Tag Archives: Denver

Panthers Plummeting

The field goal attempt was 52 yards – hardly a gimme – but the kick wouldn’t have been good from any distance.

It started wide right, and, as kicker Graham Gano and all of Carolina held their collective breath, it just refused to hook back to the left.  At least not enough.

The miss didn’t officially lose the game – the Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks were still tied at 27 – but at that point, everyone pretty much knew what was coming next.  Three plays later, Seattle had moved from its own 42 to the Panther 10-yard line.  From there, a couple of kneel downs and a spike set up Seahawk kicker Sebastian Janikowski for the game-winning field goal – which he provided as time expired (gamebook) (box score).

In the game’s first half, Panther quarterback Cam Newton had completed all 14 passes thrown.  Carolina committed no penalties, allowed no sacks, and outgained Seattle 236 to 154.  Seventy-seven of those yards had come on 15 rushing plays (5.1 yards per rush), as Carolina would set the early tone in this contest between two run-first teams.

And yet, the Panthers trotted off to the locker room ahead just 13-10.  The culprits were an 0-4 mark on third down, and a 1-4 conversion rate inside the red zone.  On their first drive of the game, the Panthers moved to fourth-and-2 at the Seattle 5-yard line.  Calling a quarterback draw, Newton waited – perhaps too long – for the blocking to develop and was then pulled down inches short (or so said the official) of the first down.

Two other times, Carolina would have to settle for field goals.  It was enough to keep Seattle in the game, and would cost the Panthers in the end.

Carolina would add another 143 rushing yards in the second half – finishing with 220 on the game – but it wouldn’t be enough.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson would work his own special brand of second half magic.  Russell would complete 15 of his last 19 passes (78.9%) for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the comeback.  Much of this came courtesy of two critical deep passes.

Moments after a Bradley McDougald interception in the end zone had denied Carolina yet again in the red zone – and still trailing 13-10 about midway through the third quarter – Wilson found David Moore all alone up the right sideline for 54 yards.  Cornerback James Bradberry had slipped in coverage, providing the opportunity.  Moments later a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game.

Now it’s immediately after the Gano miss.  Coverage confusion between backup defensive back Corn Elder and Captain Munnerlyn allowed Lockett to uncover deep down the right sideline.  That 43-yard completion set up the game-winning field goal.

With the win the Seahawks stay on pace.  At 6-5, they now have the tie-breaker over Carolina.  If it should come to that.  For Carolina, the story is more concerning.

Three weeks ago – after they had pushed around Tampa Bay, 42-28, Carolina held a 6-2 record and looked like a playoff lock.  They have now lost three in a row.  The streak began with a spanking at the hands of the Steelers (52-21), and proceeded with a loss to an uninspiring Detroit team (20-19).  Now, in a kind of must-win game against Seattle at home, the Panthers came up short again.

At 6-5 their playoff position isn’t critical yet.  But the trend this team is on is a concern.  They still have two games remaining against New Orleans.  I have a hard time seeing this team winning either of those – which would bring them to 7 losses.  That would mean that they would probably have to win all of their other games.  Problem is that two of those other three are on the road – where the Panthers are just 1-4 this season. 

The first of those will be this Sunday in Tampa Bay.  The Bucs are not in playoff contention this year, but they do play notably better at home, where they are 3-2 this year.  Then the Panthers move on to Cleveland.  The Browns also are not playoff candidates this year, but they have won two in a row – over Atlanta and Cincinnati – and have played considerably better of late.

An 8-8 record probably won’t get you into the playoffs this year, so Carolina’s path in is to either win both of their next two road games, or win at least one of those two and find a way to win one of the two against New Orleans.

If they should fail – and I think they will have quite a lot of difficulty achieving either of those objectives – then the Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) are lurking to claim the NFC’s last playoff spot.  Minnesota faces a challenging finish as well.  They go into New England this week and into Seattle next week.  They finish the season at home, but against the rising Chicago Bears.  However, they also have a home game against Miami.  The game that decides the final NFC playoff berth may well be the road game that the Vikings will play in Detroit in Week 16.  The Vikings beat the Lions in Minnesota 24-9 in Week 9.

