Part 1 of this two part series can be found here: Halftime - AFC
Halftime - NFC
By Christopher G. Shepard
Is it parity, or are there really lousy teams in the NFC this year? Before last weekend, it was guaranteed that a then 3-5 or a 4-4 team was going to make the playoffs. Meaning the NFC teams' remaining scheduled games were such that even a piss poor Arizona Cardinals team had a small chance of making the playoffs. But they're not the worst. Actually, the Cardinals aren't a bad team, really. A bad NFC team is the San Francisco Forty-Niners, but it isn't Erickson's fault, really. However, even with a plethora of bad teams running amok in the NFC, I still don't see how a 3-5 team makes the playoffs. The one 4-4 team I see having a realistic chance at the post season are the Packers (and they are now 5-4).
But lets eschew commenting on the worst NFC teams let's look at the six top NFC teams and how they're likely to fare, or if they're likely to fare, after 17 weeks. Who is a pretender and who is a contender to the NFC title, and perhaps, ultimately, the Championship Game in Jacksonville?
While the NFC is clearly not as dominant or defined as the AFC, here is how I see the top ranked NFC teams chances for the playoffs and Championship game at halftime of the 2004 Season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (14-2)
With cheerleaders like this team has and with what they wear every Sunday, I don't know what the big deal was anyway? I thought it was because there was a chick in the men's locker room rather due to some white chick dropping trow on Monday Night. Like if you were TO you'd have done anything different? If you've ever been to an Eagles game you know as well as I do that the Eagle Cheerleaders are the finest in all of the Land (of Tagliabue that is) so an over the hill Baywatch babe really doesn't have a lot on Ali, who's favorite quote is from Liza Minelli, "The pain of leaving those you grow to love is only the prelude to understanding yourself and others." Ali is not only beautiful but she's deep.
As for the football team, is it that Andy Reid's Eagles are much better than the rest of the NFC, or is the NFC a bit worse than last year. There is mounting evidence to the later. And while the Eagles hit a bump at Pittsburgh this year, their remaining schedule looks favorably upon the best team in the NFC that has fallen short of the Championship game the last three years in a row.
The Eagles will have a tough road contest at the NY Giants in two weeks followed by a home game against the resurgent Green Bay Packers who have managed to string together a nifty four game winning. They'll also play their third Monday Night game on December 27 against the mercurial St. Louis Rams. It is hard to see the Eagles not securing a first week bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Keep in mind that the Eagles have lost the NFC title game for three consecutive years and anything less than a Championship appearance will be considered a failure in the "city of brotherly love."
While it is more than the Eagles' sexy cheerleaders that makes the Eagles my #1 playoff contender, it won't hurt in Jacksonville to see them on the sidelines with or without a towel.
2. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
The turning point of the season, the game that defined the character of this Atlanta Falcons team was Halloween at Mile High. Coming off an embarrassing 56-10 defeat at Arrowhead, the Falcons faced a stiff test going to Denver the week before their bye. Having traded off wins and loses in the previous three games, a loss at Denver would have been devastating for first time HC Jim Mora's team. They rose to the occasion and whipped Denver 41-28 in a game that was not as close as the score indicates. The Falcons ability to shake of adversity and play strong defense is why I think they are a solid number two contender for the NFC playoffs.
While the praise is deserved for the players, I think one would be remiss not to acknowledge what Mora and his assistant coaches have done for this team after taking over the salvage job that Dan Reeves left. By far one of the biggest coaching additions to the Falcons was linebacker's coach Chris Beake who came from San Francisco this year (and if you look at how San Francisco's defense is doing this year you understand one reason for the drop off). Mora is a defensive minded coach who is respected around the league for his coaching philosophy. As defensive coordinator for the Forty-niners in 2002 and 2003 his defenses were ranked in the top ten in the league. In 2001, his defense was ranked sixth in the league, allowing a stingy 16.3 points per game.
So strong defenses, the Kansas City Chiefs game earlier this year notwithstanding, is nothing new for Junior. The Falcons' seven remaining games are favorable match-ups against the spiraling Giants, and perhaps the last game of the year when they travel to Seattle on January 2, 2005 in a game that might have serious playoff implications for both teams. The Falcons will also play New Orleans twice and might have a difficult game at the Buccaneers, but with QB Michael Vick reading defenses better and waiting for plays to develop on offense, the Falcons might be the team to derail the Eagles hopes for the NFC number one seed. He has also found big play TE Alge Crumpler that Vick has been relying upon in pressure situations rather than running the ball and risking another season ending injury. As the season has progressed, the Falcons have improved greatly from their week 1, 21-19 victory over the San Francisco Forty-Niners. Don't be surprised if the Falcons meet the Eagles in the NFC title match.
