Nine contenders for six spots: Sorting through wild NFC playoff field

Saints had a 'perfect day' in Buffalo (1:16)

Jeff Saturday says that Drew Brees knows how to win and he showed his veteran strength Sunday in Buffalo, winning in the cold and keeping the defense on the sideline for as long as possible. (1:16)

As we pass the season's halfway point, the AFC looks like a top-heavy conference that is likely to produce some truly dreadful wild-card teams. One team out of a group led by the Ravens, Bills and Raiders is going to make the postseason and quite possibly end up facing Blake Bortles in the first round of the playoffs. Get your think pieces ready.

It's a shame that the NFC can't lend its fellow conference a playoff team, because it's going to leave a worthwhile contender at home. On last week's episode of my podcast, Will Brinson of CBS pointed out that there were essentially six good teams in the NFC competing for five playoff spots, leaving out the Vikings and their comfortable lead atop the NFC North as an essential lock.

I think you can even go a step further, in part because many of those teams or organizations on the fringes of contention won this past week. There are nine teams realistically competing for six playoff spots in the NFC. While there are four AFC teams that the Football Power Index assigns at least a 97 percent shot of making the playoffs, the Eagles are the only team in those rarefied heights in the NFC. It's wide open. Let's run through the contenders and try to make sense of the clouded playoff picture:

The outsiders

Dallas Cowboys (5-4)

Chances of making the playoffs: 24.9 percent

Dallas' loss to Atlanta suddenly pushes the Cowboys out of the immediate playoff picture -- they were at 49.8 percent heading into Sunday. For all the talk about how different the offense would be without Ezekiel Elliott, losing left tackle Tyron Smith was a much bigger concern. Dak Prescott was sacked eight times on 38 dropbacks and pressured 40.5 percent of the time, his second-highest rate of the season. Unsurprisingly, the 21.0 percent sack rate Prescott endured was the worst of his brief pro career.

In the endless and already annoying debate about whether Prescott is better or worse than Carson Wentz, some will hold up Prescott's performance in the absence of Smith and Elliott as proof that Wentz is better. It seems silly to say, given that Wentz has spent most of his career with one of the NFL's most expensive offensive lines and has a receiving corps with two free-agent wideouts, a first-round pick as a slot receiver, and one of the league's best and highest-paid tight ends, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that Prescott declined without his star left tackle. The same was true when Wentz spent most of his rookie season without Lane Johnson, who might be the best right tackle in football. Both Prescott and Wentz are great.

Even if Smith does return to the lineup shortly, the defense has to worry Jerry Jones & Co. for yet another competitive season. Outside of the occasional interior rush from David Irving or Tyrone Crawford, there are too many series in which the pass rush seems to come down to DeMarcus Lawrence or bust. While there are worse strategies, given that Lawrence currently leads the league in sacks, it's going to create problems when Lawrence doesn't take over games. They barely bothered Matt Ryan on Sunday, pressuring him on just 23.3 percent of dropbacks, the fifth-lowest rate in the league.

Linebacker is also becoming a concern for Rod Marinelli's defense. Sean Lee is unsurprisingly struggling with injuries, with a reoccurrence of a hamstring injury knocking him out of Sunday's loss. The Cowboys haven't been the same defense with Lee off the field this season; former Notre Dame star Jaylon Smith has been an inspiring story in returning from a serious knee injury, but teams have taken advantage of him in the passing game. The Cowboys have allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 85.6 with Lee on the field, which has risen all the way to 107.8 with Lee sidelined.

Even worse, opposing offenses have averaged 3.5 yards per carry with Lee at linebacker and more than 5.5 yards per attempt with Lee on the bench. The Cowboys are a top-heavy team built around a handful of (mostly) highly paid stars, and when those players aren't available, they don't have the depth to adapt. Elliott, Smith and Lee each made the All-Pro team last year while combining to miss a total of two games due to injury before all sitting out a meaningless game against the Eagles in Week 17. Next week, the most meaningful -- and important -- game of Dallas' season will come against a much-improved Philadelphia team on Sunday night.

Atlanta Falcons (5-4)

Chances of making the playoffs: 25.8 percent

The Falcons probably saved their season by beating the Cowboys, given that their playoff odds would have dipped below 10 percent with a home loss. Even more than the numbers might indicate, though, Dan Quinn's team showed its potential not just by winning but by how it won.

Namely, its defense finally showed up to play. On SportsCenter with SVP on Thursday, I mentioned that the hand-wringing over the Falcons' offense and its decline under Steve Sarkisian had been overstated. Heading into Week 10, Matt Ryan & Co. were second in the league in yards per possession and eighth in points per possession.