Denver Halts Pittsburgh’s Win Streak

On the AFC side of the ledger, not much materially changes in the playoff picture.  Pittsburgh’s surprising 24-17 loss in Denver (gamebook) (box score) could potentially drop the Steelers to the fourth seed from the third.

In terms of annoying losses, this one might score an eleven on a ten scale.  For the afternoon, the Steelers rolled up 527 yards against the Denver defense – ranked twenty-second in the league as the game began.  They also committed four turnovers and had a field goal blocked.  They also missed three wide open receivers running behind the Denver defense.  There are at least a half-dozen scenarios that have Pittsburgh winning this game handily.  It was – to say the least – frustrating.

While all of the turnovers hurt, two were particularly damaging.

Trailing 3-0, Pittsburgh took possession on their own 25 with 6:26 left in the first quarter.  Eleven plays later, the Steelers had run away all of the remaining time in the quarter, while moving to a third-and-1 at the Denver 24.  They began the second quarter with a perfectly executed screen pass to Xavier Grimble, who broke clear up the left sideline.  As he approached the goal line with the touchdown that would have given Pittsburgh the lead, Grimble was suddenly met at the one by Will Parks, whose tackle dislodged the ball from Grimble’s grasp.  Xavier could only watch as the ball trickled over the goal line and into foul territory – ending the long drive with no points scored, and giving Denver the ball at the 20.

For all of their issues, Pittsburgh nonetheless took possession on their own 44-yard line, trailing by one touchdown, with still 4:26 left in the contest.

Methodically they moved the ball inside the Bronco 5-yard line.  With still 1:07 left in the contest, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line.  But the snap to Ben Roethlisberger was wide enough to throw off the timing of the play.  Panicked just a bit, Ben heaved the ball into the end zone in the general direction of Antonio Brown.  Before it could get there, a defensive lineman named Shelby Harris – who looked for all the world like he was rushing the passer – dropped one step into coverage and found the ball heading right toward him.  His goal-line interception provided Pittsburgh with its the final indignity of the night.

Denver has now won consecutive games against teams that have come in riding impressive winning streaks.  Their closing schedule is softer than their beginning, encouraging some hope among Bronco fans.  I still hesitate to call their playoff chances “good.” In the AFC, both the Chargers and the Colts are likely to win ten games each – meaning the Broncos would have to win out to join that conversation.

On Sunday, they seemed more lucky than good.  They will need more than luck to fight their way into the dance.

Eagles Run through Broncos

In the latest exhibit of the week-to-week nature of the NFL, the Denver Broncos were scorched by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday by a surprising 51-23 score (gamebook).

The Broncos entered the game with the number one ranked defense (in yardage allowed).  That they ranked sixth against the pass was important enough against the Eagle passing game.  Even more impressive, this defensive unit ranked second in the NFL against the run (allowing 72.9 yards per game).  They were also surrendering just 3.0 yards per attempt (also second in the league), and had yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

The week before they mostly silenced an excellent Kansas City offense with man coverage and a stifling run defense that took away chief weapon Kareem Hunt.  With Philadelphia’s best receiving threat (Zach Ertz) on the bench, the prospects of the Broncos shutting down Philadelphia seemed at least plausible.

For, maybe, 15 minutes.

By the Way, Philadelphia Can Run the Ball

Already ahead 17-3 after the first quarter, Philadelphia kept scoring, finishing, finally with 7 touchdowns and 4 field goals.  It is no longer surprising when Carson Wentz – even without his best receiver – chews up an opposing defense.  Wentz finished his afternoon with 4 touchdown passes and a 118.7 passer rating.  What very much surprised me about this game was the Eagle running attack.  Against a team that had surrendered more than 80 rushing yards just once in their first seven games this year, the Eagles finished the game with 197 rush yards on 37 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt).  The team that had yet to allow a rushing touchdown served up 3 on Sunday.

