For a season in which every team seemed bunch together like lemmings headed to their impending death, there sure isn't much suspense left with two weeks left to go in the regular season. Despite the fact that those lemmings are still falling off the ledge into mediocrity (16 teams have between four and six wins) the good teams made it look rather easy to separate themselves from everyone else with more time left to spare than a 12/30 party in Times Square.
The good news is that I would say that two or three of those lemmings won enough games to get into the NFC playoffs. The bad news is that the Seattle Seahawks will have to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl, and do so against two teams that have already beaten them this year.
The good news is that I think that the Seahawks are a better team today than they were then.
The bad news is that being better or worse does not guarantee victory, especially in the playoffs.
The good news is that Seattle is actually pretty good on the road.
The bad news is that they sure are a lot better at home.
The good news is that plenty of wild card teams have traversed this path and made the Super Bowl.
The bad news is th- Okay, fine, let's just get to all of the news then. This is The Lookaround and these are the five teams that will make the NFC playoffs alongside the Seahawks, in order of importance:
Minnesota Vikings (9-5)
This might seem like a surprise given the NFC East, but there couldn't possibly be a team in the playoffs to be less concerned about than the Vikings, as evidenced by that 38-7 game that took place three weeks ago in Minnesota. Also as evidenced by their horrible passing offense (the Seahawks have given up an NFL-low 12 touchdown passes, the Vikings have thrown 13 touchdown passes) and mediocre defense.
Minnesota has Adrian Peterson, which means pretty much nothing against any good team in the year 2015 that can pass the ball and not allow you to get any sort of lead with which to milk like Aunt Dorothy on a warm Sunday morning. Seattle will never face the Vikings in the playoffs because even if Minnesota upsets the Packers, they won't get past the Panthers or Cardinals.
The Vikings are 1-4 against teams about to make the playoffs, their lone win coming over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6.
For the Giants to win the division, they'll need to pretty much win their last two games (@MIN, PHI) and have Washington lose out (Redskins own the conference tiebreaker). The Eagles need to win this weekend (WAS) and next weekend (@PHI) and have the Redskins lose at the Dallas Cowboys.
This pretty much makes Washington a virtual lock for the division, so let's make like a bill that's supposed to become a law and head to our nation's capital. Or is it the other way around? Look, that Schoolhouse Rock song was a long time ago.
As if you needed another parallel to 2012, the Redskins are getting hot at the right time to win a terrible division. Much like in 2012, when Washington won their last seven games of the year thanks to red hot play by their quarterback, the Redskins have won five of their last eight games with Kirk Cousins throwing 16 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
He has posted a passer rating of 115 over that time. So should you fear Captain Kirk if Mr. Wilson has to go to Washington for the wild card round? Don't let Redskins fans set their pants phasers on full-blast just yet.
While Cousins has thrown a touchdown in all 14 games this year, he has thrown exactly one touchdown in 11 of those. He threw four touchdowns against the Saints (worst defense ever, remember that for future reference), three against the Bucs (they allow two/game on average), and last weekend dropped another four-burger on the Bills (also average two/game, seem to have given up on defense.)
That's not to diminish his accomplishments, only to remind you that playoff QBs have to go up against playoff defenses. Somewhere in there is the guy that threw two picks against the Dolphins, Giants, Falcons, and Jets. Against the Patriots he had a passer rating of 68.4 and against the Panthers, 89.2. What is Washington supposed to do if you can stop their passing attack? There's not much they can do ... The Redskins have the 32nd-ranked rushing offense in the NFL by DVOA.
For all intents and purposes, Washington is as average as their record suggests. They've played well at home (6-2) but if you can't beat the Redskins, you weren't going to beat three other teams that are much better.
Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Since there still appears to be almost no chance that Seattle will go to Green Bay, let's make this quick.
If the Packers win this weekend at Arizona and the Vikings lose to the Giants, they will clinch the NFC North. It will also still leave open the door for them to get the number two seed. (Again, the Seahawks won't play them if they're the two seed or the three seed or the fifth or sixth seed, and Green Bay can't get the four seed, so the earliest they would play is the NFC Championship).
But since the Cardinals will win this weekend, that means that the NFC North will be decided in Week 17 at Lambeau. The Packers aren't that good but Minnesota, as outlined earlier, is much worse. They are also 1-8-1 in their last 10 games in Green Bay.
This season, Aaron Rodgers has put up mediocre numbers despite his 29-to-6 TD::INT ratio, averaging just 6.8 Y/A with a rating of 95.2. In the beginning of the year, it seemed like they figured out how to score points without Jordy Nelson. They were 6-0, Rodgers was averaging 8.2 Y/A, had a rating of 115.9, and they beat the Seahawks and Chiefs. But since then, they are 4-4, Rodgers is at 5.9 and 83.4, and they nearly lost to the Lions twice.
