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NFC Play-off Picture: Vikings to go all the way?

James Chisnall predicts bigs things for the Vikings and takes a look at the toughest conference in the NFL.

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Who’s in, who’s out? Predictions as we gleefully enter squeaky bum time in the National Football League

While the AFC looks a two-horse race in the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFC is stacked deep with good teams so let’s take a look at the conference landscape division by division with my picks for who will make the grade:

 

NFC EAST:

The Best: Philadelphia Eagles

The Rest: Dallas Cowboys

The NFL is a cruel league. With 2 minutes remaining in the 3rd Quarter of the Week 14 matchup against the impressive LA Rams, Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz had just thrown yet another touchdown to put his team in the lead, on their way to a division title and continuing his seemingly inevitable march towards the MVP trophy. Little did we know at the time that the breakout season Wentz was enjoying was to be ended by a torn ACL injury suffered one play earlier. This exciting Eagles team was reminiscent of the 2015 Carolina Panthers that came out of nowhere to dominate the league led by an exciting playmaker at QB in MVP Cam Newton.

“elite offense and defense”

With an elite offense and defense, this Eagles team was deep in quality across the board and looked destined for the Super Bowl. Now it’s over. Optimists are making a case there’s still a chance for the Eagles and backup QB Nick Foles to find a way to the Super Bowl with the stellar weapons remaining on offense and defense. Unfortunately, the more likely outcome is that their hopes ended with Wentz’s knee. Dallas have stuttered this season – America’s favourite team are looking at very slim odds to make a playoff appearance. The surprise success of last season, led by two rookies on offense, has been difficult to replicate. In his second season, QB Dak Prescott has looked nervy in games without his partner Ezequiel Elliot at running back as the team seems too reliant on a few stars and a predictable offense.

 Winner: Philadelphia Eagles. Already won the division, Foles looked good in his first game but surely playoff disappointment looms.

NFC NORTH:

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

The Rest: Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers

The Vikings have been one of the surprise packages of the season. QB Case Keenum has somehow turned into an MVP candidate after four below-average seasons in the league and a disastrous 2016 season with the LA Rams. After starting the season as a backup to the perennially-injured Sam Bradford, Keenum has taken his chance with shocking success after Bradford predictably went down in Week 2.

“elusive ability in the pocket”

His elusiveness and ability to avoid pressure in the pocket has been remarkable, made evident in giving up the joint-fewest sacks amongst starting QBs. A fruitful connection with wide receiver Adam Thielen has provided another surprising star and the Vikings look menacing with a defense ranked only second to Denver in yards allowed. There was real excitement in Green Bay with the anticipated return in Week 15 of Quarterback King, Aaron Rodgers, from injury. However, with 3 games left the Packers had to win out and failed at the first hurdle with Rodgers uncharacteristically throwing 3 interceptions against the Panthers. In Detroit playoff hopes are rising with an easy schedule in the run-in. QB Matt Stafford divides opinion and while he probably shouldn’t be the highest-paid player in the league, he has led the Lions offense to solid numbers under the radar

Rodger’s injury all but ended Packers’ hopes of a play-off spot

Winner: Minnesota Vikings. They’ve been a lock for the division since the Rodgers injury.

NFC SOUTH:

The Best: New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons

The Rest: N/A

The best division in football is stacked, with three teams separated by just one game at the time of writing. The two wild card spots in the conference may well be taken by the two teams that don’t win this division.

First the Saints – and what a difference a good draft can make as rookies Alvin Kamara at running back and Marshon Lattimore at cornerback already look like franchise stars for years to come. footballoutsiders.com has the Saints ranked as the number one rushing offense with a scary running back duo combining Kamara’s electrifying ability to make big plays with Mark Ingram’s hard-nosed style.

“newton is integral for the panthers”

While veteran QB Drew Brees may be showing some signs of age, supported by an elite running game the passing-yards king merely needs an average defense to lead the Saints to wins and they finally have just that after years of disaster on the defensive side. The Panthers are far more reliant on one player, polarising QB Cam Newton. How Newton goes so do the Panthers and an inconsistent season from the man of many celebrations has made his team difficult to evaluate. Cam can look like the player who ran away with the MVP two seasons ago in a game-changing run against the Vikings in Week 14, but too often he has looked a shell of that player this season.