All of a sudden, this offensive line merits some re-evaluation.  Right tackle Lane Johnson – a pass blocking hero in the Monday night game against Washington, stepped up again in that role.  This time he gave Von Miller all he could handle.  Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski spent the afternoon pushing Denver ends Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis five or more yards into the defensive backfield.  Center Jason Kelce showed surprising power against 300-pound nose tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr.

Some of the offensive line’s best moments belonged to fill-in tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.  On most of the Eagle’s biggest runs of the game, Vaitai was at the point of attack with the critical block.

The Eagles didn’t really get serious with their running game until there were two minutes left in the first half.  They were already ahead 24-9 at that point.  The Eagles were on their own 40.  Their first 10 running plays of the game had earned a modest 23 yards.  But then a plan emerged.

Finding Flaws in the Denver Defensive Scheme

The heavy lifting on the Bronco run defense has fallen all year to fast flow linebackers Brandon Marshall and Zaire Anderson – along with several secondary players who almost always play in linebacker positions.  Mostly these are Darian Stewart and Will Parks.  The defensive line’s only responsibility in the Denver scheme is to penetrate.  For the season, so far, they have been very proficient at disrupting runs in the backfield, leaving the linebackers and others to clean up.

What their linemen don’t do often – or well – is occupy blockers.

Now, with two minutes left in the half, the Broncos are expecting pass.  They open with six in the box.  They have pass-rush specialists Miller lined up at left end, and Shane Ray at right end.  Vaitai pushed Ray off to the sideline, while Wisniewski and Kelce pinned Harris to the inside.  With Harris unable to get off of Kelce’s block, Wisniewski popped through to the second level.

In what would be a recurring theme all afternoon, Brandon Marshall would be contending against linemen getting nearly free releases into the second level.  Wisniewski easily pushed Marshall out of the way, and new Eagle Jay Ajayi motored through the gap for 14 yards.  The Eagle staff must have liked how that worked out, because they ran almost the same play again.  Once again, Vaitai removed Ray.  Wisniewski handled Shelby Harris by himself this time, as Kelce pulled around the end.  Brandon Brooks streaked untouched toward Marshall pushing him out of the way.  With most of the Bronco defense on the ground, Ajayi scooted untouched around the left end and sped 46 yards for his first Philadelphia touchdown.

Second Half All About the Run

Whether this was the plan all along or a sudden revelation, we won’t know.  But throughout the entire second half, Philadelphia attacked this weakness in Denver’s run scheme.  Wentz threw the ball only 6 times after the intermission, while the Eagles ran 24 running plays for 108 yards.  As the Broncos always seem to be in pass rush mode, all the Eagles needed to do was stop the penetration.  If the line could do that, they would have mostly unfettered access to the linebackers.

With 11:54 left in the third quarter, the Eagles faced a second-and-4 at the Denver 22.  The Eagles stacked three receivers to the right (tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek, and receiver Mack Hollins).  The Broncos responded with their 3-4, with Shaquil Barrett playing in Miller’s usual left linebacker position and safety Darian Stewart flanked to the left of Marshall like a linebacker.

Burton turned Barrett to the outside.  Hollins stung Stewart (who was coming on a blitz).  Celek pulled and got a trap block on Shelby Harris, who was penetrating through the middle.  Just into the game after an injury to Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo (who was more than a little impressive in his limited opportunities) stopped Kerr’s attempt to penetrate from the left end position.  Wisniewski also handled Gotsis in a one-on-one situation.  So on this particular play, both Brooks and Kelce went untouched into linebackers Marshall and Anderson, respectively.  By the time the pile enclosed around running back LeGarrette Blount, Blount had picked up another 10 yards.

Five plays later, another Eagle running back Corey Clement took a pitch from Wentz on an option play at the goal line to score the touchdown that pushed the Eagle lead to 38-9.

A Blue-Print Against the Bronco Defense?

Remembering that this was a run defense that had held Dallas to 40 rushing yards, Buffalo to 75, and Kansas City to 79, it bears asking how repeatable this success could be.  Could other teams do this to the Broncos?  I think yes, providing a couple of things.

