Let's be clear about the premise of this column: Assessing which of the NFC's fringy -- for lack of a better word -- teams are to be trusted most as they make a playoff push. How to define fringy? Not the Green Bay Packers or the New Orleans Saints, teams that have already clinched playoff berths. Green Bay locked up the NFC North by beating the Lions, while the Saints' two-game lead in the NFC South -- with three to play -- feels fairly secure (get well soon, please, Drew Brees). We're talking about the inscrutable here, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a super team that can lose to the Bears one week, demolish the Packers the next, and then have a halting victory over the Vikings on Sunday. What are they, really, and what can they be expected to do in the stretch run?
The NFC is flush with teams like the Bucs, and because seven teams will make the playoffs from each conference this season, being on the fringe is not the worst place to be right now. After Sunday's games -- which featured three head-to-head matchups of fringe teams -- we have a better idea of who has the best chance to emerge from the pile and shift into the NFC's inner circle.
A dominant defense, top running game, workable passing game and back-to-back demolitions of the Cardinals and Patriots are convincing enough that the Rams are going to emerge with a playoff spot, with a very good chance at the NFC West division title. But it is the recent big-play ability of the defense that is most promising for the Rams. They’ve produced 11 turnovers in the last five games and have scored a defensive touchdown in each of the last three. In a tightly contested division race, those extras could be the difference. Also this: Los Angeles’ remaining games are against the winless Jets, and the Seahawks and Cardinals, both of whom the Rams have already beaten this season.
In Russ I Trust. That’s essentially the argument for the Seahawks, who have ridden the NFL roller coaster from a blistering start of the season to being shut down by the Giants at home last week. (There is almost no conclusion to be drawn by the ritual thrashing of the Jets on Sunday.) At 9-4, Seattle’s defense and offensive line remain obvious issues (Russell Wilson has been sacked 40 times), but if the Seahawks need a few plays to be made to make it into the postseason, which quarterback (outside of guys named Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers) would you rather have?
Some Trust Issues
What to make of the Bucs, with a superstar roster and lackluster results? After two straight losses going into their bye, the Bucs beat the Vikings on Sunday, albeit unconvincingly. Tom Brady's offense is still inconsistent -- he had a 48-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller, but then overthrew intended targets at least two other times -- and even the Bucs' defense was overpowered by the Vikings' runners for much of the game. Dalvin Cook had 102 rushing yards, the most given up by Tampa's otherwise-excellent run defense. Why will the Bucs, who are currently the NFC's second wild-card team, almost certainly survive all this uncertainty to get to the postseason? Because their remaining opponents are the Falcons -- twice -- and the Lions.
The Cardinals were a Hail Murray away from entering Week 14 on a five-game losing streak. Then on Sunday they completely dominated the Giants, 26-7. Go figure. At 7-6, the Cardinals have looked like two different teams this season, starting 5-2, then going 2-4, and currently clinging to the final NFC wild-card spot. They are powered by their running attack, and their defense smothered the Giants. Reason for concern: They have the retooled Eagles and Jalen Hurts next week, and the 49ers and Rams to finish the season.
No Trust Whatsoever
Ron Rivera and Alex Smith are feel-good stories, and Chase Young is going to be a menace for years to come, but two defensive touchdowns obscure just how ineffective the Washington offense was against San Francisco’s defense in Week 14. The WFTs play hard and they may well prevail in the hideous NFC East after taking over first place in the division by beating the 49ers. But they are likely inferior to any other team that will make the NFC field. They finish the regular season with Seattle, Carolina and Philadelphia.
Whatever progress the Giants looked to have made after a shocking win over Seattle last week, it disappeared in a somnolent loss to the Cardinals on Sunday. The Giants had just 159 yards of offense against Arizona, and the offensive line let an immobile Daniel Jones get battered. The Giants' defense remains the team's strength. Like Washington, the Giants, who fell a game behind Washington on Sunday, could go to the playoffs because the rules say someone has to win the NFC East, but it’s impossible to count on a team for whom every game is such a Sisyphean struggle. They have a bruising closing trio of opponents: Browns, Ravens and Cowboys.
A quarterback controversy is not the ideal way to go charging into the playoffs. Nor is winning four of 13 games.