We started with the AFC portion of our NFL midseason report yesterday. That’s the conference where there’s still everything left to be decided! The NFC, well, you can probably fast-forward to the Super Bowl unless Aaron Rodgers gets injured. One offshore sportsbook still taking action on the winner of the NFC Championship Game gives the 7-0 Packers a 37.5 percent chance of winning the NFC and heading into Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. Nobody else is above 12 percent.
So, barring a gruesome Aaron Rodgers injury during the second half, why should you care about the NFC? Because a lot’s going to change over the final nine weeks of the year; in fact, one of the three other division leaders is extremely unlikely to hold on to their lead, and we’ll explain why.
Perpetually one of the league’s most maddening teams, the 2011 version of America’s Team is no different. At 3-4, they have one dominant win, one blowout loss, and five games decided by a total of 16 points that could have gone in either direction. The biggest reason to think that they’ll get better in the second half is their schedule, as Dallas has exhausted virtually all of their difficult out-of-division games. The best team they have left to play outside their division is Buffalo, and they still have games against Arizona, Miami, Seattle, and Tampa Bay to come. They also have two games left to play against the team that has made a habit of second-half collapses
New York Giants
We forget to see this coming every season with the Giants; we get distracted by something and forget that the Giants are known for their second-half disasters. Since 2006, the Giants are 30-10 in the first half of the regular season and 18-22 in the second half. Their pass defense has declined in four of those five seasons, but the biggest reason why is usually that their schedule gets much tougher. 2011 is no exception. Their narrow victory over the Dolphins last week was the final pushover left on their schedule, as the Giants now have a home-and-home left with the Cowboys, home games against the Eagles and Redskins, and this absurd out-of-division slate: Patriots, 49ers, Saints, Packers, Jets. You know how newspapers prepare obituaries for aging public figures before they pass away? I am guessing the New York Post already has its op-ed pieces about the Giants quitting on Tom Coughlin written. It would be a great shock if the Giants were still in first place on Christmas Day.
For all the talk of how the defense has failed to meet expectations in Philadelphia, the stat that most clearly separates their good and bad games is offensive turnovers. In their three wins, the Eagles’ offense has turned the ball over just three times. In their four losses, they’ve given the ball away 14 times. Their offense has recovered six of their 12 fumbles, which is average, but it’s been distributed irregularly; they recovered all three of their fumbles against the Giants and both fumbles against the Cowboys last week, but just one of the other seven fumbles in their other five games. It’s a shame, too, because teams just don’t stop the Eagles on offense, as no team in football has punted less frequently. On the other hand, only the Chargers have turned the ball over more frequently. If Philly solves the turnover problem, they make the playoffs. If not, they don’t. It’s that simple.
As we mentioned when the Redskins benched Rex Grossman, Washington is more susceptible to injuries than the average team because the depth behind their starters is so bad. Their 3-1 start before the bye, no surprise, was as a very healthy football team! Since then, injuries have riddled the offense, which is now down six of its expected starters from before the season. That’s why they’ve averaged 11 points a game since the bye. Their wildly effective defense, meanwhile, has had its starters miss just three games so far this season. The offense isn’t getting any healthier with three starters on injured reserve, and the defense is unlikely to stay this healthy the rest of the way. What does that make you think about their chances of competing this year?
Remember when we thought the Bears were going to be one of the worst teams in football? Oh, we were so naive. They’ve been downright average! Chicago’s gone 4-3 against a tough schedule, and while the injuries we were expecting to show up have afflicted their offensive line and secondary, everyone else has stayed pretty healthy. The unlikely-to-recur performance in close games from 2010 hasn’t yet bounced back, as the Bears have played two games decided by a touchdown or less and pulled out victories in each of them. The most impressive aspect of their play, though, has been their ability to retain a significant special teams advantage despite the league’s new kickoff rules. Devin Hester has both a kickoff return and punt return for a touchdown, Johnny Knox had a third touchdown called back against the Packers for a phantom penalty, and they’ve gotten an incredible season out of kicker Robbie Gould (14-of-15 on field goals). The offense is pretty heavily dependent upon Matt Forte, who’s averaging 5.4 yards a pop after averaging just 4.0 yards per carry during his first three seasons. If he can keep the offense on schedule, the Bears have a shot at the playoffs.