First and foremost, the offensive line would have to keep the Denver front seven out of the backfield.  Philadelphia made it look easy, but they will present a challenge for most offensive lines.  Also, the potency of the Eagle passing game kept Denver from making stopping the run a priority.  Even after this debacle, Denver is still number 5 against the run.  I would have to see a few more teams do this to Denver before I would expect some kind of change in scheme.

Too Many Running Backs?

In regard to the Eagles, the addition of Ajayi might make too many running backs.  On Sunday the 34 carries by running backs were distributed thusly:  Clement had 12, 9 for Blount, 8 for Ajayi, and 5 for Wendell Smallwood.  Classically, a team settles on a primary running back.  Usually 8-12 rushes isn’t enough for a runner to get into the rhythm of the game.  Probably, now, that will be Ajayi.  The Eagles have a bye this week, and may emerge on the other end with Jay being the 25-carry back.  But I know they like the other three guys a lot, too.  Plus, you figure Carson will still be throwing the ball a lot.

Finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy and sharp could prove to be a challenge.  Such are the challenges of an 8-1 team.

Here’s to the Defense

On the Monday night before (October 23) The Eagles and the Redskins combined to put up 58 points in a sort of coming-of-age party for Philadelphia’s rising star, Carson Wentz.  Last Monday (October 30) was a day for the defense.

With their backs against the wall, and in desperate need of a victory, the Denver Broncos (then 3-3) took the field at Arrowhead to face the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.  Kansas City boasted the second-highest scoring offense in the league (having scored 207 points through their first 7 games), the third-ranked offense in the league based on yards, and ranked fifth-ranked in both rushing (129 yards per game) and passing (behind quarterback Alex Smith’s impressive 120.5 passer rating).

Denver opposed them with the number one overall defense in football.  They also ranked second against the run (allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game), sixth against the pass (although with a higher than expected 91.7 rating), and ninth in keeping opponents off the scoreboard (they had allowed just 118 points through their first 6 games).

When the dust had settled, the Chiefs walked off the field with a 29-19 victory (gamebook) that would seem to indicate that the #3 offense had taken care of business against the #1 defense.  In actuality, the story was much different.  The victorious Chiefs finished the night with just 276 yards, going 2-for-12 on third down, 0-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.  Of their 29 points, 13 were scored off of Denver turnovers and 3 others resulted after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down play at mid-field.  Of Kansas City’s 14 offensive drives, only one gained more than 50 yards.

The second half domination was even more complete.  After halftime, the Chiefs managed just 77 yards and 3 first downs.  Superstar rookie running back Kareem Hunt carried the ball 12 times in the second half for just 8 yards.

None Shall Run

Stopping the run was the first plank of Denver’s defensive game plan.  Hunt regained his league leadership in rushing yards, in spite of the fact that he was held to just 46 yards.  The team that allowed less than 72 rushing yards a game and had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, left the field having given up just 79 rushing yards – and still no rushing touchdowns.

With the running game stuck in neutral, the KC offense would rest on the arm and head of Alex Smith.

The Game Plan

The discussion about Smith continues.  Is he a franchise quarterback?  Is he a game managing, system quarterback?  Can he put a team on his back (like Russell Wilson did on Sunday) and win a game when his running game was struggling to produce?  For the first seven games, the 2017 season had been Smith’s breakout season.  In 6 of the first 7 games, he produced a passer rating of at least 104.9 – on his way to the best rating in the league at the start of the night.

But as with Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, the Denver defense proved too tough a nut to crack.  The Bronco game plan relied on its five principle secondary players – cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby and Will Parks; along with safety Darian Stewart – to stick tightly in man coverage to the KC receiving corps.  They would challenge Smith all night to make precision throws into tight windows – a challenge he was mostly not up to.

As the evening wore on, and Alex’ frustration mounted, he began to play fast.  Even though the actual heat in his kitchen was only moderate (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was extremely effective keeping Von Miller at bay), Smith began rushing his decisions and giving up on plays early.  The play-action and misdirection plays that had provided some offensive spark in the first quarter were mostly abandoned by the third.  And once Denver could get Alex on the run he was 0-for-4 throwing the ball.

