoff Picture: The Race For The #6 Seed

The NFC playoff picture is reasonably stable at the top, but the push for the final wild-card spot looks wide-open, with seven teams packed within a game of each other in the loss column. Even if we concede playoff spots to Atlanta, Chicago, NY Giants, San Francisco and Green Bay, there’s still one more out there. Today we run down the seven teams with a shot, briefly summarize their strengths and weaknesses to this point and look at the schedule ahead…

Seattle (6-4): The final berth belongs to Seattle as of today, thanks to their head-to-head win over Minnesota who is the only other 6-4 team. The Seahawks are doing it with defense in particular their ability to rush the passer. They are tied for second in the NFL in sacks, a big reason why teams attempt so few passes against them.

Seattle can also throw the ball better than generally given credit for, as Russell Wilson has gradually improved throughout the year within the confines of a run-oriented offense that rightly plays it conservative so the defense can win games.

What Pete Carroll’s team has to worry about is the schedule. This is a dramatically different team away from home, where they are 5-0. The next two games are road trips to Miami and Chicago, and one of the home games left is San Francisco. The Seahawks should get to nine wins, but there’s no room for error in home games against Arizona and St. Louis.

Minnesota (6-4): To certain extent, the Vikings are similar to the Seahawks. They win games by running the ball on offense, and pressuring the quarterback on defense. The Vikes have helped out their attack by a kickoff return game that ranks 5th in the NFL, although the defense has had to bail out some shaky punt coverage work. Where the comparison starts to fall apart is that while the Viking defense is good, it’s not at the elite level of Seattle, and while quarterback Christian Ponder played well in Sunday’s win over Detroit, we haven’t the same kind of steady improvement that has been the case with Wilson.

Minnesota has a bye week coming up, but both games against Green Bay remain, as does a road trip to Chicago, along with another road trip to Houston. The standings tell you Minnesota is a playoff contender and with six games to go that’s all you can ask. But I don’t see how you would possibly predict it. Just getting to 8-8 against this schedule would be a big achievement.

Tampa Bay (5-4): Doug Martin is getting the attention at running back and has having a great season, giving the Bucs a nice running game. But don’t overlook how well Josh Freeman is cashing in his opportunities to throw the ball. Even though Tampa only ranks in the middle of the league in how often they pass, Freeman is first in yards-per-completion. When you put this kind of offense, together with a defense that can stop the run, you have enough to get into the playoff discussion.

Whether being in the discussion can be translated to actually being in the playoffs depends on whether this team ever finds a way to generate a pass rush. Of the seven teams we’ll discuss today, Tampa’s pass rush is the worst and the secondary isn’t good enough to cover for it. This has the makings of a team whose playoff hopes get dashed by blowing a big lead somewhere along the line.

The Bucs have their own schedule problems down the stretch, with both games against Atlanta remaining, along with a road trip to Denver. Tampa needs to win home games against Philly and St. Louis, plus a road trip to Carolina. Considering that all of these teams are capable of pulling an upset—and that the Eagles and Panthers each have more raw talent—finding four more wins looks daunting.

Detroit (4-5): I’m frankly disgusted with the Lions, after the way they were carved up by a Viking passing game that was missing Percy Harvin. Detroit had seemed to be rounding into form and a win here would have marked them as perhaps the favorite to get this final playoff spot and possibly to move further up the ladder. But the inability to run the ball has hindered the offense. This is not a huge surprise, but the subpar pass rush is a shocker, given that the front four should be one of the best in the league. And given this team’s persistent problems with discipline, I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn that Detroit is terrible at getting themselves field position on kickoffs and punt coverage.

And the schedule? How about Green Bay twice, Chicago, Houston and a road trip to resurgent Indianapolis. Good luck winning five of seven against that slate.

Dallas (4-5): We dug deep into the Cowboys last week, so I won’t rehash old ground, except to say that beating Philadelphia only proves that you’re not the most dysfunctional team in the NFC East. Proving you’re a playoff team is something else. At least the schedule is soft, with home games against Washington, Cleveland and Philly ahead.

New Orleans (4-5): The win over Atlanta was just what the Saints needed to get themselves back on the map. They’ve won four of five and they’re at least making more attempts to run the ball. But this is a team who is exactly what the mainstream media tells you they are—it’s Drew Brees gunning, not much in the way of run support and a genuinely awful defense. At the very least, they need to run the ball a little bit better so they can manage leads with their offense. Otherwise, similar to Tampa Bay, a blown game in the fourth quarter will doom a playoff push.

New Orleans’ schedule is positively brutal—they visit Atlanta, the New York Giants and Dallas, they have a home game with San Francisco and another home date with Tampa. In fact those are the next six games, before they close at home with Carolina. If we could start from scratch right now, the Saints have the momentum, but when you lose games to the Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs in September, that’s a tough self-imposed hurdle to overcome.

Arizona (4-5): Because of the 4-0 start, the Cardinals are still hanging on with this list, but that’s really a formality. The offensive line lost Levi Brown before the season began and can’t run the ball nor can they protect the passer. The defense is above average, but it can’t carry the team. And the injuries continue to pile up. O’Brien Schofield is lost for the year at outside linebacker and we still don’t know when Kevin Kolb will be back. The schedule includes road trips to Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle and the Cards would need at least one of those to have a chance.

Bottom line? Arizona can feel like Mitt Romney did around 9:30 PM this past Tuesday—knowing there’s still a theoretical chance, but that realistically it’s all over but the shouting.

One final caveat on this race is that perhaps Green Bay shouldn’t be conceded a playoff spot. The Packers are 6-3, but do have significant injury issues and a couple tough road games ahead. If they lose both (at Detroit, at NY Giants) we can reassess the wild-card picture. For now though, these seven teams should assume they’re all after the same spot.

I see it coming down to Seattle and Dallas, as the Cowboys’ soft schedule will push them back into it and the inherent flaws in the other teams and/or their schedules are too big a hurdle. I’d have to lean the Seahawks—I think they’re a better team to begin with and the one-game edge in the loss column can’t be overlooked at this stage of the game.

The irony of this potential situation wasn’t lost on anyone in Week 3, after Seattle’s controversial Monday Night win over Green Bay—no owner in the NFL played hardball with the officials more than Jerry Jones. And the win the replacements gave Seattle in Week 3 is shaping up as the one that keeps Dallas out of the playoffs.