Instead, Atlanta's defense hadn't put the offense in many favorable situations. The Falcons' offense faced the league's worst average starting field position, beginning its drives more than 76 yards away from the opposing end zone. The first-place Rams, for context, started their average drive nearly 10 yards closer to pay dirt. The defense's inability to get off the field or create big plays also had held the Falcons to a league-low 79 meaningful possessions through 10 weeks.

The Falcons' defense struggled during the regular season a year ago before taking a big leap by virtue of increased pass pressure during the postseason. The leap didn't take -- Atlanta was 26th in defensive DVOA last season and 29th after losing to the Panthers last week, but on Sunday, it finally looked like the defense that stomped all over the Seahawks and Packers in the NFC playoffs and gave the Patriots fits for most of the Super Bowl.

It was a one-man show from Adrian Clayborn, who might have earned Tyron Smith a contract extension. Clayborn racked up a staggering six sacks on Sunday, five of which came past backup Cowboys left tackle Chaz Green, who was filling in for Smith. For context, Smith had allowed a total of four sacks since the beginning of the 2016 campaign.

Two of those sacks forced Dak Prescott fumbles, creating key turnovers for a Falcons team starved of takeaways. Atlanta had just six takeaways heading into the Cowboys game, or as many as it produced during that postseason run a year ago. The takeaways came at the end of each half, so the Falcons didn't really have an opportunity or reason to turn them into points, but the short fields created by takeaways are the easiest way to fix a broken offense.

The offense instead showed its appreciation by doing work in the red zone. A unit that ranked 23rd in points per red zone trip heading into the game scored three touchdowns and a field goal on its four trips inside the 20, even after losing Devonta Freeman to a concussion on the offense's second snap. Ryan still left a completion here or there on the field, but when the defense held up its end of the bargain, the offense did more than enough to earn what could be a crucial win in terms of wild-card tiebreakers.

Atlanta's schedule is still pretty difficult, but with five of its six division games still to come, the Falcons could quickly rise up the NFC South ranks if they get hot. No team wants to travel to Seattle, but the Falcons might be catching the Seahawks at the right time with Richard Sherman out for the season, Earl Thomas still nursing a hamstring injury and Duane Brown recovering from an ankle injury. Clayborn just racked up five sacks against a backup left tackle, and Green is a better player than Seahawks backup Matt Tobin.

The Falcons have a three-game homestand after their trip to Seattle, but two of those games are against the Vikings and Saints, who are among the best teams in football. It's not realistic to expect Clayborn to look like J.J. Watt after eating an invincibility star for the rest of the season, but if the defense starts looking like the unit from its playoff run of last season, the Falcons are still within shouting distance of mattering in the NFC.

Detroit Lions (5-4)

Chances of making the playoffs: 32.5 percent

The Lions were a bad team last season -- worse than the Bears and Jaguars, by DVOA -- who sneaked into the playoffs by virtue of Matthew Stafford setting a league record for fourth-quarter comeback victories.

The Lions are a good team this season who might be kept out of the playoffs because they haven't been lucky late in games. The same Lions team that went 8-5 in one-score games a year ago is 1-3 in those same contests this season, coming within a half-yard of beating the Falcons and a goal-line stand of beating the Steelers.

While the 2016 Lions seemed to be unstoppable in the fourth quarter, this team is inconsistent but relentless. You don't necessarily know when they're going to turn things on, and they can get in their own way at times, but look at what the Lions did against the lowly Browns on Sunday. Detroit handed Cleveland a 10-0 lead after an ugly Stafford interception in the first quarter and struggled to stop the Browns on offense until knocking DeShone Kizer out of the game, but the Lions started making steady gains on offense and made a big play on defense.

The biggest difference between the 2016 Lions and the 2017 Lions is that sudden ability to generate takeaways on defense. A unit that forced just 14 takeaways all season in 2016 already has 18 with seven games to go. It has now taken four of those turnovers to the house after Nevin Lawson stripped Seth DeValve of the ball and returned it for a 44-yard score on Sunday. Throw in the goal-line stand that saved Detroit from a minimum of three points after Kizer bizarrely checked to a quarterback sneak with no timeouts left at the end of the first half, and it's easy to imagine how this game might have gone differently for Detroit.