Alex finished the night just 14 of 31 for 202 yards, on his way to a season-worst 77.6 rating.  He was just 5 of 14 for 55 yards in the second half.  Yes, the coverage was tight, but not at all perfect.  There were plays there to be made.  Alex just didn’t make them.

On the Other Hand

Luckily for Smith and KC, they didn’t have to be miracle workers that night.  If they had their hands full with the Denver defense, the Broncos’ offense was having an even worse time.  Already an area of concern, Trevor Siemian and his unit turned the ball over four times on the evening (with the special teams contributing a fifth turnover).  And, again, it was the same concern.  Once Denver falls behind, they knew they were in trouble.  They are an offense built to play from ahead.  Or, at least, they were.  In the aftermath of his disappointing afternoon (Trevor scored a 43.5 passer rating on 19 of 36 throwing for 198 yards and three interceptions) coach Vance Joseph has given Denver’s next start (in Philadelphia this week) to backup Brock Osweiler.

It’s an unfair thing to blame Denver’s 3-4 start on one player.  It is, nonetheless, true that most of the other aspects of this football team do seem to be functioning at a fairly high level.  Their defense has been among the best in football, while the running game ranks tenth in the league, averaging 123.4 yards per game.  The receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and Virgil Green is sufficiently talented.  The perception all along has been that Denver has been held back by the limitations of its quarterback.

Despite flashes of excellence, Osweiler has mostly disappointed in his opportunities to prove himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  There is no way – at this point – of telling how short his leash will be.  But this Sunday will begin his next opportunity.

The Protest – Again

As I noted in Wednesday’s post, since the National Anthem protests are still in the news, for the next little while I will be including a link back to my position on all of this.  It is here, and, if I do say so myself, worth a read.

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

With surprising victories by Miami and Jacksonville, much of the drama that might have hung over Week 17 has been resolved.  We go into the last week of the season with the playoff teams mostly decided – if not yet seeded.  Here – essentially – is what is still to be decided:

AFC Eastern Division

New England (13-2) has been sitting on top of this conference virtually the entire season – in spite of the fact that All-Everything Quarterback Tom Brady was forced to sit out the season’s first four games.  They are currently the top seed in the conference, but Oakland is only one game behind at 12-3.  Should both teams finish at 13-3, Oakland will get the seed.  In that event, Oakland will be 5-0 against teams that both Oakland and New England have played, while the Patriots will be 4-1 in those games.

Oakland has beaten Baltimore (28-27), Denver twice (30-20 and they will have to beat the Broncos on Sunday to finish at 13-3), Houston (27-20), and Buffalo (38-24).  New England has wins over Houston (27-0), Buffalo (41-25), Baltimore (30-23), and Denver (16-3).  But in Week Four – the last week of Brady’s exile – the Pats were shutout by Buffalo 16-0.  That lonely loss is the only possible lasting impact of the Brady suspension – and for that loss to drop New England into the second seed, Oakland will have to win in Denver without their starting quarterback and Miami will have to beat New England (also without their starting quarterback) on Sunday.

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

The Denver-Oakland game we’ll deal with in a minute.

As for Miami, the Dolphins won a defining game (and punched their playoff ticket) last Sunday when they went into freezing Buffalo and won in overtime with their backup quarterback.  That victory establishes them as one of the wildcard teams (currently the sixth seed).  If they win their last game against the Patriots and Kansas City loses on the road in San Diego, the Dolphins could finish as the fifth seed, pushing KC into the sixth slot.

I don’t know that the difference in seeding is enough for the Dolphins to give maximum effort in their last game.  I do think the fact that they will be playing at home against the hated Patriots is reason enough.  There are other reasons, too.  Matt Moore – the man at the helm in Ryan Tannehill’s absence – needs all of the real-time reps he can get.  Plus, the Dolphins are not so established that they can turn things off and turn them back on.  I don’t think that they think they have the luxury of resting starters.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that they could handle New England’s best game.  I don’t know, though, that they will get New England’s best game.  There is little on the table for the Patriots.  The slide from first to second will only matter if both New England and Oakland win their divisional round matchups – and the Raiders won’t have their starting QB.  I don’t truly expect to see Brady on the field too long – maybe the first half, or maybe just the first drive.  Some other notables (like LeGarrette Blount) may also be done early.  The Patriots may surprise me, but I think that this game is there for the Dolphins to take, if they want it.

