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Sizing Up the Bucs' Competition: NFC Playoff Contenders

Welp.... through Week 11, some things are becoming clear around the league.  Arizona has the West locked up and second place San Francisco has zero playoff chances at 3-7.  The Giants will win the East, no doubt about that.  The resurgence of Carolina and Atlanta will lead to some great Sunday TV in November and December as they fight to dethrone the Bucs as division champs.  I was wrong about likening Matt Ryan to dead-armed, overhyped first-round QB busts Alex Smith/Joey Harrington/David Carr.  He's a lock for the NFC offensive rookie of the year.  The guy can make every throw in the book and is beginning to mature... and how about that Falcon defense?  In the North, Bears' rookie RB Matt Forte would be the rookie of the year in most any other year and could carry the Bears to the division title.  Assuming the Giants and Cardinals win their respective division, let's take a look at the other playoff candidates duking it out for their respective division titles and with whom the Bucs are fighting for a playoff spot:

NFC EAST

Washington (6-4):  Two home games against the Burgh and Dallas - two eggs laid.  They're just not dynamic enough on offense to keep up with the Giants and Cowboys' counterparts and their defense is not elite.  Where's the pass rush been? 

Why they'll make the playoffs: As Clinton Portis goes, so go the Redskins.  It had to be a pleasant surprise for Wash fans to not only see him playing, but getting 17 touches.  He had some nice runs and finished the game.  The Skins get SEA in Week 12, a very winnable game and a chance for Portis and the Washington offense to gain some confidence and get their groove back for the stretch run.  Their 5-3 NFC record is better than most other contenders, which, if they keep winning, could pay dividends in a wild card tiebreaker scenario.

Why they won't: That stretch run includes games against NYG, @Bal, PHI, and @SF.  If you consider the Redskins as underdogs in the first 2 games, that suddently looks like a pretty tough stretch to get to 10-6, which still might not be enough to capture a wild card spot.  @SF won't be easy, with the Niners looking suddenly (somewhat) resurgent.

Dallas (6-4): Well, they saved their season for a week Sunday night.  The offensive line answered the bell, protecting Romo and his pinkie for him to have a decent game.  Is there a RB you'd rather have more in the 4th qtr than Marion Barber???

Why they'll make the playoffs: Tony Romo.  They're a different team down to a man with him under center.  Everyone played hard and with confidence Sunday.  Terence Newman gives them a shutdown corner on one side and there's a chance Pacman Jones could return as soon as December 7.  The upcoming schedule is also nice... should-be layups against San Francisco and Seattle would get the team to 8-4, with 2 December wins needed to get to 10-6.  They have head-to-head tiebreakers over the Bucs and Packers.

Why they won't: Terrell Owens stepped into the Superman II Kryptonite chamber and became mortal.  He hasn't scored since Oct 5!  Teams have figured out that you can be physical and apply press man coverage with your best cover corner and effectively limit Owens' productivity.  Dallas' defense is streaky and has off games, which was offset last year by the Cowboys explosive offense.  That offense is not quite the same this year.  The December schedule is absolutely brutal.

Philadelphia (5-4-1): McNabb and the Eagles laid an egg last week against the Bengals in Cincy, earning what feels like a loss for them in their 13-13 tie with the Bengals.  That offense just doesn't look right.  Westbrook's had 3 straight ordinary weeksMcNabb has turned the ball over regularly, and the playcalling has been questionable.  Bad time to go into a funk with the Cowboys stopping the bleeding and the Redskins still above them in the standings.

Why they'll make the playoffs: The talent is undoubtedly there to turn it around.  McNabb and Westbrook are dynamic and can keep them in any game.  Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson give them two big play options on each side.  Question is.... can they figure it out and get their rhythm before its too late?

Why they won't: See opening paragraph.  They probably can't afford to lose 6 games and make it. That tie will likely require them to win against Dallas at home or at NYG, maybe even both, to earn a postseason spot.  Not good.  The schedule is brutal: @Bal, ARI, @NYG, upstart Cle, @WAS, DAL.   7-8-1 seems more likely to me.

NFC CENTRAL

Chicago (5-5): Pitiful performance against the Packers.  Are they really that bad?  I don't think so, but they're sinking at the wrong time of the year.  They couldn't run, they couldn't stop the run, they couldn't get in any kind of rhythm in the passing game, and they couldn't get to Aaron Rodgers. Total failure.  They've lost 2 straight heading into a Week 12 matchup with the slumping Rams.

Why they'll make the playoffs: SCHEDULE.  Many teams would drool with these matchups down the stretch: @StL, @MIN, Jax, NO, GB, @Hou.  If Orton can come back and regain his early season form and give the team a boost in the passing game, this team should thrive. Although, Forte's a top candidate for rookie of the year and the offensive line has knocked open some holes for him to run through, teams are gearing up to stop him right now and effectively shutting down the Bears.

Why they won't: Really, this team looks disjointed.  Orton's not healthy.  Grossman stinks.  That run defense is pathetic.  That once proud front 7 buzzsaw has been pushed around.  Vasher and Tillman have been torched.  Bottom line: that defense isn't good enough anymore to just show up and automatically shut down middling teams down the stretch like the Texans and Jaguars.  The offense is going to have to score some points to compensate and I don't think it's gonna happen often enough.

Minnesota (5-5):  They really missed a golden opportunity to grab the division by the horns, as well as get a head to head win over a conference foe that might well be competing for a wild card spot down the line.  We'll see if they can stay in the race with upcoming road trips to Jacksonville and Arizona. 