Perhaps Carolina are saving Newton’s body and will unleash his deadly running ability in the playoffs as it is clear that having Cam be a pass-first QB is not utilising his best assets. Finally, the Atlanta Falcons have recovered from early wobbles and questions of a ‘Super Bowl hangover’ after their incredible collapse against New England in the final game of last season. The red-hot offense of 2016 initially struggled this season as their offensive coordinator left town for a Head Coaching job at the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons are 0-5 when they fail to score 20 points and 8-0 when they score 20 or more points: offense is key. Luckily reigning MVP QB Matt Ryan and star wide receiver Julio Jones have been heating up at the right time, failing to post 20 or more points only once since a Week 7 loss to New England.

Winner: New Orleans Saints. I still have faith in the Falcons but with 2 of their remaining games against the Saints and Panthers, they may be the victims of the NFC South bloodbath.

NFC WEST:

The Best: LA Rams

The Rest: Seattle Seahawks

The Rams have shown what a difference a Head Coach can make. Last season the team did not make the best first impression to their new city of Los Angeles under HC Jeff Fisher as they went 4-12, failing to post a winning season just as the organization had in all of Fisher’s 5 seasons – critics now claim the success of both Jarred Goff and Case Keenum serve as an indictment on his coaching abilities, given both QBs were in his roster last year and both QB appeared hopeless.

“the rams can’t have imagined a better year”

Number 1 pick in the draft, rookie QB Goff was already being labelled a bust. Cut to 2017 and things are looking rosy for the Rams with 31-year-old HC Sean McVay leading the team to contender status and one that looks unrecognisable from last year. Ranked number 1 in team efficiency by footballoutsiders.com, the Rams can’t have imagined a better season despite losses in big games. Perhaps most importantly Jared Goff has been a revelation. Helped by a dramatic return to form from running back Todd Gurley, Goff is looking like a franchise quarterback for years to come and placing himself in the conversation with Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott as the new generation of stars at the position.

Meanwhile the ever-reliable Seahawks have not looked so reliable. The ‘Legion of Boom’ era may be over, the secondary defensive unit that famously crushed legendary QB Peyton Manning on their way to a blowout victory in the 2013 Super Bowl. Bruising strong safety Kam Chancellor and unit-leader free safety Earl Thomas look past their best. The third piece, elite cornerback Richard Sherman, limped off with a season-ending achilles injury in Week 10. With those three stars at the core, Seattle have boasted the most consistently elite defense in the league for years and should have won another Super Bowl in 2014. A bruising 42-7 defeat to the Rams in week 15 on home soil will have damage the pride of the Seahawks’ defense.

“the offensive line was exposed against the rams”

No longer elite on defense, now the Seahawks’ identity revolves around QB Russell Wilson on offense. Wilson’s ability to make magic happen when plays break down is un-rivalled in the league and often necessary with no protection from a woeful offensive line. Seattle actually look a better team when Wilson is fully unleashed at the end of games in which they’re behind. However the O-line weakness was exploited by the Rams in the Week 15 as they racked up 7 sacks, crushing Wilson’s MVP hopes and the Seahawks’ shot at the division.

 

Winner: LA Rams. Many questioned how good this team could be after looking so bad just last season, but many of those doubts were put to rest with a big win against the Seahawks in Week 15.

Wild Card Predictions:

 

Carolina Panthers. Cam is heating up at the right time and the defense is strong. If Carolina can head into the playoffs with confidence then they will prove a tough matchup for anyone.

Seattle Seahawks. Despite devastating injuries for the Seahawks, the Falcons may be the victim of the NFC South bloodbath as they face the Saints and Panthers in their last 2 games.

Early Super Bowl pick

New England Patriots Vs Minnesota Vikings

 

Winner: Minnesota Vikings. I’m all-in on Keenum. In a year with no clear favourite after Philadelphia lost Wentz, wins in big games and a strong defense have shown the Vikings could make a run at the Super Bowl. I think the winner of the championship game in the stronger NFC conference goes on to the take the title.

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