Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pretender or Contender - NFC style

Who are the legit heirs to the NFC throne? Will we see the Cheeseheads melting in the Arizona sun, or will the West be Won by the Gauchos in Dallas? What are the chances that a Jolly Roger will fly high over the Arizona desert, or that an ocean bird from the Pacific Northwest will migrate to the Cardinals' nest?

One thing to note - with teams like the Seahawks struggling to separate themselves from the lesser teams in the weak Western division until the last couple of weeks, it's hard to completely buy into some of the NFC teams as legitimate contenders.

The contenders...

Dallas Cowboys (13-2) - Quite simply, they are the best the NFC has to offer. The number one NFC offense (second only in the league to the Patriots), and the sixth best NFC defense in regards to opponents scoring (12th overall). If a team can take advantage of the Dallas D, the team can be had. Through their first eight games the team's margin of victory was an average of 15.8 points per game with only three of those victories coming by a margin of less than 17 points. Since the halfway point that average margin of victory has dropped to 8.8 points per game with only one contest in which the margin was larger than 17 points.

That said, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Big D, and it's going to be a tough, albeit not impossible, task to knock the Cowboys off in their own backyard.

Green Bay Packers (12-3) - The game against the Bears was not exactly reassuring, but I'm willing to give a team as young as the Packers a mulligan. The big problem for Green Bay is that they will have to go through Dallas to get to Arizona, and I'm not convinced that Brett Favre's history in that stadium isn't in his head.

In their earlier match-up this season Favre went away from the game-plan that had the Pack undefeated going into Dallas. If he isn't trying to force the deep ball on every play and hit the homerun, so to speak, then I give the Packers a fair chance at the upset. If Favre makes the unforced errors of the first match-up, then Cheesehead Nation will not be invading the Desert come January.

Washington Redskins (8-7) - I know that Washington is not in yet, but they control their own fate and are playing their best football of the season. I feel uncertain about putting this team here, but the fact is that they are playing smart, disciplined football right now - and they are playing with a purpose - and that makes them dangerous.

Also, they play in what appears to be the toughest division in the NFC, playing against playoff teams and hopefuls in Dallas, New England, New York (Giants), Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota. Half of the 'Skins' games have been against opponents that either are headed to, or still have a chance to head to the playoffs. Sure, they're 2-5 against these teams (with the final match-up against Dallas on the docket for this weekend), but take away the drubbing at the hands of the Patriots, an the average margin of victory for those opponents in those four games is 4.25 points per game. In the last two games, both victories over teams contending for spots (the Giants, and the Vikings), the margin was 11.5 points per game - a 15.75 point swing in favor of the Redskins.

They have a long hard road ahead - assuming they can close out with a win over Dallas and seal their playoff fate, they will have to play three games on the road no matter what due to being the sixth and final entry from the NFC.

The pretenders -

New York Giants (10-5) - They pulled off an emotional victory over a mediocre Buffalo Bills team last week and are on the road next week at Tampa Bay. A lot will be made about Tampa's stifling defense - currently tied for the top rank with the Patriots giving up only 15.9 points per game. I think that, healthy, New York can get by Tampa - and even unhealthy I give them a chance.

New York's biggest liability is Eli Manning - not only do they not know what quarterback they're going to get from game to game, sometimes his Jeckyll and Hyde routine goes quarter to quarter. While I think they might squeak by with one road win, I'm not convinced that a team that hasn't strung together more than two wins in a row for half a season will be able to come away with three straight on the road to get to the big game.

Seattle Seahawks (10-5) - After their opener against Tampa (whom they beat), The only post-season contenders this team has played have been Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They lost to both, to go with losses to Arizona, Carolina, and New Orleans.

Consider the following as the Seahawks will likely be hosting the Redskins next week - Technically, this team has not beaten a single team with a winning record (the Bucs were 0-0 at the time of their game7-8 Eagles. I have no reason to believe that the Seahawks are going to start defeating opponents with winning records now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) - People are trying to dub this as the sleeper team. They're wrong.

This is the so called sleeper team because of their sterling defense, tied with the Patriots for first in the league, giving up on 15.9 points per game. Let's take a closer look at how that defense has done against quality offenses - the Bucs have faced four potential playoff teams and have gone 1-3 against them, losing to the 11th ranked Seahawks offense, the 3rd ranked Colts O, and the 5th ranked Jaguars offense, winning only against the 19th ranked Redskins.

As a matter of fact, the only offenses in the top 20 that the Bucs beat have been the 10th ranked Saints, 9th ranked Cardinals, and the 19th ranked Skins. The Saints and Cards are both in the bottom third of the league in defense. Otherwise, six of the nine wins that the defense forged its reputation against have had an average offensive ranking of around 26th overall - or against teams averaging only about 16 points per game (this includes two games against the 31st ranked scoring team in the league).

By contrast, the Patriots have beaten four division winners (Colts, Chargers, Cowboys, Steelers), and two (likely) wild card entrants (Browns, Redskins). Their wins have come over teams whose offenses rank 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 17th and 19th. The average offensive ranking of the Patriots opponents is about 18th overall, or an average of around 20.7 points per game.

The point here is that the Bucs are holding opponents to 0.1 points per game below their aggregate average against the rest of the league, so in theory a team that averages 27 points per game is probably still going to score about 27 points against the them. Not a great statistic for a team trying to make headway into the post season.

The proverbial monkey wrench...

Minnesota Vikings (8-7) - The Vikings are in if they win and the 'Skins lose. This is not a team I can see going deep into the playoffs. They are a team that can screw up someone else shot at the title. They are physical and tough against the run, and have bruising runners who get into the second level and punish an opponents secondary.

If nothing else, they can make a healthy team unhealthy for their next opponent.

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