AFC North

The 10-5 Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their division title with a gritty victory over the game Baltimore Ravens.  They are locked in as the number three seed.  The AFC South champions in Houston could finish at 10-6 if they win in Tennessee on Sunday, but for Pittsburgh to also finish at 10-6, they would have to lose at home against the one-win Cleveland team.  Even if that happens, Pittsburgh’s strength-of-victory index will be better than Houston’s.

AFC West

Oakland (12-3) leads the division, holds the second seed, and has a chance at the number one seed.  But they haven’t locked up the division, yet.  Kansas City sits right behind them at 11-4, holding the tie breaker by virtue of winning both games against the Raiders this season.  They (KC) finishes the season on the road against a fading but dangerous San Diego team, while the Raiders and backup QB Matt McGloin journey into Denver to play last year’s champions.

The disappointed Broncos will certainly give Oakland its best game, but I legitimately wonder if Denver can take Oakland even if they are playing at home against the Raiders’ backup signal caller.  The Bronco offense has creaked to a halt during the season’s final weeks.  During their current three-game losing streak, Denver has failed to score more than ten points in any of them.  However, the Raiders Achilles Heel even before the loss of Derek Carr was its defense (ranked twenty-eighth overall and allowing 24 points per game).  Denver managed 20 points against them in Oakland earlier this season.  If they can manage that many at home on Sunday, they can put the game in McGloin’s hands – and Denver still has football’s best pass defense.

While Denver is flawed, Oakland – minus its QB – is, I think, more flawed.  I expect to see Oakland lose this game (giving New England the number one seed, regardless).  I’m less clear on what to expect from the Chargers and Chiefs.  While the Chargers are always dangerous, they have mostly found ways to lose games this year while KC has mostly found ways to win games this year.  In the final analysis, I just don’t see Kansas City – with so much at stake – losing it all to a 5-10 team, even if they are a division opponent playing at home.  My best guess at the way this plays out has KC pulling off the division title and the second seed on the last day of the season, sending Oakland to the fifth seed and sending them on the road to open the playoffs in:

AFC South

Houston.  The Texans (now 9-6) have yet to lose a division game all season (they are 5-0 so far).  When 3-12 Jacksonville rose up last Sunday to rend the now 8-7 Tennessee Titans, they dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in the division.  So even though Tennessee could tie Houston at 9-7 with a win at home against them Sunday, the Texans own the tie breaker.  They are locked into the fourth seed and likely to draw the Raiders in the wildcard round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh will most likely match up with Miami.

None of the AFC participants can change.  The only thing Week 17 can alter is the seeding.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) are two games up on their closest competitor (Tampa Bay is 8-7) with one game left.  They are the division champion.  They are currently sitting in the second seed with its corresponding first-round bye.  A final week victory over New Orleans (at home) will clinch that seeding.  New Orleans is 7-8 and kind of a more dangerous version of the Chargers.  The Saints have averaged 29.1 points a game this year (making them the NFL’s second-highest scoring team this year).  They are also number one in yardage and number one in passing yards. Furthermore, this offensive juggernaut will be working against the Falcons’ twenty-third ranked defense (number 26 against the pass) that is allowing 24.9 points a game (the twenty-fifth ranked scoring defense in the NFL).

On the other hand, Atlanta is scoring 33.5 points a game (making them the NFL’s number one scoring offense) and ranks second in yards (behind New Orleans) with the number 3 passing attack and the number 7 running attack.  New Orleans answers with the number 30 scoring defense (allowing 27.7 points a game) and the number 25 defense by yardage allowed (number 30 against the pass).

