Enjoy Part 2 of our NFL midseason report, featuring the NFC. Same format as the AFC write-up last week, complete with surprise teams, players, an MVP candidate, and playoff predictions.
SURPRISE TEAM (GOOD): ST. LOUIS RAMS
From the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft straight to the playoffs? It might happen, and even better is the fact that that very same pick might be the guy who leads them there. They aren’t really a fantastic team, but they are discovering some very talented young guns, starting with Sam Bradford behind center and followed by wide receiver talents like Danny Amendola. It also never hurts to have a workhorse like Steven Jackson to take some of the pressure off a rookie QB. There are still plenty of issues with this team, but there’s enough young talent to maintain a pace that could lead to a very pedestrian 9-7 record (or worse), but that’s plenty in a very weak NFC West. Even coming off a bad loss and being under .500, they are right on the heels of the Seahawks, and who would be willing to hand over the division to the Seahawks this early? The Rams probably won’t do much should they make the playoffs, but their recent rebuilding efforts are paying immediate dividends so their future looks bright.
SURPRISE TEAM (BAD): DALLAS COWBOYS
I really don’t want to go with such an obvious answer here, but every other underachieving team pales in comparison to the Cowboys, and people are starting to view them as one of the most disappointing teams of all time. If the Rams are going from the No. 1 draft pick to the playoffs, then right about now they are passing the Cowboys as they go backwards from playoff and Super Bowl contender to a probable high pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. There really is no good reason why the Cowboys should be this bad with the talent they have. The running game has been a disaster despite having perhaps one of the deepest RB cores in the league that stretches three men deep. They have one of the best tight ends in the league with Jason Witten, one of the best wide receivers in Miles Austin and a true up-and-comer in Dez Bryant. They have a solid QB in Tony Romo, and clearly we won’t be able to look back and blame all this on his injury. The defense has plenty of known names from Terrence Newman to Keith Brooking and of course, DeMarcus Ware. Regardless of how you felt about their Super Bowl chances, nobody foresaw this coming. Jerry Jones was very patient with Wade Phillips, and no one can say it was a rash decision to let him go. This poor season really forced Jones’ hand on the matter, and hopefully wonder-boy Jason Garrett will be as good as advertised. One game in and it’s all roses for Garrett, but discovering his potential as a head coach will be a small consolation prize in a lost season that was supposed to lead to a home game in February.
SURPRISE PLAYER (GOOD): MICHAEL VICK, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES QUARTERBACK
Can you say redemption? Regardless of how you feel about him, it’s an amazing feat to do what he’s done. To not even be able to play football for so long while incarcerated and then be thrust into a starting role and act like he never left is very impressive. Vick always had a freakish skill set with his ability to throw but also be so quick and agile, and clearly prison did not diminish those skills in the least. In fact, his abilities seem even more refined now as he seems to throw more and tends to save his scrambles for when he needs them instead of relying on them too much. His single season of playing sparingly behind Donovan McNabb and learning the offense seems to have done him a lot of good. Also, remember that Andy Reid went all in with Kevin Kolb by trading McNabb within the division, so the fact that Vick wrestled away the job and got it right back after a lengthy injury shows what an impact he is having on the Eagles. Vick is back, so expect book and movie deals to follow as people try to get their hands on this riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
SURPRISE PLAYER (BAD): MATT LEINART, ARIZONA CARDINALS QUARTERBACK
But he’s not even in the NFC anymore you say? Well that’s one reason why this is such an obvious pick. Leinart was supposed to be the future of the Cardinals franchise, and instead he managed to be so bad and had such a sour locker room influence that he was released. He just never had the attitude a franchise quarterback needs, and he never grew out of the Hollywood/part lifestyle he grew accustomed to at USC. He probably never got over Kurt Warner taking away his thunder, and he didn’t handle the pressure very well of having a couple capable QBs breathing down his neck this preseason in Derek Anderson and Max Hall. Still, he should have easily used his talents and status as the heir apparent to Warner to excel at the job. Not to mention he had a pretty good receiver to throw to in Larry Fitzgerald. What really makes him such a disappointment this year is that the Cardinals are really in shambles thanks to him. They can’t find a steady hand at quarterback, and the entire organization has probably not yet gotten over the shock of going from having their quarterback of the future to realizing in a matter of weeks that he’s not even worthy of a roster spot. That can really set a team back, and clearly it has done just that to the Cardinals.
MVP: AARON RODGERS, GREEN BAY PACKERS QUARTERBACK
This one is a tough call because many of the top MVP candidates like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning hail from the AFC, and the award will likely come out of that conference. Staying on the quarterback theme, however, Rodgers is one of the most realistic MVP candidates coming out of the NFC. Like Rivers, he’s seen his offense collapse around him due to injuries, but continues to put up elite numbers. No Ryan Grant to take the pressure off? No Jermichael Finley? Donald Driver slowed by injury? All have equaled no problem for Rodgers, and he’s helped the Packers recover from a slow start and has put them in contention in the NFC North, looking like a realistic contender. Rodgers continues to be the gold standard for finding an elite talent to replace a legendary franchise quarterback after he leaves the team. The Packers could not have done much better than Rodgers to start the post-Favre era in Green Bay, and he’s reaching his peak this season.
On a side note, Michael Vick is in a very close second here. He’s just been too good to ignore. If the Eagles keep this up he will garner MVP attention. It’s just amazing that he’s just as good if not better than he was before his scandal.
Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East): Full disclosure, I wrote most of this piece before the past week’s games. Most of what I wrote still applies to how the season is going, but right here I’m making my first big edit. Here’s a bit of what I had for the NFC East before this past week:
“I really like the look of the Michael Vick-led Eagles, but the Giants have the pedigree and the talent to win big games, and if the division comes down to the two Giants-Eagles match-ups, I expect the Giants to step up big in those games.”
Well between the Giants’ red-flag-raising loss and the Eagles and Vick absolutely going off on Monday night, let’s just say I like the look of the Michael Vick-led Eagles a LOT more today! They are going to bowl over the Giants with their big play potential because with a healthy Vick at the helm there are too many weapons for teams to stop this offense and Vick makes them all that much better. LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jerome Harrison (who woke up on Monday), it’s a talented offense even without Vick. I wanted to give the Giants this division for their ability to win big games, stay composed, and produce a solid game plan to corral Vick, but the Eagles have won me over. The Giants will be fine (see below), but the Eagles are officially too good to write off anymore. Vick is back and he’s for real, which means his team is too.
Green Bay Packers (NFC North): The Chicago Bears are still a bit unstable and can implode too easily for me to think they can really challenge the Packers, while the Vikings have the same inconsistency issues as the Bears and we may be able to finally put the nail in coffin concerning them. Meanwhile the Packers have adjusted on offense to living without their injured players, and their defense is getting scary good. They have a solid secondary led by Charles Woodson, and Clay Matthews should strike fear into any opposing offensive coordinators. They should gut out the wins they need over Chicago and they should have strong momentum going into the postseason.
Atlanta Falcons (NFC South): Injuries have really slowed the New Orleans Saints, and the Falcons are the ones benefiting. They have a very strong offense and good all around game and while I wouldn’t say they are elite, they have it in them to hold off the Saints even after New Orleans gets healthy and picks up momentum. Are they a Super Bowl contender? Probably not, but I wouldn’t sleep on them either. They have some nice easy games later in the season, and it seems like they’re a team that rides on emotion, as evident by the quotes being thrown around by guys like Roddy White leading up to their last game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They should finish the regular season strong and be feeling very good about themselves.
Saint Louis Rams (NFC West): A very tough call here; it’s a wide open division and not in a good way. While I do see the division winner being around 8-8 or 9-7, it’s still possible that 7-9 gets it done here, so it’s really about who can stay healthy, limit mistakes, and break a big play or two. The Rams seem to have that down pretty well, and I give them the nod over a Cardinals team that may not figure it out in time to contend; a Seahawks team that is getting too old and may be thinking about rebuilding mode; and a 49ers team that is apparently just cursed or something considering this division was theirs for the taking when the season began. The Rams will stay calm, play within their means, and do just enough to make it.
New Orleans Saints and New York Giants (Wild Cards): These are the two sleeping giants that will absolutely be division title contenders. Between injuries and locker room tension these teams have suffered from distractions that were likely the cause of their less-than-stellar starts so far, which is why they may slip to these Wild Card positions. They are still very dangerous, and they make for two very dangerous Wild Cards who could still go deep in the playoffs. The Saints will be healthy and a force to be reckoned with come playoff time, and I wouldn’t read too much into the Giants loss last week. The Cowboys were fired up and Jason Garrett was trying to make a big splash in his debut. The Giants will be fine, but I don’t think they can handle a red hot Eagles team anymore, so they are down here with the last teams in the postseason.
New Orleans Saints at Saint Louis Rams
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers
NFC CHAMPIONS: Green Bay Packers
Wow is that a fun wild-card round! Can a fired up Rams fan base help their upstart team shock the defending champs? Can the Giants go into the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and pull out a playoff win like they did when they ended Brett Favre’s Packer career on the way to their last Super Bowl? Both are exciting possibilities, but unfortunately for those teams they probably won’t happen. The Saints will be healthy and probably crush the Rams who will just be excited to be in the playoffs, and the Packer defense will make Eli Manning look like he doesn’t even come from the same family that produced Archie and Peyton Manning.
The divisional round should be interesting because the Giants and Eagles are strong but beatable, especially since the Packers and Saints are potentially elite teams that will be fired up and rolling along by then. Two very close games, but talent should win out in the end in both match-ups. I’m tempted to give the Eagles the edge, but I really believe the Saints will be healthy and doing well by then, and they can win that game if that’s the case. That leaves the Packers and Saints for an intense showdown in Green Bay which will hopefully be played under two feet of snow in subzero temperatures. That of course plays right into the Packers’ hands and should help ground Brees and his juggernaut passing offense. This could still be okay for the Saints if guys like Pierre Thomas are fully healthy, but the Packers are so strong on defense that their linebackers should cause havoc and shut down the Saints enough to let the Packers win a low scoring game.
As usual seedings will be huge. In this scenario I have the Eagles as the No. 1 seed, the Falcons at 2, the Packers at 3, and the Rams at 4, with the Saints being the higher seeded Wild Card team. Green Bay benefits nicely with two games by virtue of their big home field advantage and their one away game in a dome. The Falcons have a chance to do damage because I believe their favorable late regular season schedule could help them jump Green Bay for a high seed, although I don’t have it paying off. Same goes for the Eagles. Their higher seeds really only account for uncertainty with what were supposed to be the elite teams like New Orleans and Green Bay currently, but you can expect those issues to be ironed out by the playoffs, meaning the home teams may not have that big of a built-in advantage.
There are some good story lines going on in the NFC, and it will interesting to see if upstart teams like Saint Louis and Tampa Bay can actually do damage or if my scenario will come true where slower starting contenders come around and do what they are expected to do. It’s the more unpredictable of the two conferences, so casual fans or fans of teams who are struggling and out of contention would be wise to give the big NFC match-ups a look the next few Sundays. Enjoy the second half!