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NFC’s A Crowd

In NFL on December 17, 2009 at 5:05 pm

In contrast to the cluttered AFC picture, the NFC playoff standings are far more straightforward, with 9 teams in contention, and two of those about to drop out of the running.

Dominating the race are the 13-0 New Orleans Saints, who have pulled off a couple of miraculous escapes in the last few weeks to stay perfect. Far from shaking their confidence, these remarkable wins have only fuelled the sense of destiny which is growing in the city, and they have been installed as favourites by most pundits.

They look like a solid pick too. It would take an equally gobsmacking collapse for them to lose the top seed, and one more win would allow them the luxury of resting their starters ahead of the playoffs.

Their opponents on Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys, are in an altogether more sticky situation. Three straight losses for Tony Romo’s club have seen them forfeit a comfortable lead in the NFC East, and they are now faced with a desperate scramble to save their season.

This year was meant to be different for the Cowboys, and everything was going perfectly until they were hit by those familiar December jitters. Now instead of collecting plaudits, they are ducking brickbats as coach Wade Phillips and his team once again face serious questions over their toughness and bottle.

Their season could well rest on the final game showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, who have flourished as the season progressed.

Donovan McNabb’s side have hit their stride in recent weeks, and become a nice sleeper pick for the Superbowl. They have dealt manfully with the loss of star running back Brian Westbrook, with rookie LeSean McCoy and veteran Leonard Weaver giving them good options on the ground.

They’ve always been a pass-happy offence, and with DeSean Jackson evolving into one of the league’s premier deep threats and the gradual integration of Michael Vick, they can score early and often against any defence.

Defence is exactly where the problem lies, however. With new defensive co-ordinator Sean McDermott dialling up more blitzes than ever, their secondary is often woefully exposed. They look in good shape for the 3rd seed though, and will even have a cheeky eye on supplanting the Vikings and stealing their bye.

This would take some effort though, not to mention an improbable slump from the Minnesota Vikings. One more win should see them safely into the divisional playoff, and with the Panthers, Bears and Giants on the menu, they should be in no trouble.

They smashed a very solid Bengals outfit last week, rebounding nicely from their loss in Arizona. That game can probably be called an anomaly, as Brett Favre was picked off with ease, Adrian Peterson was held to 19 yards rushing and their crushing defensive line was contained. None of those things are likely to happen at the same time ever again, but the Vikes will be keen to ensure that none of these faults resurface in the remainder of the season.

They’re being hunted down by a relentless Green Bay Packers side, who have now won five in a row in a brave pursuit of their rivals. They need three wins to have a chance though, and with games against the Steelers and Cardinals to come, they will almost certainly have to make do with a wild card spot.

And what to make of the Arizona Cardinals? They boast arguably the best receiving corps in the league, an elite quarterback in Kurt Warner, and some devastating playmakers in their defence. But still, they have a modest record of 8-5 and need two wins to seal the division.

But then, it is Christmas, and the Cards have been granted the greatest gift of all – back to back games against the Lions and the Rams! You can safely mark them down for the postseason with that kind of generous schedule. Even another seven turnover abomination like they turned in against the 49ers on Monday night would probably be enough to take care of arguably the two worst teams in the league.

The 6-7 San Francisco 49ers realistically need to win out and hope one of those two teams can cause a shock, and with an almost identical schedule, they are in with a shout. Unfortunately, a loss in Philadelphia on Sunday buries them, and if there’s one place you don’t want to be going right now, it’s Philly.

The Atlanta Falcons are another 6-7 club in need of three wins and a favour, but without Michael Turner, they are a shadow of their former selves. Quarterback Matt Ryan has also looked sluggish after his return from injury, so these two sides are on borrowed time.

Finally, we come to the New York Giants. Many people’s pre-season favourites began the season on cruise control as they coasted to a 5-0 start. But then, they hit an iceberg. Six losses in seven games have seen them sink to 7-6, and they missed a golden opportunity to turn the NFC East into a three way dogfight when they gave up 45 points to the Eagles in their own backyard.

With games against Washington and Carolina coming up in the next week, they could still escape from their nightmare run. But they’re likely to need a win in Minnesota in the final week.

If the Vikes are locked into the 2nd seed by then this could be a real opportunity for the G-men, but if Minnesota are threatened from above or below then they may have to kiss their season goodbye.

On such slender threads do hopes and dreams dangle in the NFL.

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