3 NFC Teams Who Are Ready to Make a Playoff Push
The NFC playoff picture has a much more well-defined shape than the AFC one. But while we can safely eliminate a ton of teams, there are still some spots to be decided. Our team rankings paint a great picture of how well teams are positioned to make the playoffs this year. With that said, it's important for us to take a look not only at where the playoff picture sits now, but where we might be in just eight short weeks.
I took a look at some of the contender's playoff odds and have narrowed down three teams that I think are poised to make a serious push into the playoffs. For the purposes of this article, I have ignored the two teams in the NFC with over 90% playoff odds - the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals - both are obviously safe bets to make the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers (6-3)
Believe it or not, the Green Bay Packers currently sit on the outside looking in on the NFC Playoffs, so they definitely have some work to do. This despite being our fourth overall offense. Relax, Packer fans - the Pack have some highly winnable games coming up, including matchups against Minnesota, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay, all of whom rank 20th or worse overall in our power rankings. If the Packers win those three matchups and pick up another win against Philadelphia, New England, Buffalo, or Detroit. they'll have 10 wins, and that should be good for a playoff spot.
There's ample reason to believe that the Pack, winners of five of their last six games, can keep rolling. Simply put, outside of Peyton Manning, no quarterback has been more effective per drop back than Aaron Rodgers this year. That, of course, is in terms of our signature statistic, Net Expected Points (NEP).
The play of Rodgers has translated on the field for his wide receivers, as Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have been sensational. Of all wide receivers with at least 30 receptions this year, Cobb and Nelson rank second and third, respectively, in Reception NEP per target. That's not a typo - per target, Cobb and Nelson have been the second and third best wide receivers in the entire league, and they play on the same team. The Packers will face some stiff passing defenses down the stretch, but with the way this passing offense has played, they are more than well suited to rattle off some big wins.
Our numbers give the Packers a 61.2% chance to get into the playoffs this year.
Dallas Cowboys (7-3)
It seems weird to say that a 7-3 team is going to make a playoff push, but things aren't really 100% locked in yet for the Cowboys. With two games remaining against the current division-leading Philadelphia Eagles, there's still a lot of ambiguity surrounding Dallas. Luckily, the Cowboys do have three relatively matchups coming up against New York (Giants), Chicago and Washington. With that said, the Cowboys will have their work cut out for them - while New York and Washington are not as good as Philadelphia in our rankings, they are still average squads (Washington is our 13th-best team and New York is our 17th-best team).
A lot of the Cowboys' ability to win a few games down the stretch will come down to whether Tony Romo can keep up his exceptional play. I mentioned earlier that Rodgers has been the second-best passer on a per drop back basis this year, but Romo isn't too far behind, finishing fifth among that same group, behind, in addition to Rodgers and Manning, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. In other words, Rodgers is the only NFC quarterback who's been better than Romo on per drop back basis this season. For as much flak as Romo gets publicly, he's played extremely well.
Additionally, the Cowboys will continue to look toward DeMarco Murray, who currently leads the league in rushing attempts by nearly 70 attempts over the next guy. The Cowboys have three matchups against teams 20th or worse against against the run - the Colts (22), the Bears (25), and the Giants (27). As a result, Murray should play a big part in those matchups, though it should be noted the Bears are also 29th against the pass.
The Cowboys will need Murray to stay healthy, something that has not been too easy for him in his career, in order to successfully make their playoff push. According to our metrics, there's a 66.7% chance they get in.
San Francisco 49ers (5-4)
The Niners are a little bit behind, currently third in the division and only one game over .500. We currently have them at less than a one-third chance to make the playoffs, but looking at their schedule, there's some optimism surrounding San Francisco's chances. While leapfrogging both the Seahawks and Cardinals for the division will be tough, their upcoming schedule is about as good as you can get in the very rough NFC West. To close out the season, the 49ers will have matchups with New York (Giants), Washington, Oakland, and a somewhat beatable San Diego.
The strength of the 49ers' offense this season has been their passing attack. Frank Gore has been one of the least effective backs in the NFL this season - of the 36 running backs with at least 70 carries so far this year, Gore ranks 31st in Rushing NEP. Overall, we have the Niners at 25th in rushing offense, while the passing attack is ranked 18th, much closer to being average.
Their passing strength matches up well with their remaining season schedule, too, as every team they'll face from here on out aside from Arizona rank in the bottom half of the league against the pass.
Additionally, the 49ers passing defense ranks 9th overall, while their rushing defense ranks a much more pedestrian 14th. Fortunately, four of the 49ers' remaining seven opponents rank in the bottom half of rushing offense. The matchups look solid for San Francisco to make a run.