We’re entering the fourth quarter of an NFL season that has been loaded with surprise and excitement. The playoff picture and seeding has been far from settled, meaning that there’s a lot up for grabs and nearly every game for the top teams will have playoff implications.
For me, the NFC playoff picture has been the best part of the NFL season, even with my favorite NFC team, the Dallas Cowboys, on the fringes of contention. The Eagles, last in the NFC East in 2016, are perched atop the conference with a 10-2 record, but the Saints (7-9 the past three years), Rams (4-12 last year), and Vikings (8-8) are not far behind. While the AFC seems like a two-horse race between the Patriots and Steelers, it’s anyone’s guess who takes the George Halas trophy in the NFC Championship. This is my ranking of the five teams with the best shot.
A: Philadelphia Eagles (10-2, 2nd seed)
Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is emerging as the next elite quarterback in the NFL in a season that could culminate in an MVP award and Super Bowl victory. Wentz (29 TD, 6 INT) has a stellar supporting cast along with a much-improved defense that makes Philly the team to beat in the NFC.
B: Minnesota Vikings (10-2, 1st seed)
The Vikes, who’ve beaten New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, are a story that I love. How often do you see a team without its top two starting quarterbacks and top running back go on an eight-game win streak? Case Keenum, a career backup, is shining while the defense has emerged as the NFC’s best. Could they become the first team to reach a Super Bowl held in their stadium?
C: New Orleans Saints (9-3, 4th seed)
The Saints are a Drew Brees-led team, but it’s the phenomenal rushing tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara that has stolen the spotlight. New Orleans is also dangerous because of a stunning improvement from the defense. The Saints are as good a bet as any to show up in January, as the combination of Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton at head coach has Super Bowl experience.
D: Los Angeles Rams (9-3, 3rd seed)
Definitely the greatest surprise of 2017, the Rams are headed to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Wentz’s sophomore counterpart, quarterback Jared Goff, has grown by leaps and bounds and mans an offense that ranks number one in points scored. The Rams look potent, but they’re the team I could see collapsing in January.
E: Carolina Panthers (8-4, 6th seed)
The Panthers have shown us year after year that they’re capable of getting red-hot. Carolina’s defense has dominated and the offense has done enough to win. The Panthers have that next gear that makes them dangerous; the question is whether they’ll kick into it late in the season.
F: Seattle Seahawks (8-4, 5th seed)
In spite of injuries to corner Richard Sherman and other defensive players and the league’s worst offensive line, the Seahawks are staying in the hunt and made a huge statement with a convincing victory over the 10-win Eagles. Quarterback Russell Wilson is playing at an MVP-level, and if the Hawks can take the NFC West and get a home playoff game, they could make one final run at the Lombardi trophy.
Also on my mind….
The disaster that is Dallas– The Cowboys aren’t real good at encores. In 2007, 2009, 2014, and 2016, Dallas won double-digit games and won their division. In 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2017, they’ve fallen woefully short of expectations. Ezekiel Elliott’s absence has virtually stopped the offense in its tracks in November and injuries across the board have ravaged the Cowboys’ Pro Bowl talents. Coach Jason Garrett and his staff have been questioned by their own players for predictable playcalling. Oh, and owner Jerry Jones is trying to unseat the commissioner. Yet amidst all this turmoil, the Cowboys sit at 6-6 and still have a shot at a wild card. Even if they win their last four, Dallas could miss out. My guess is that they fail to reach the playoffs in back-to-back years again.
Building momentum in Baltimore– The Ravens, my favorite AFC team, are on a roll thanks to an opportunistic and stingy defense. Baltimore holds a 7-5 record with games against the Browns, Colts, and Bengals coming up. The offense ranks dead-last in the AFC in passing yards, but the Ravens have enough on defense and special teams to grab a wild card in the mediocre AFC.
Dream Super Bowl Matchups– Super Bowl LII is two months away and I’m already dreaming up matchups that would make for a classic game. How about the Eagles and Steelers, both in line for playoff byes, in a battle for Pennsylvania? Or Patriots-Saints in a battle of Brady vs. Brees? Or the new Los Angeles rivalry, the Chargers- Rams? Sign me up for any of them.