To put it lightly, America is expecting a shootout.  The Falcons won the first meeting of these teams in New Orleans 45-32.  This is, by no means, a lock – although you have to think that the home-standing Falcons should prevail.

Behind them are the young and inconsistent Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay finishes at home against the dethroned Carolina Panthers.  If Tampa prevails, they will finish at 9-7, putting them (theoretically) in the mix for that final playoff spot.  The loser of the Detroit-Green Bay tilt will also be 9-7.  Washington currently sits at 8-6-1, and could finish at 9-6-1 with a playoff berth if they finish up their season with a win.

So while Atlanta controls its own fate, Tampa Bay decidedly does not.  My strong expectation is that they will lose to the Panthers on Sunday anyway, obviating any tie-breaking scenarios.

NFC East

As the Dallas Cowboys sliced and diced the Detroit Lions last week, they locked up their division title and the first seed.  Their final game in Philadelphia is meaningless, although the statements coming from the Dallas camp suggest that they will keep the pedal down.

Also locked up is the first wildcard spot (the fifth seed).  That belongs to the 10-5 New York Giants.

Behind them are the 8-6-1 Washington Redskins.  They play at home Sunday afternoon with everything to play for against the Giants whose only real motivation could come from knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.  And because of the tie on their record, Washington will either be in or out depending on the result.  At 9-6-1 their record would be better than any of the teams that could be 9-7.  At 8-7-1, they would finish behind any 9-7 teams (and there will be at least one of those).

My expectation here is that Washington will take care of business.  I am not all that impressed with the Giants (although their defense can certainly rise to the occasion), and I don’t expect to see them win this game on the road against a desperate (and pretty good) Washington team.  In the world of most-likely-outcomes, Washington should win and complete the playoff field.

NFC West

At 9-5-1, Seattle will be the only team from this division to finish over .500.  They have already won the title, but lost control of the number two seed with a surprising loss at home against Arizona last week.  Should Atlanta fall to New Orleans, then the second seed will be theirs if they can beat the two-win San Francisco team (in San Francisco).  Seattle would fall to the fourth seed should they lose, as the winner of the Packers-Lions game will be 10-6.  Don’t see that happening.  The Seahawks have been wildly inconsistent at the end of the season, but should still be better than the struggling 49ers.

NFC North

The season ends on Sunday night in Detroit where the 9-6 Lions will square off against the 9-6 Green Bay Packers.  At stake will be the division title in a winner-take-all showdown.

The loser will probably be home for the playoffs – assuming Washington takes care of the Giants.  Should New York rise up and knock Washington out of the playoffs then both these teams will go into the playoffs – the winner as the division champion and possible number two seed, and the loser as the number six seed.

If Detroit wins (and Atlanta and Seattle lose), the Lions and Falcons would both finish at 10-6.  The tie-breaker here would fall to Detroit on record against common opponents.  The Lions would have four wins (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Green Bay) against just one loss (Green Bay).  Atlanta would finish 3-2 against these same opponents, with wins against New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles; and losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans (if they lose that last game).  A Falcons loss to New Orleans could push them down as far as fourth.

If it ends up Green Bay vs Tampa Bay for the last wildcard spot – with both teams at 9-7 – the Packers would get the nod based on strength of victory.

If the Sunday night game tilts the other way, with Green Bay winning the division, they would lose any tie-breaker to Atlanta (by virtue of a 32-33 loss to them in Week Eight).  So the highest the Packers could climb is the third seed (and it would take Seattle losing to San Francisco for that to happen).

If it comes to a tie-breaker between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Detroit would win on record against common opponents.  The Lions would be 3-2 (beating Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago; and losing to Chicago and Dallas).  Tampa Bay would be 2-3 against those same opponents (beating Chicago and New Orleans while losing to Los Angeles, Dallas and New Orleans).

So Tampa Bay isn’t really in the mix, regardless.

Under the most likely scenarios, the NFC seeding should end up Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, NFC North Champion, NY Giants and Washington.

And who wins the NFC North showdown?  Green Bay.  And they’ll be a dangerous team to deal with in the playoffs.

At least that’s how I see it all playing out.