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
The Seahawks are the beneficiary of playing five of their last seven games in rainy Seattle. And this is one of my main reasons I like the Seahawks as playoff contenders. Never a great road team, the Hawks suffered another let down last week in St. Louis where they never managed to score a TD despite five trips into the red zone. While holding the Rams to 23 points, it seems like the Seahawks don't want to win. Of their four losses, they were winning outright in two games and were within striking distance the other two games. Even so, for the first half of the season the Hawks managed to go 3-3 on the road and dispel some myths that they can't win on the road. At home they should be 3-0 but gave up 17 points against St. Louis in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
Mike Holmgren's team is still searching for an identity and might find it through the running game. RB Stephen Alexander has notched 531 yards in the last three games and he now has four consecutive 1000 yard rushing seasons. But the Hawks are killing themselves with turnovers. They'll have to hold onto the ball if they hope to make a serious run for the playoffs.
Funny enough, I still have them winning the west outright. With a trio of games at home against the worst teams in the league, if they can win one of the following two road games at either Minnesota (doable) or NY Jets (doable) they'll return home for two games against Arizona which they should win if they have any self-respect. Their final game will be against Atlanta that may well serve as a playoff preview for NFL handicappers. Bet you did not circle this game at the beginning of the year as being important in shaping the fate of the NFC playoff picture, I know I didn't.
4. St. Louis Rams (10-6)
If the Rams can win 5 of their last seven games they'll go to the playoffs this year. If they don't, they won't. It is that simple and that is probably why you had Rams HC Mike Martz dubbed "Mad Mike" after their humiliating 18-point loss to the New England Patriots.
The Rams got on track defensively against the Seahawks by not allowing a TD. Even Mark Bulger had a good game despite losing Torry Holt for much of the game. The Rams were able to jump out to a 17-0 lead and never trailed in the game. This is good news for the Rams who might end up seeing the Hawks a third time this year in the playoffs.
At present it is still too early to call which team will win the West, but given the niggardly play of most of the NFC, it is almost a foregone conclusion that both these West powerhouses will make the playoffs. The Rams do not benefit from a favorable schedule in that they have four road games out of their next five. They have two tough road games as they swing into the frozen tundras of Buffalo and Green Bay. San Francisco is a home gift and then back on the road for winnable games at Carolina and Arizona. The Rams host their last two games against Philadelphia, which they might win, and ending the season against the Jets, another winnable game to end their season 10-6, just good enough to squeeze into the playoffs, but not out of playoff pretender status.
5. Green Bay Packers (9-7)
As usual, Brett Favre is playing with a busted up hand, I think sprained thumb is the medical terminology but I'm not a trainer so what do I know. What I do know is that after beginning their season 1-4, the Pack have reeled off four straight wins and claimed a share of the lead in the Norris Division. And there isn't much of a difference between 1st and 2nd since both Chicago and Detroit sport 4-5 records. However, the play of Krenzel for Chicago and the loss of WR Roy Williams for Detroit will keep both the Lions and the Bears from contending this year. But they'll definitely make it too interesting for the Packers and the Vikings. For this reason I think the Packers are playoff pretenders.
Last week, it looked like the Packers would destroy the Vikings as they held a 24-10 lead at the half. They allowed the Vikings to stay in the game and gave up 21 points in the second half and won by three points in a game that should not have been as close as the score indicated after 60 minutes. But that is how it goes in division match-ups, anything can happen and it frequently does. The Packers were the beneficiary of injured WR Randy Moss' hamstring and could well have lost if he had played.
Packer QB Brett Favre managed to toss 4 TDs with no interceptions and his play has Cheeseheads everywhere talking playoffs. Before any talk of the playoffs happen, the Pack will have a rematch of last year's heartbreaking playoff loss against the Eagles that will come on December 5 at Philadelphia. This game will tell us a lot about both teams. Will the Packers be able to exorcise the demons from last year, or will the result be similar.
As for the rest of their season, if the Packers can win against Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago they'll get a chance to get Brett one more ring before he retires.
6. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
Football is a game of inches, just ask any desperate housewife. I know it is hard to believe that the Vikings season will come down to their three point loss last week to the Packers. But that could be the crucial division loss that gives the Packers and not the Vikings the Norris Trophy.
While the Packers were on their 5-1 run, the Vikings have been 0-3 after starting the season 4-1. The difference? The injury to star WR Randy Moss. This loss to the Vikings cannot be underestimated. The Vikings should get Moss back within a few weeks, but the decision by the trainers to return Moss to active duty before he was 100 percent was the single worst coaching decision in the entire 2004 NFL season. In fact, the Vikings have not won a game since he has been out!
Add the fact that Minnesota has played atrociously on defense and it is easy to see why the Vikings have lost three in a row. There schedule is similar to the Packers, but if both teams hold serve by winning four of their next seven games the Packers will win the division on the strength of their division record. Most likely a 1 game difference-the three-point loss to the Packers.
The Vikings will get a chance to even their division record when they host the Packers on Christmas Eve. For this to happen they'll have to beat Detroit this weekend. Detroit could go 5-5 with a win and also contend with Vikings and Packers for a slice of the Norris pie. For these reasons I see the Vikings as a playoff pretender.
You can find The Impaler's weekly column here each week as he contemplates the odds and provides perspective for the top 5 picks for the week. Have a bone to pick, want some more insights, just want to talk football? You can reach Chris in the forums, under the screenname: christheimpaler.
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