One look at the NFC standings and I wonder if any of these teams truly deserve Super Bowl tickets to Cowboys Stadium as players or fans. The list of teams more than two games over .500 is short, just four teams. This is quite embarrassing compared to the plethora of AFC teams meeting that criterion – eight teams. Of those four teams with the best early season chances, which is most likely to survive the remaining 10 weeks of the NFL schedule?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers(4-2)
Should I be giving the Buccaneers some respect? They are 4-2 and have a few fourth quarter wins under their belt. Certainly, I do not want to give Josh Freeman the chance to win the game with two minutes left. But, this is the same team being outscored by 30 points over the course of the season.
How is this possible? Well, the wins have been stomach churning affairs. They won in Week 1 by three games, Week 2 by 13, Week 5 by 3, and Week 7 by 1. The losses have been nothing less than utter devastation. I tried to find the appropriate word to describe the 25 points loss in Week 3 and Week 6 and all of them – annihilation, cataclysm, catastrophe, decimation, holocaust, annihilation, genocide, carnage, slaughter, massacre – seemed germane.
What’s more, the wins have come against a field of teams (Browns, Panthers, Bengals, and Rams) with a collective 8-18 record. The wins have against teams (Steelers and Saints) fielding a combined 9-4 record. Basically, it appears the Bucs a slightly below average team surviving against terrible teams with quarterback problem.
The Bucs have some major offensive issues of their own. Although Freeman likes to play the role of 21st century Captain Comeback, he can hardly be praised for being dangerous all game long. His total quarterback rating is 82.8, the 22nd best in the league. He has issues with completion percentage (58.8 percent, 24th) and yards per pass (6.31, 27th). There is no turmoil at this position, that upheaval is coming at the running back position.
Cadillac Williams is averaging 2.5 yards a carry and has gone from the feature back to splitting time with LaGarrette Blount to the verge of being little more than a third down and goal line back. I believe the Buccaneers season is in Blount’s hands. If he can become an effective feature back and allow Freeman to do little more than have to make big throws using the play action, then the Buccaneers might actually be a dangerous team.
The schedule is stacked from Week 12 on, with Baltimore beginning the sequence of potential playoff ending opponents. Until then, the Bucs can feast on the likes of the Cardinals, 49ers, and their second division game against the Panthers. The Falcons will be a reality check in Week 10. If this ends in another 20-plus point blowout, I expect Tampa to end the season on a 0-6 run.
Just Barely Better Than the Bucs
Seattle Seahawks (4-2)
When I say I do not know what to make of the Seattle Seahawks, I do not mean I do not know if they are a good team or a great team. I mean I do not know if they are a mediocre team or an average team. Luckily, they play in the NFC West, where mediocre is average and average is king. So far they have gone 2-1 against division opponents and I expect them to finish the 2010 season at least 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they have an identical 2-1 record, winning against teams on the verge of implosion (Chargers and Bears).
Really, the only thing this team does well is stop the run. They have the second best run defense in terms of yards surrendered and the second best yards per carry allowed. If I was going to do one thing well, I guess stopping the run would be the aspect of football to specialize. You build on defense around stopping the run, so this is a good place to start. Why do I say that and why is this is a major part of the reason the Seahawks allow just 17.8 points a game (5th)? Well, run defense plays a major role in stopping other teams from scoring when the field becomes much shorter in the red zone and it is more difficult to spread the field with passing routes.
I also have to give the Seahawks some credit at quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck is not the perennial near-Pro Bowl caliber player he once was, but he is still an experienced quarterback that knows how to win. Think of it as muscle memory, and some of that memory has survived the countless concussions. Now more of a game manager, I still have confidence he could lead a rally in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, a position he will likely be in thanks to the stingy defense.
If I were a Seahawks fan I would feel significantly better about the offense if new number one running back Marshawn Lynch could run for near 4 yards a carry. He and Justin Forsett may work well if they split time and punish the oppositions defensive line. Basically, I would rank the Seahawks as an average team if they could control clock and limit the run. If they can only stop the run, then this team is nothing more than a slight notch above mediocre.
That slight notch could be good enough to win the division, but they are going to see some competition from a lucky Rams team (the lone division team to beat them). Looking at the schedule, the Seahawks play three teams capable of ending their perfect season at home at Qwest Field, the Giants, Chiefs, and Falcons. I only see one away game completely out of reach for Seattle, the Week 11 game with the Saints. Oddly enough, I can see the Seahawks ending the season with 10 wins, but fully expect a first round loss.
The Real Contenders
Atlanta Falcons (5-2)
The Atlanta Falcons are on top of the standings in the NFC South, arguably the best division in the NFC. They have the 14th best passing offense, the 6th best running offense, average the 12th most points, have the 8th best run defense, hold the opposition to the ninth fewest points, and are tied for the fifth most takeaways in the NFC. In fact, the 11 picks offset the fifth worst pass defense. This is as complete a football team as there is in the NFC and maybe the NFL. This is an elite team with a realistic shot at playing in Super Bowl XLV.
Why do I like this team so much, apart from the stats? They are young with a third year quarterback quickly maturing into a top tier player at his position in Matt Ryan, a wide receiver who might be the best in the NFL in 2010 in Roddy White, a couple of running backs with yards per carry averages greater than 4.0 in Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, and the token veteran leader in TE Tony Gonzalez.
I am not 100 percent sure this is “the” team in the NFC though. Why backtrack after lauding them in the past two paragraphs? Well, apart from covering my own butt, I took a look at the schedule. They lost in Week 1 in overtime to a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger. They lost badly in Week 6 to an Eagles team with Kevin Kolb starting in place of Michael Vick. They barely beat the struggling Saints and the a Bengals team stuck in purgatory.
Luckily, they play four more games against the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Bucs, a team I fully expect to breakdown in the second half of the season. This means four more wins. This puts them at 9 wins with five more games to play. I believe the Falcons will draw a first round bye, giving their players a weeks rest after nine straight weeks of playing this physically brutal sport and giving leaving them a home game away from the NFC Championship.
New York Giants (4-2)
Despite the letdown out of the NFC East (Isn’t this an annual occurrence? A big letdown in the first half followed by redemption and insanity in the second.), the New York Giants are leading the way with a 4-2 record. They have Top-10 rankings in passing yards (9th), running yards (4th), passing yards allowed (2nd), and rushing yards allowed (3rd). The Giants average the 8th most points in the NFL (25) and are tied for forcing the third most turnovers in the NFC (16). It appears the only thing that can beat New York and end their Super Bowl aspirations is team itself.
There is an old football adage proclaiming the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game. So far, the Giants have amassed 21 turnovers while just taking away 16. This is the biggest concern for New York Giants fans. Even scarier is the fact it is equally the fault of running backs and special teams as the inconsistent Eli Manning. The team has 11 fumbles and 10 interceptions.
Another question that must be raised is: Is the NFC bad enough that a team tortured by its predilection to loose the football can win the conference? The Giants still force turnovers and still force opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into terrible throws. They still have a stifling run defense. They still have a very capable running game. They still have a quarterback with the ability to win games in spectacular fashion. They still have a pair of receivers in Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks who may rank amongst the best duos in the NFL. They still have everything, including that one fatal flaw.
They also have the backing of a fan base excited by the potential to open the first season at a new stadium with a Super Bowl run. At the same time, they have a demanding fan base expecting a Super Bowl run after seven weeks of the NFL season.
I look forward to watching Falcons play the Giants at the Georgia Dome for the NFC Championship. I feel bad for the Falcons though, since quarterback experience matters in these games, and Manning already has a Super Bowl ring to guide him.