The Lions still have a meaningful chance of winning their division, as FPI gives them a 15.7 percent shot at claiming the North. They hold the tiebreaker over Minnesota after beating the Vikings 14-7 on Oct. 1 and get them at home on Thanksgiving, Detroit's only game remaining against a team that currently has a winning record until Week 17 against the Packers. If the Lions can stay healthy -- which they mostly have outside of the injury to Taylor Decker, who made his season debut against the Browns -- and continue to force turnovers, they could benefit from any sort of Vikings slide.

The mixer

Carolina Panthers (6-3)

Chances of making the playoffs: 54.4 percent

Ron Rivera's team is a comfortable favorite to dispatch the Dolphins at home on Monday night, which would push the Panthers to 7-3 and leave them well-positioned to at least claim a wild-card berth. They will face the Jets after their Week 11 bye and still have home games against the Packers (who could theoretically have Aaron Rodgers back) and Buccaneers to come. FPI projects them at almost exactly 10-6, and they should be safe if they make it there.

There is a scenario in which Carolina doesn't make the postseason, though, and it involves its two crucial road games to come. The Panthers have to play at both the Saints and Falcons, and those games could be important in a three-way race to what might be only two playoff spots. Even if the Panthers finish 10-6, The New York Times simulator notes that losses to the Falcons, Saints and Vikings would leave Carolina's playoff odds right around 60 percent.

Carolina needs to win at least one of those NFC South road games, and it had better be the game in New Orleans if it wants to win the division. The Saints launched their revenge tour after an 0-2 start by stomping the Panthers in Carolina, and if the Panthers lose again on Dec. 3, they might very well be a game behind with four to go and no hope of claiming a tiebreaker over the Saints. The Panthers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Falcons, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the tiebreakers conspired to turn their Week 17 rematch in Atlanta into a would-be play-in game.

Seattle Seahawks (6-3)

Chances of making the playoffs: 72.9 percent

FPI has a rosier view on the Seahawks than it should by virtue of injuries. Seattle's victory over Arizona on Thursday night was a disaster, given that the Seahawks ended the game with Richard Sherman out for the year after rupturing his Achilles. The newly acquired Duane Brown left with an ankle injury, while star safety Earl Thomas sat out with a hamstring injury. The Seahawks basically turned into a different team after Thomas broke his leg last season, and it's fair to wonder if the same thing will happen now that Sherman, a future Hall of Fame cornerback, is done for the season.

As long as Thomas is healthy, I think the Seahawks should be able to get by on defense, even if they're not as productive as they would be with a healthy Sherman in the lineup. Shaq Griffin has been impressive, and if they make the obvious move to sign Byron Maxwell, Pete Carroll has done enough magic with cornerbacks to make me think he can get by with Maxwell and Jeremy Lane at the other corner spot. Sherman is an incredible cornerback, but Thomas is the once-in-a-generation safety who makes the entire Seattle scheme work.

At the same time, though, this is a Seahawks team that will have to play differently from the way it has at its best and how it would have imagined heading into the season. The relationship between a team's pass rush and its pass coverage is symbiotic, but you might wonder whether the Seahawks will have to rely more on their rush without Sherman. That won't be easy with Cliff Avril already on injured reserve. The Seahawks are getting pressure on just 24.3 percent of dropbacks this year, which is 26th in the league. Seattle was second in the league from 2013 to 2016, pressuring opposing passers 30.6 percent of the time.

Seattle's offense also seems fundamentally flawed given how its offseason plans have failed. Luke Joeckel and Eddie Lacy did not pan out before getting hurt, with offensive line coach Tom Cable's vaunted eye for run-blocking offensive linemen continuing to look in desperate need of an exam. The Seahawks' running game is nonexistent outside of Russell Wilson's heroics. Seattle's running backs are 29th in yards per carry (3.2), 30th in first-down percentage (14.6 percent), and tied for 30th in rushing touchdowns (one). Increasingly, this is a team that depends entirely on Wilson to carry the load and make one or two magical plays per game. Seattle's margin of error in winning that way is extremely slim and requires the defense to play at a high level.

The schedule won't do them any favors, either. After hosting the Falcons and traveling to play the 49ers, the Seahawks face one of the toughest four-game stretches any team in the league will play this season. Seattle will travel to play the Jaguars and Cowboys while hosting the Eagles and Rams. That Week 15 Rams tilt could very well decide the NFC West, and while it takes place in the Pacific Northwest, it's hard to argue that the Seahawks were the better team the first time those two squared off. The Seahawks have turned things on during second halves of past years, but it feels like they're already running on fumes with two months left.

