~ Jim Bearor
It’s week 17 and the cream has risen to the top in the NFC. Unlike the AFC, which is made up of Tom Brady and five regular dudes, the NFC field has a “big three” that separate themselves from the others. The Cardinals, the Seahawks and the Panthers are the best teams in the NFC, and there’s a clear drop off after them.
Arizona made a statement with a big win last weekend over Green Bay. Seemingly everyone was making plays on the offensive side of the ball, and the defense was abusing Rodgers to the point that Scott Tolzien came in. I know it’s the right thing to do strategically – there’s no reason for the best player on your team to get hurt at the end of a game that you’ve already lost – but there’s also something funny about having a guy on your team whose idea of playing time is being thrown into the wolves because his body isn’t as valuable to the franchise as the other guy.
But yeah, the Cardinals defense was so dominant that Rodgers left the game for the sake of his safety.
Meanwhile, their division rivals from Seattle were beaten by the Rams for the second time this season. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had just put together an impressive run that clinched them a wildcard spot and set them apart from the “bottom half” of the NFC teams still in contention: Green Bay, Minnesota, and Washington. Then last week happens and St. Louis beats them the same way they beat them in week one – they controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t make me question whether or not these Seahawks are really as good as they looked on this latest hot stretch, but I still believe they’re closer to Arizona and Carolina than the other teams.
Their DVOA rankings support that, and have them within half a percentage point of the Cardinals for the top spot in the NFL – something that will be worked out this coming weekend, actually. Also, there is the “been there, done that” factor, and the Seahawks have more than enough street cred. However, you might not be wrong for thinking their offensive line could be the thing that ends up dooming them.
Still, they’re more complete on both sides of the ball than anyone else except Arizona. While the “Legion of Boom” doesn’t get as much hype as it has in years past, Seattle’s secondary has had another great year, and that goes for their linebackers as well. They aren’t perfect, but they’re a clear step up from the Packers, Vikings, and Washington.
That leaves Carolina, who finally lost a game. I think everyone can agree that their lone loss can be spun in a way that ends up benefiting the Panthers in the long run. If it had come a week later, and this was their last game before the playoffs, I’d be a bit more worried. But now, they’ve been humbled and they have a week to right themselves before games start to matter again. It isn’t hard to see the silver lining here. It could have been what was missing from the Patriots ’07 season.
And from the other side of things, it doesn’t diminish their stock as a playoff team. Most of us aren’t under the illusion that Carolina is perfect. We know who Cam Newton is throwing to (alright, maybe not… even better). We don’t need DVOA to see their offense isn’t on the same planet as their defense (which sent four players to the Pro Bowl this year). It does help to reinforce that though: 7.5% OFF DVOA, -18.1% DEF DVOA (negative is good for defense). As it is with the other two true contenders in the conference, we know what we can expect from this team.
Just to be clear, yeah, I’m pretty much writing off the rest of the field from winning a Super Bowl. These three teams are clearly better, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that there is a 49.9% percent chance that one of them wins the Super Bowl (according to Football Outsiders) and an 87.7% chance that they get there. No remaining NFC team has more than a 5.5% chance.
Outside of injury or a nonsensical playoff game where Cam Newton fumbles three times and Teddy Bridgewater plays out of his mind, none of the bottom three should find themselves in the Super Bowl – and if they do, it’ll be the biggest storyline ever. Can you imagine Kirk Cousins holding the Lombardi, and screaming “YOU LIKE THAT!” as we all watch him on our screens and nod in agreement? I can, but that’s probably a result of me watching the vine a few hundred too many times. As a matter of fact, I’ll just leave you with that.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)