They are an unimpressive team. They need to hope that the Cardinals lose these next two games, secure a bye, get a home game, and hope to host Seattle for the NFC Championship. That is their best best to returning to the Super Bowl, but let's not forget that Rodgers is 2-4 in the playoffs over the last four years.
Carolina Panthers (14-0)
Last year, the Seahawks grabbed the number one seed with a 12-4 record. This year, the Panthers might get the number one seed with a 16-0 record. What's the difference? Only that Carolina will feel an extra amount of pain if they lose in the playoffs perhaps, but nothing else. An undefeated regular season (and a 19-0 record if we're being perfectly honest) doesn't mean shit. Winning the Super Bowl means shit.
Getting homefield advantage is all that matters here and Carolina is probably about to do that. I can't say I feel as good about their chances of beating three great teams in a row, however. After all, the Panthers have only played one great team and one good team all season long.
They beat Seattle in Week 6 by four points after trailing by nine points in the fourth quarter and they beat Green Bay by eight in Week 9. In that game, Cam Newton threw an interception at the worst possible time, giving the Packers the ball at the Carolina 22 with 3:38 left. The Packers had first and goal at the nine and failed to convert.
I've made it pretty well-known that I don't think Newton is the best MVP candidate. For all sorts of reasons like their 14-0 record being quite lucky, that they aren't the best team in football, that the defense has been a much bigger part of their success, or that he got to play the Saints twice (remember what we said about their defense?). But this isn't just about Cam. The whole team is vulnerable.
Per DVOA, the Panthers have had the third-easiest schedule by DVOA. They are ranked 28th on special teams. They are 14-0 but against an average schedule, perhaps closer to a team that is 10-4 or 11-3, at best. What does that make them? A very legitimate threat to win the Super Bowl, not unlike the Denver Broncos or Cincinnati Bengals. But that is definitely where they stand. Not above anyone else, and definitely not in the top three.
Arizona Cardinals (12-2)
The Cardinals may not have won as many games as the Panthers have, but they sure do feel like a better team. That's probably because you'd rather play a few good teams and lose than play a bunch of nobodies and find out that you weren't as great as you thought you were once the playoffs come around.
Arizona has played the Seahawks (won), Steelers (lost, and when they were starting Landry Jones), and Bengals (won). They also beat the Vikings by three, the Eagles by 23 (the Panthers-Eagles game was much closer), the Saints by 12 (the Panthers struggled to beat New Orleans twice), and still have games left against the Packers and Seahawks.
The Cardinals have a better passing game, way more offensive weapons, are better on special teams, and comparable on defense -- though the loss of Tyrann Mathieu could prove to be even more devastating than we imagine.
Mathieu had 80 solo tackles, five interceptions, and 16 passes defensed. The defense was much better against quarterbacks when he was on the field this season than when he wasn't. That's good news for Seattle and Carolina, but that only matters if you can stop an offense that has put up 34 or more points in half of their games this season, including 40+ points four times.
Arizona is still the team to beat in the NFC right now (I would probably slide the Seahawks in between them and the Panthers) but we could learn a lot more in Week 17. Unless that game is meaningless to both teams (which it probably will be) and then we won't. So there's that.
However, one thing I'll never let Arizona live down is their history. This is a team that's inception occurred in 1920 as the Chicago Cardinals. They won a championship in 1925. Then again in 1947. Then 68 more years past. Since 1970, they've been to the playoffs seven times. They just won 12 games for the first time in franchise history. They've only made it to the AFC Championship game once ever. Perhaps Bruce Arians is their "Pete Carroll," they've won 33 games in the last three years, which is the most they've ever won in a three-year span, but I'm not gonna put the cart before the horse. That's a saying, right? Wait, I can probably make this Cardinals-specific.
Don't put the message before the carrier pigeon?
Don't put the word before the bird?
I've got it.
Don't put the Cards before the Horks. (Imagine I'm saying Hawks in a deep Australian accent) (Okay, I still don't got it.)
The NFC is coming down to three teams, most likely, and Seattle is definitely among them. They have proven they can beat anybody -- or lose a lead to anybody -- despite the deck being stacked against them by a league schedule that included five games against teams coming off of a bye week, 10 AM road starts on the east coast, and road games against the Packers and Bengals, rather than home dates against them like the Cardinals happened to have. (In case you forgot.) Playing a tough playoff road schedule doesn't seem nearly as daunting as it might have a year ago, Seattle has already been tested as much as anybody this season.
This is your NFC postseason field. Get ready for the "real" playoffs ... which start in about four weeks.