After their 45-10 shellacking of the Broncos last week, the 6-2 Lions have the best point differential (+92) in all of football. That game and their 48-3 win over the Chiefs makes up 80 of those 92 points, but historically, that hasn’t meant that their score differential means anything less than it would if they beat six teams by 15 points. The Lions are for real, especially if they can continue to stay healthy, as only four of their starters have missed time, and they’ve only totaled seven missed games. They’re not likely to remain that healthy, but if they can keep Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson healthy (and continue to average less than one offensive turnover per game), it should be good enough to get them into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. And if they can somehow sweep the Packers in their two upcoming contests, they might even win the NFC North!
Green Bay Packers
What a boring, great team. The decline in their secondary that we expected in the preseason has shown up — Green Bay’s gone from first in pass defense DVOA last season to 20th this season — and it hasn’t mattered. They’ve faced a relatively easy schedule so far after the Saints game to open the season, but there’s not much on the horizon, either. After traveling to San Diego this week, they have the home and away against the Lions, and that might be their toughest test. 16-0 isn’t likely, of course. But it’s certainly in play, and it’s hard to figure how anyone beats them to the top seed in the NFC without an injury to Aaron Rodgers along the way. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee them postseason success; it’s hard to hide a below-average pass defense for three games. But that’s another topic for another day.
Left to ponder what would have happened if they had seen some breaks go their way during the first half, the Week 8 win over the Panthers marked the first time all year that the Vikes won a game that was decided by one score or less. They’re now 1-6 in those games, and as we’ve stressed since our preseason preview, they’re going to be about .500 in them going forward. The problem is that the easy half of their schedule came before the bye; they get the Packers, Lions, Falcons, Saints, Bears, and Raiders after the bye. There’s still an air of unsustainability around their new quarterback, but the Minnesota running game and defense are legit. They’re going to be competitive in a lot of those games against teams with better records.
Atlanta’s twin goals this offseason were to find a complementary target for Roddy White and upgrade their pass rush. Zero for two. Julio Jones has shown flashes of brilliance as a rookie, but he’s missed two games and is still struggling with a hamstring injury. The addition of Ray Edwards was supposed to diversify the rush, but opposite end John Abraham has slipped at 33 and the Falcons have just 13 sacks in seven games. The good news is that the schedule gets easier from here on out, as the Falcons still have four games left against the AFC South. The NFC South will come down to their two games left against the Saints.
Like the Vikings, this is a really underrated team that hasn’t gotten the breaks in some close games; Carolina is 1-5 in those infamous games decided by a score or less. Some of those games were only close because the Panthers added a late score, but they were also a penalty away from going 17-0 up on the Packers in Week 2. Unfortunately, they’ve been decimated by injuries on defense, having placed three starters on injured reserve already, including star linebacker Jon Beason. They’re going to play a lot of shootouts during the second half, and they’re likely to win more of them than they did during the first half. Don’t be surprised if they have a winning record over their final eight games.
New Orleans Saints
This Saints team has a dirty secret: It can’t stop the run. The Saints added veteran defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin this offseason to shut down opposing rushers, but their ground defense has actually gotten worse. New Orleans is allowing a league-high 5.5 yards per carry, and because they can’t stop anyone in short yardage, they’re allowing 73.7 percent of red zone forays to end in touchdowns, the highest rate in the league by 7 percentage points. They’ve also stopped forcing turnovers on defense, as the same Saints team that ranked second in takeaways during their Super Bowl run in 2009 ranks 29th in takeaways this year. They’re still going to make the playoffs because their schedule is extremely friendly, but any team that’s even competent running the ball is going to give them fits.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Don’t fool yourself by looking at their record. This is not a good football team. They have a winning record because they’re 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. It could very well be 5-0 with a couple more twists, as the Lions blew them out before giving up a garbage-time touchdown in Week 1, and the Bears basically tried to give the London game away to Tampa, only for the Bucs to try to give it right back. Their record is totally unsupported by their underlying level of play, as this is a team that’s been outscored by 38 points in their seven games. Tampa is 24th in both points scored and points allowed per game. They are really playing like a 6-10 team right now. Tampa’s record is about to reflect it, too, as the Bucs will face the Saints, Texans, and Packers over the next three weeks. It took four takeaways and Sean Payton’s torn ACL for the Buccaneers to beat the Saints last time around. It’s probably not going to happen again. The Panthers are a better team than these Bucs right now.