The division favorites

Los Angeles Rams (7-2)

Chances of making the playoffs: 85.2 percent

You might not want to give the Rams too much credit for mopping the floor with the Cardinals, Giants and Texans over the past four weeks, but history tells us that blowing out bad teams can be a better indicator of future success than squeaking out wins over good teams. Throw in the Colts and 49ers and the Rams have gone 5-0 against the dregs of the league while outscoring their opposition by more than 26 points per game.

I'd argue that the Rams already proved they were real by beating the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 4, but if you're looking to see how the Rams might fare against playoff competition, you'll get your chance over the rest of the season. Los Angeles gets to travel to Arizona and has a home game against the 49ers to finish the season, but its other five games are against stiff competition. Sean McVay's team will host the Eagles and Saints and leave California to face the Seahawks, Titans and Vikings, with its trip to Minnesota coming this week. Each of those five teams have a 70-plus percent chance of making the postseason.

We should be past the point of wondering whether the Rams are for real. Their offense isn't going anywhere, even against tougher competition. The only concern should be injuries, and while Jared Goff is still being pressured at a rate well above league average (29.3 percent), he has been sacked on only 4.3 percent of his dropbacks, which is sixth best in the league. The Rams also could get the ball out quicker to ease some of the stress on Goff, given that he's averaging 2.7 seconds before throwing the ball, which is the sixth-longest wait in the league.

McVay has done a good job of taking some of the stress off Todd Gurley in these recent blowouts. While Gurley had 26 touches in the pre-bye 33-0 shutout of the Cardinals, the Rams gave Gurley just 18 touches in the win over the Giants and 17 touches during Sunday's victory against the Texans. Fantasy owners won't be thrilled with the throttling down, but the Rams will need bigger doses of Gurley in the month to come.

The Rams are in great playoff shape, but that rematch against the Seahawks looms large in their race for the NFC West. The Times' model gives the Rams a 78 percent chance of making the postseason and a 52 percent chance of winning the division. If they beat Seattle at home, the Rams' chances of winning the division soar to 83 percent, but their shot at the West falls to 41 percent if they can't overcome the league's best home-field advantage.

Minnesota Vikings (7-2)

Chances of making the playoffs: 89 percent

What if Case Keenum is the best quarterback on Minnesota's roster? The third-string quarterback from the perfect 53-man roster threw two ugly second-half interceptions to help make the Vikings' 38-30 win over Washington look like more of a contest, but he also went 21-of-27 for 304 yards and four touchdowns on his other pass attempts. His big plays were inch-perfect throws 40 yards downfield to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Keenum picked on Josh Norman, the highest-paid cornerback in the league.

Keenum is 14th in passer rating, but Total QBR pegs him as the third-best quarterback in football on a rate basis, behind just Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott while ranking just ahead of Carson Wentz and Tom Brady. I wouldn't use that as evidence that Keenum is actually better than the two favorites in the MVP race, but it is evidence of how Keenum's skill set is underappreciated by traditional metrics. He never takes sacks -- he has gone down on just 1.8 percent of his dropbacks despite playing behind the same offensive line that witnessed Sam Bradford take sacks 10.4 percent of the time.

That's a limited sample, but Keenum has regularly posted lower sack rates than the other quarterbacks on his teams when both have seen action. The Houston product also hasn't fumbled once this season. When you never fumble and average less than one sack and one interception per game, you're going to have a very high floor for success. On days in which Keenum is cooking downfield, as was the case Sunday, he can look like a franchise quarterback. The Bridgewater question still looms for the Vikings, although it would probably be just as reasonable to rephrase it as the happy problem of having two quarterbacks who can help Minnesota win games.

I'd be more concerned about Everson Griffen, who missed Sunday's win with a foot injury and saw the pass rush slow down in his absence. The Vikings had just one sack and five knockdowns Sunday, with the sack coming on Kirk Cousins' 46th and final dropback of the game. Minnesota still got steady pressure, and Griffen's injury doesn't appear to be serious, but the Vikings might struggle to be as effective with Danielle Hunter and Tom Johnson as the primary rushers.

The Vikings are in the middle of an NFC contender battle royal and might have thrown Washington out of the ring by winning at FedEx Field on Sunday, given that Jay Gruden's team now has just a 4.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Minnesota gets the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers over the next month, with three of those four games on the road. Beating the Lions on Thanksgiving would all but lock up the North.

