Sunday, January 16, 2022

Ranking NFC teams in a battle for the wild-card spots: Panthers, Saints both sliding after strong starts

The 2021 playoff picture is starting to take shape with 12 weeks of NFL games in the books. And the NFC, in particular, is set to play host to a circus of a wild-card race, with nearly a dozen teams potentially fighting over three postseason berths. With Week 13 approaching, which teams look the most formidable in the race? We’re taking stock of the entire pool of them.

Find current NFC division leaders below, as well as our rankings of the current wild card contenders:

Current NFC division leaders

These can obviously change from now until the end of the season, but at the moment, they’re locked in:

  1. Cardinals (9-2)
  2. Packers (9-3)
  3. Buccaneers (8-3)
  4. Cowboys (7-4)

NFC wild card contenders, ranked

This is how we’d sort the obvious candidates, but keep in mind only three of these can actually make the playoffs:

1. Rams (7-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Jaguars, at Cardinals, vs. Seahawks, at Vikings, at Ravens, vs. 49ers  

It’s officially OK to be concerned about them, particularly under center, where Matthew Stafford has now repeatedly reminded everyone of the shortcomings that plagued him in Detroit. But the talent is still too apparent here to write them off. These are the Wild Card candidates, remember, not contenders for the No. 1 seed. And Sean McVay’s squad can still be a tough out come January.

2. 49ers (6-5)

Remaining schedule: at Seahawks, at Bengals, vs. Falcons, at Titans, vs. Texans, at Rams  

Left for dead after their four-game slide before Halloween, they’ve quickly turned things around thanks to Kyle Shanahan leaning more on the creative ground game and less on Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm. Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner going down may limit their ceiling over the next few weeks, but Jimmy G has at least been here before. They feel pretty darn scrappy right now.

3. Vikings (5-6)

Remaining schedule: at Lions, vs. Steelers, at Bears, vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears  

Yes, Mike Zimmer’s defense still has issues, and now Dalvin Cook is reportedly sidelined for at least two games. But they’re gonna be in the mix as long as Kirk Cousins keeps throwing to Justin Jefferson. Seriously. Their offense, when healthy, is way more explosive than you think. That alone should keep them feisty all the way to the finish line.

4. Washington (5-6)

Remaining schedule: at Raiders, vs. Cowboys, at Eagles, at Cowboys, vs. Eagles, at Giants  

Taylor Heinicke outplayed Russell Wilson in prime time to cap Week 12, and just as importantly, Ron Rivera’s defense came up big most of the night. It should tell you something, though, that Washington dominated “Monday Night Football” and still — on multiple occasions — came oh so close to losing control of the game in crunch time.

5. Eagles (5-7)

Remaining schedule: at Jets, BYE WEEK, vs. WFT, vs. Giants, at WFT, vs. Cowboys  

Jalen Hurts folded in real time while trying to showcase his arm against the Giants, with assists from Jalen Reagor and a coaching staff that waited too long to lean on the run. But if they just stick to what works, they can still manage a relatively cakewalk schedule. Hurts may or may not be the long-term QB1, but he’s proven he can win games if the ground game is prioritized.

6. Saints (5-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Cowboys, at Jets, at Buccaneers, vs. Dolphins, vs. Panthers, at Falcons

Now that Taysom Hill appears to be taking over under center, they have a legitimate shot at being competitive again. It helps, of course, that Alvin Kamara and Ryan Ramczyk are also returning to the field. They looked dead in the water on Thanksgiving against the Bills, but the minute you write Sean Payton off, the minute he steals the spotlight.

7. Falcons (5-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Buccaneers, at Panthers, at 49ers, vs. Lions, at Bills, vs. Saints

Cordarrelle Patterson for MVP, anyone? We’re not buying into them making a run, but they sure have played spoiler a few times.

8. Panthers (5-7)

Remaining schedule: BYE WEEK, vs. Falcons, at Bills, vs. Buccaneers, at Saints, at Buccaneers

So, it turns out, when you utilize Cam Newton as much more than a designed runner these days, things aren’t always peachy. Their defense still has the pieces to make noise, but they need to be a ground-based team, and now Christian McCaffrey is done.

Not quite good enough

These teams aren’t technically out of the mix, but they have an awfully uphill climb to the postseason picture:

  • Giants (4-7): Good for them hanging on against the Eagles, but they tried pretty hard to surrender the “W.”
  • Bears (4-7): Don’t count on Matt Nagy and this roster righting the ship when they’re not playing the Lions.
  • Seahawks (3-8): Too little, too late from Russell Wilson, who’s clearly hindered either mentally or physically.

Dead

Just what it says. These guys are already looking ahead to 2022:

  • Lions (0-10-1): Dan Campbell, at least your team is consistent.

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