Is the NFC playoff race setting up for the Green Bay Packers to go to the Super Bowl?
It sure seems that way. Just take a look at the weakened field of contenders.
Arizona leads the race to land the conference's top seed but has to finish the season with backup quarterback Drew Stanton after Carson Palmer was lost to a torn ACL. And the Philadelphia Eagles will go with backup Mark Sanchez until Nick Foles recovers from a broken collarbone. The Dallas Cowboys get their bye at an opportune time, but their playoff success primarily hinges on the health of Tony Romo, who has a bad back, and DeMarco Murray, who is on pace to break the NFL record for carries in a season. The New Orleans Saints, favorites to win the NFC South, would likely have to win two playoff road games to go to the Super Bowl, and road games have been the team's Achilles' heel.
And, yes, Detroit has a one-game edge in the NFC North, but the Packers could pull ahead with a Week 17 contest at Lambeau still on the docket. All that has significantly altered the NFC landscape from a few weeks ago.
Even if the Packers don't win the division, they have the talent and ability to go into any of those cities and win a road playoff game, if necessary. The same can be said of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. All three have significant playoff experience and can win on the road.
Sunday's game against the Eagles looms large for the Packers. If they win, the Packers would have a potential tiebreaker against Philly in playoff seeding. If both win their divisions, the tiebreaker could be the difference between being a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed and dodging an extra game in the wild-card round.
The worst-case scenario for NFC playoff teams would be giving the Packers home-field advantage at a time when Aaron Rodgers is playing his best football.
Here are the trends heading into Week 11.
1. Can Mark Sanchez keep Philly's offense rolling? The amazing part of Chip Kelly's offense is how he can roll out different quarterbacks without experiencing much of a drop-off. Michael Vick averaged 26.6 points a game in his six starts last season. This season, Nick Foles put up 26.4 in his seven games prior to his injury. And in his first start in Philly, Sanchez racked up 332 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 45-21 victory over Carolina on Monday night. Sanchez has a much different style than Foles; he throws quicker, shorter passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez's release is 2.44 seconds compared to Foles' 2.73, and his air yards per throw is 7.9 to Foles' 9.3.
Week 11's contest against Green Bay will provide a better assessment of Sanchez's ability to win a playoff-caliber game as the Eagles' QB. Even if Sanchez plays well, the Eagles may be forced to concede one part of this season's winning formula. Philadelphia has a streak of 21 games in which it has forced a turnover, ultimately turning nine into touchdowns this season. In Lambeau, however, the Packers simply don't turn the ball over. Rodgers has not thrown a home interception since Week 13 of 2012.
2. Andrew Luck finally faces Pats in Indy: Luck has battled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots twice, succumbing to defeat both times in games at Foxborough. In those two previous matchups, Luck has completed only 51.6 percent of his passes and thrown seven picks. This time around, Luck will have the home crowd behind him, which could help in facing the Patriots' revamped secondary. New England has significantly improved its cornerback play with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Revis has given up 24 completions all year, while Browner has been targeted a measly 12 times with only five passes completed. As a duo, the Patriots' new additions have yielded 424 yards. What will be fascinating about this game is which quarterback controls the pace. Luck runs 74 plays a game; Brady 68.7.
Regardless of the outcome, neither team has to worry much about losing its division. The Patriots entered the week with a two-game lead in the AFC East, while the Colts enjoy a two-game edge in the AFC South. Postseason seeding will be a significant part of this game, and if the Colts have any hopes of making Brady & Co. book a return trip to Indy, they'll have to win this one.
3. "Next man up" mantra sweeps NFC West: Normally, there is a five- to seven-point drop-off when a team goes from a playoff-caliber quarterback to a backup. If that's the case, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will have his hands full trying to maintain the NFC's No. 1 seed. Arizona averaged 24 points per game under Palmer's direction before he blew out his ACL last week. Though his replacement, Stanton, averaged a little more than 22 points in his three 2014 starts, his career number sits at 17.7. Here's the problem: The Cardinals' defense is great and allows only 18.9 points a game. But if Stanton puts up only 17-20 points, each game will be a challenge.
Arizona isn't the only division team relying on backups at key positions the rest of the way. The Seahawks lost tight end Zach Miller and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane for the season, while the third-place 49ers placed linebacker Patrick Willis on injured reserve with a toe injury.
4. Better to be safe than sorry: As much as Chiefs coach Andy Reid would love to run a rhythm passing offense, he doesn't have the receivers to succeed with that style of play. As a result, Kansas City's receivers have a league-low 77 receptions for 899 yards and zero touchdowns. The Chiefs have gone 6-3 mimicking the Seahawks' model of playing great defense, running the football and protecting the ball (eight turnovers in nine games). Making it work is Alex Smith, whose 5.6 air yards per throw are the lowest in the NFL over the past five years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The key for the Chiefs in Week 11 is stopping Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. The Chiefs haven't allowed a rushing touchdown this year but are giving up 115.6 yards a game and 4.7 yards a carry.
5. Any hope for the bottom feeders? The NFL has 11 cellar-dweller types sitting at 3-6 or worse, and their losses continue to pile up at an alarming rate. If the losing trends continue for these hapless teams, it could raise the minimum number of wins needed to make the playoffs to 10 or 11 victories. Last week, the only teams at the bottom of the standings to earn wins were the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons. And it doesn't get much easier for several in Week 11. The St. Louis Rams, who switched QBs again, going back to Shaun Hill from the ineffective Austin Davis, welcome Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos to town; the winless Oakland Raiders face San Diego (5-4); the New York Giants host a resurgent 49ers club; and Tennessee has a stiff Monday night test in Pittsburgh.