Yes, the Cardinals are bad, but they’re not really 1-6 bad. After beating the Panthers by seven points in Week 1, they’ve lost four games by a combined 11 points. They nearly beat the Ravens in Baltimore last week. Not to pick on the poor Buccaneers more, but Arizona’s point differential through seven games is -40; that’s essentially where the Bucs are at, and they’re 4-3. The only problem is that they’re caught in the rough patch of their schedule. They just got off games with the Ravens and Steelers, and while they play the Rams twice in the next six weeks, they also have to face the Eagles and Cowboys and play a home-and-home with the Niners. Give them credit for a split with the Rams and they could be 2-11 heading into Week 15 with a lame-duck head coach and a shot at sucking for Luck. They can beat the Browns, Bengals, and Seahawks, but if they’re 2-10, will they want to?
St. Louis Rams
The Rams, on the other hand, are really 1-6 bad. We’ve got excuses for our preseason darlings, but they’re not enough to justify the bad play. Sam Bradford’s receivers have let him down with countless drops throughout the season, but the drops alone aren’t enough to cause his completion percentage to fall all the way to 53.1 percent. They’ve lost their top three cornerbacks, but that doesn’t explain why they have the second-worst run defense in football. They’ll be better than the Cardinals going forward, though, because the tough part of their schedule is out of the way. Pro-football-reference.com says that the Rams had the hardest schedule in football through Week 8; they very well might have played five playoff teams in seven weeks. The Rams still have all six of their games against the NFC West to come, along with matchups against the Bengals, Browns, and Steelers. They’re playing for 2012 at this point, but if they look like an average team the rest of the way, realize that it’s because of the change in their strength of schedule.
San Francisco 49ers
It was reasonable to expect that the Niners would improve after dumping Mike Singletary, but nobody could have seen this coming. Not only are the Niners 6-1, but in their one loss, they were up 10 points against a Cowboys team that was facing a fourth-and-5 with 7:30 left. They could very easily be 8-0. On the other hand, they’ve had exactly one comprehensive win this year, the 48-3 win over Tampa Bay. They had a two-point lead on Seattle in the fourth quarter in Week 1 before Ted Ginn ran back a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown, and their average margin of victory in their four other wins is just over five points. They’ve succeeded by running a hyper-conservative offense that’s attempted the fewest passes in football and turned the ball over just six times. They also haven’t once been in a situation where they have needed to throw the ball to catch up, which is an obvious situational weakness that will come up as they play tougher competition. Their 11 defensive starters have missed just two games, and if they can stay healthy, the Niners have arguably the best run defense in football to go along with a highly effective pass rush. We’ll know more about their playoff viability after they play the Ravens and Steelers in the second half.
The Seahawks are one of the highest-variance teams in the league. They had what might have been the most watchable game of the season, their 36-25 victory over the Giants in Week 5, and followed it with the game that made us reconsider our profession, a 6-3 defeat in Cleveland after their bye. Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, the easy side of their schedule has come and gone; they’ve got the Cowboys, Ravens, and Eagles to attend to over the next five weeks. One bright spot, though: Charlie Whitehurst has made Tarvaris Jackson look like a great NFL quarterback.
Oh, and we’ve got two comments left with regard to what we said in our preseason preview
The one prediction we wish we could take back
OK, the Rams aren’t going to win the NFC West.
The one prediction we perhaps irrationally won’t
The Steelers and the Eagles are still going to meet in Super Bowl XLVI.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
NFL Midseason Report: The AFC
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
Debunking the Tim Tebow Myth
Could Alex Smith Become the Worst Quarterback to Ever Win a Super Bowl?
The Cost of Carson and the Rest of the NFL Trading Deadline Deals
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