New Orleans Saints (7-2)

Chances of making the playoffs: 94.8 percent

One of the strange ironies of this bizarre 2017 season is that the Saints look like one of the best teams in the league in a year in which Drew Brees is shouldering less of the workload than ever before. New Orleans scored 47 points during Sunday's blowout win in Buffalo, and Brees threw for just 184 yards without any passing touchdowns, instead chipping in with an almost sheepish scramble for a score. In each of the Saints' two 40-plus point outbursts against the Bills and Lions, Brees has failed to make it to 200 yards passing.

The Saints have certainly been more balanced, and while some of that is by virtue of running to eat up the clock while ahead in the fourth quarter, New Orleans has also genuinely run the ball more frequently in closer situations. My favorite measure of what a team wants to do on offense is looking at its run-pass choices on first-and-10 while the game is within 14 points. Over the previous three seasons, the Saints ran the ball 46.4 percent of the time on those first-and-10 plays, which was 30th in the league in run percentage. This year, though, the Saints are at 54.8 percent, which is 13th. Their first-half run percentage is up from 36.8 percent to 42.8 percent. It's not solely the six-minute drill.

When Brees does throw, the Saints are making it as easy as possible. The future Hall of Famer is being pressured on just 16.2 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest rate of his career. On Sunday, the Bills bothered him only 11.5 percent of the time, with Brees routinely having time to cycle through his reads and scramble before finding an open receiver.

The Saints' receivers also are bearing a heavier portion of the New Orleans passing workload than ever before. With Brandin Cooks traded and Willie Snead anonymous, the Saints have redirected targets to Alvin Kamara and used Ted Ginn on shorter routes than the burner would typically see. The result has been shorter throws and more yards after catch. Before 2017, Brees' typical pass traveled about 2.7 yards more in the air than it did once the receiver caught it, which is reasonably common. This season, though, his receivers are averaging more yards per catch than he is generating through the air:

No other quarterback is getting more YAC than air yards per pass, and the closest passer is Cousins, who is nearly seven-tenths of a yard ahead of his yards after catch.

In light of their stunning new defense and success running the ball, it seems tempting to suggest that this is a version of the Saints that is more likely to win in January. I'm not sure that's true, given that we're coming off a postseason in which the pass-happy, defense-light Falcons and Patriots competed in the Super Bowl.

I would instead argue that this is the most complete Saints team since the 13-3 Saints of 2011, who fell in an instant classic to the 49ers in Candlestick Park. They could still slip -- New Orleans still has home-and-home matchups with the Falcons after hosting the Panthers in Week 13 -- but the Saints have a much better shot of coming away with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (23.4 percent) than they do of missing the postseason altogether (5.2 percent).

The best team in football

Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)

Chances of making the playoffs: 98.3 percent

While the Eagles might have preferred to see their competition for the top seed in the NFC lose this weekend, they'll have to settle for the nod of best team in football, given that the Steelers nearly laid an egg before squeaking out a victory against the Colts. I suspect the Eagles might already have been most observers' pick for that title already, but with the Steelers scuffling against an organization with nothing to play for beyond pride, Doug Pederson and his team managed to further themselves from the rest of the league solely by sitting out and resting.

The schedule skews tough for the Eagles through mid-December. Four of their next five games are on the road, including Sunday's critical matchup against the Cowboys in Dallas. The Eagles also face the Seahawks, Rams and Giants on the road, mixing in a game against the Bears at home. They finish with home matchups against the Raiders and Cowboys, although there's a reasonable chance Philly might lock up the No. 1 seed before facing Dallas again in Week 17.

At this point, the Eagles' priorities will mostly revolve around keeping their talent healthy for a postseason run while identifying and fixing the few weak spots in their lineup. Halapoulivaati Vaitai seems like a possible problem as he fills in for the injured Jason Peters at left tackle, and it will be interesting to see how Pederson chooses to give him help while still leaving Wentz with as many options as possible in the passing game.

There's the least to say about Philadelphia, in part because both it and Wentz have been so heavily featured so far this season. The one thing worth noting is that the Eagles were secretly already good heading into the year. Philadelphia ranked fifth in DVOA last season despite a 7-9 record, thanks to some bad luck in close games.

While the Eagles have certainly improved this season, it's not by quite as much as their win total indicates. Philly has improved by 14 percentage points of DVOA, but it has gone only from fifth to third in DVOA. The Eagles are 3-1 in one-score games after going 1-6 a year ago. If this sounds like a negative, it's not. I'm not suggesting that the Eagles' rise is being oversold; instead, I'm saying that the bandwagon should have been full a while ago, and that the Eagles having been playing about this well since Pederson took over last season. That length of consistency makes it more likely Philadelphia will keep this up the rest of the way.