Why they'll make the playoffs: Crushing line play on both sides of the ball.  They have a fearsome running game and can make good offenses one dimensional in a hurry.  As the old schoolers say: run the ball, stop the run, and you can win games.  Pretty axiomatic in the NFL and the Vikings can do just that against pretty much anyone.  They face off against statistical bottom rung rushing teams in Detroit, Arizona, and Chicago (heh, Chicago!, can you believe that?  Stats don't lie) down teh stretch. 

Why they won't: Gus is becoming Frerotten again.  After a hot start, he threw 3 INTs against GB, 2 INTs at CHI, and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn on Sunday.  Peterson's not going to be able to run for squat if he's facing 8 or 9 guys up in his face because the passing game is non-existent.  That has to change. 

Green Bay (5-5): Rebounded from Disheartening Week 10 loss at Minny to clobber the Bears 37-3 at Lambeau.  They're in a love triangle with the Bears and Vikes for the division lead.

Why they'll make the playoffs: With being two games back of a pack of wild card contenders and losing head to head matchups with wild card contenders Atlanta and Dallas, the Packers' path to the playoffs lies through claiming the division.  Due to the relatively weak division and budget quarterback play (yeah, ok, Frerotte and Orton have been okay this year, but still.....), the Packers and their explosive offense are within striking distance of claiming the division.  They played terribly on defense and nearly pulled out a win in the Metrodome Sunday.  The schedule is manageable with home games against Detroit and Houston and and trips to Jacksonville and New Orleans upcoming.  In the end, I think they'll capture the division, as they are solid in the secondary and explosive on offense.

Why they won't: Um, anyone see that run defense against the Vikings?  That was horrible.  Think they miss Cullen Jenkins and Kabeer Bjama-Giamila?  Justin Harrell must live up to his high draft status and slow down the interior running game.  After Week 10, the Packers ranked a paltry 28th in the league against the run allowing 154.6 ypg.  Even though they limited Matt Forte and the Bears Week 11, that performance has been more the exception than the rule this year.  The Packers' balanced offense won't be too balanced when the team is playing catchup and having to throw most of the time. 

NFC SOUTH

Carolina (8-2): The Panthers survived back to back poor performances from Jake Delhomme against lowly Oakland and Detroit to stay in 1st place in the NFC South.  They face off with division and wild card contender Atlanta this weekend in a key matchup.

Why they'll make the playoffs: Welcome back, Mr. Peppers.  9 sacks on the season and 5 in the last 2 weeks.  What a difference maker.  He and Jared Allen almost certainly will line up in the starting lineup for the NFC in the pro bowl.  Muhsin Muhammad has really impressed so far this year, which has kept teams from rolling coverage towards Steve Smith.  DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are arguably as good as any RB tandem in the league.  Carolina sports an impressive 5-2 record against NFC competition. 

Why they won't: From here out, the schedule gets pretty hairy.  Carolina travels to Green Bay, Atlanta, NYG, and New Orleans and hosts the Bucs and AFC West-leading Denver, which could allow Atlanta or Tampa to cruise past them in the standings if one of them gets hot.  Anyone see Jake Delhomme play on the road this year?  Hide the children.  It's really a Jekyll and Hyde situation.  He's got 8 TDs in 5 home games this year.  He threw 4 INTs and earned me -16.12 pts in fantasy against Oakland.  AGAINST.  OAKLAND.  Unless he gets it together, I cringe at thinking how he'll do against better defenses like the Giants and Packers on the road.   He and Steve Smith aren't on the same page right now. 

Atlanta (6-4): Gah, that was a tough loss to swallow Sunday if you're a Falcons fan. Denver's ok, but theFalcons left some opportunities out on the field on offense.  The defense certainly played well enough to win.  Holding Jay Cutler to less than 2 passing TDs should get you a win by itself. 

Why they'll make the playoffs: Chemistry.  This team, as lost and rudderless as they seemed last year during the Petrino/Vick debacles, has found their czar in Mike Smith and their star player and leader in Matt Ryan.  He's brought a locker room that was divided by Vick's departure back together through his leadership, maturity, and incredible play.  I'll admit it... I saw him as the next Alex Smith/David Carr bust.  He looks like the real deal capable of carrying this club on his back to the playoffs.  Michael Turner has proven he's one of the Top 10 backs in the league.  Roddy White is just awesome.  They have head to head wins against playoff hopefuls Chicago and Green Bay.

Why they won't:Trips to Minny, SD, and NO loom large.  The Falcons will be facing some dynamic offenses and they're in the bottom half of the league in rushing yards allowed.  I'm not sure the duo of Chris Houston and Brent Grimes are good enough against quality competition to offset an off night from the offense.

New Orleans (5-5): Worth discussing I suppose, but a 2-4 Conference and 1-2 Division record will make things very rocky on their comeback trail.

Why they'll make the playoffs: Well, they still get the chance to improve those horrid conference/division records against division foes Atlanta and Carolina at home.  Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, and Deuce McCallister appear to all be back together on an offense that should begin to start improving.  They've got road games at offensively-challenged Detroit and Chicago.  They could be in line for a winning streak if their defense can find a pulse.

Why they won't:  They have to pass probably both Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the division to secure a wild card spot.   Clearly, with a 2-4 conference record, they are playing major catchup against all wild card challengers.  Their secondary is awful and will be tested against Atlanta, Green Bay, and Carolina. They come to Tampa, which has been their recent house of horrors.  Will Smith, Deuce McCallister are facing possible 4 game suspensions for alleged league substance violations.  They probably can't afford to lose more than one game and stay in the hunt.