Debrief: Breaking down NFC playoff picture entering Week 17

And then there were four.

Heading into Week 16, I believed there were five cities with a realistic chance to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV: New Orleans, Green Bay, Tampa, Seattle and Los Angeles. The Rams are no longer in that group after the Seahawks’ NFC West-clinching 20-9 victory over Los Angeles, punctuated by news that Jared Goff could miss the rest of the season with a thumb injury at the same time that their top two running backs are dealing with high ankle sprains. 

This isn’t about Goff’s injury. This is about how Goff and the Rams’ offense were playing for over a month before the injury. Sean McVay’s waning confidence in Goff showed in his play-calling. Over the past three weeks, Goff has averaged 193.3 passing yards per game and 5.7 yards per throw. In an offensive league, it’s difficult to picture the Rams keeping up with the Packers, Saints or Buccaneers in a playoff game even if Goff were to return. McVay’s excellent track record against the Seahawks gave them hope entering Sunday — and the Rams’ defense is arguably the best in football — but it’s hard to coach around a tentative quarterback.

Unless Goff reverses his most disappointing season as a pro or backup quarterback John Wolford turns into Jeff Hostetler, the Rams aren’t winning three road playoff games. That is, if they even make it.

I’m going to split this week’s Debrief into two parts, breaking down the playoff picture in each conference and going through what’s at stake for every team. See the NFC playoff picture below for my take on the teams scrambling for the seven seeds available, and check back for a look at the AFC playoff picture following the Monday Night Football matchup between the Bills and Patriots.

Aaron Rodgers’ last four postseason defeats came on the road. That won’t happen in the 2020 playoffs, provided the Packers can close out their regular season with a win in Chicago next week, which would clinch home-field advantage for them. Lose that game, and Green Bay risks losing its playoff bye. 

I’m grateful that the Packers, Saints and Seahawks all have a chance to take the No. 1 seed, which ensures a better Week 17. The Packers’ 40-14 dismantling of the Titans on Sunday Night Football was a reminder of how comfortable their players are cutting and hitting in snowy conditions. I’d give Rodgers a slight edge over Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race, with the chance to finish strong next week while Mahomes potentially sits for a Chiefs team that has already secured the AFC’s top seed.

The Saints would clinch home-field advantage in the event that they beat the Panthers, the Packers lose to the Bears and the Seahawks win over the 49ers, creating a three-way tie at 12-4. Far crazier things have happened. At worst, the Saints clinch the No. 2 seed with a win, which would guarantee being home in the Divisional Round, if the Saints make it that far.  

There’s also something to be said for the Saints building on the offensive cohesion they showed — especially along their dominant defensive line — against Minnesota on Christmas Day. There are more explosive NFC teams, but the Saints have the most ways they can beat you.

Owning the No. 1 seed — and the bye week that comes with it — is so valuable that it would seem crazy for Pete Carroll to rest his starters when there’s any chance to advance to the top of the playoff hierarchy, even if that chance is slim. Seattle needs to beat the 49ers (very possible!) while the Packers lose to the Bears (eh) and the Saints lose to the Panthers (probably not!).  

While it’s annoying to risk injury, the Seahawks should power through and compete. Their reborn defense has done work against Carson Wentz, Colt McCoy, Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins and Jared Goff, with C.J. Beathard up next. They are getting home with their five-man pressures. 

Sunday’s win, which gave Carroll his first NFC West title since 2016, shouldn’t be taken for granted. I just worry that Carroll thinks scoring 13 points until midway through the fourth quarter, then asking Russell Wilson to convert a bunch of third-and-longs, is the rightful goal of his offense.

4) NFC East champions (TBD): The Washington Football Team (6-9) holds this spot and will host a playoff game if they win on Sunday night against the injury-ravaged Eagles. Yes, it’s possible that Washington fourth-stringer Taylor Heinicke, called up from the practice squad just over a week ago, will have a starring role in the 2020 regular-season finale. But Ron Rivera said Monday he’s optimistic Alex Smith will be able to play, with the team’s release of Dwayne Haskins on Monday — which obviously precludes him from serving in a backup role — further signaling the team’s confidence that Smith will be available.

If Washington falls short, the winner of the game between the Cowboys (6-9) and Giants (5-10) earlier in the day will improbably win the division. No matter which team it is, a team that was once 2-7 or worse will make the playoffs for the first time ever. It’s anyone’s guess as to who that will be, but the Cowboys’ passing game has come alive just as the Giants’ defense has collapsed. Washington’s defense has been the only difference-making unit in the division the entire season, and their offense could get Smith back for a dramatic return. It’s easy to root for Smith and coach Ron Rivera. It also feels somehow fitting that NFL viewers will finish this season bogged down in the worst division in football.

The No. 2 team in the NFC South is set up well for the playoffs, having already secured a berth. If the Bucs beat the Falcons for the second time in three weeks in Week 17, they will clinch the No. 5 seed. That’s crucial, because it means they’ll have a road Wild Card game against the NFC East champions, a game everyone, including me, will expect the Bucs to win. Then Tom Brady — who is making more wow throws each week then he was when winning Super Bowls in 2001 or 2003 — will be back in the Divisional Round, same as it ever was. 

I hit the Rams at length above, so I won’t repeat myself here. The Rams will be the No. 6 seed at worst with a win over the Cardinals on Sunday, possibly setting up another game against the Seahawks. Even if the Rams lose to Arizona, they could still reach the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, as long as the Bears lose to the Packers on Sunday afternoon. If the Rams lose and the Bears win, however, Los Angeles will amazingly miss the playoffs entirely, even after claiming a 9-4 record at one point in the season. They may have the best defense in the entire league and dominated the Cardinals last time out, so don’t assume the collapse will continue, regardless of who’s at quarterback. 

Mitchell Trubisky has probably saved Matt Nagy’s job, helping Chicago win three straight. Beating the Packers on Sunday would put Chicago in the playoffs and potentially earn Trubisky a better contract than anyone believed possible a month ago, maybe even from the Bears. This all feels too cinematic to be real, although a realistic anticlimax in which the Bears lose and the Cardinals lose, earning a playoff spot for the Bears, remains on the table. 

The Cardinals offense you watched on Saturday has been there all year: It’s a narcoleptic unit that can go to sleep for entire halves at a time with no warning. If they can’t make plays after the catch, they usually don’t make plays. 

The Rams’ loss to the Seahawks on Sunday gave the team a reprieve: Kyler Murray is in the playoffs with a win over the potentially Goff-less Rams. They could even climb to the No. 6 seed. As the loss to the Beathard-led 49ers showed, however, facing a backup quarterback does not guarantee a victory. Whether they make it or not, this Cardinals team doesn’t look like a dangerous playoff opponent, despite Murray’s presence. 

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