If the playoffs started today, the Bengals would lead the AFC in wins and get a home playoff game. Take a few moments to breathe, loosen your tie, and try and remember that there are 4 divisional games remaining for the Bengals, 2 of which are against the Ravens, and 2 of which are against the Steelers. The Bengals will win none of those games, if not for only the fact that both the Ravens and Steelers playoff chances hinge on divisional wins against the shakiest team in the hardest division of the AFC.
Enough hating on the Bengals….for now.
Let’s look at the playoff picture in its entirety, starting with the NFC. The Falcons notoriously took Julio Jones in the first round and gave up two draft picks. That will come to be one of their best draft moves for the next 5 years. While the Falcons are currently ranked as the 7th best team against the run, that will probably bump up to the 15th by the end of the season. The Falcons defense has two first round picks at defensive line, one at linebacker and one at defensive back.
There is a formula to the Falcons that makes it one of the potentially greatest offenses in the league. They have their big power running back with Turner, their safety valve in Tony Gonzalez, and two of the top 15 receivers in the NFL. Roddy White and Julio Jones will be huge threats in the second half of the year, especially anywhere indoors.
The problem for a defense facing the Falcons in the second half of the year is that they understand how to roll their three headed dye with precision. If you get double coverage on either receiver, check down to Gonzalez, if Gonzalez has double coverage, find one of three on the outside, and if the defense drops 2 deep and man coverage on both receivers, run it up the middle. Packers have more explosive receivers, Bears have a better running back, but no one has a tight end as good as Gonzalez unless you count Hernandez and Gronkowski for the Patriots as one unit.
The only issue I have with the Falcons is the fact that they have only one quality win this year. Philly? No Vick. Colts? No Manning. Detroit? My feelings on Detroit are mixed, and I think they have a few more losses throughout the year as people start to pick up on how to stop Calvin Johnson and confuse a still relatively inexperienced Matthew Stafford.
Moving on. As I described previously, I have mixed feelings on the Lions. They have flash on defensive line and at receiver, but I don’t think they have enough experience to dig themselves out of a hole against a playoff team when the weather gets cold and Matthew Stafford is asked to find guys that aren’t Calvin Johnson. Next year? Sure, Lions easy playoff team. This year, I still can’t see them getting out of the first round of the playoffs, even though they have three first round picks on their defensive line and the 6th ranked pass defense halfway through the season.
The Saints. Next to Green Bay, the Saints have the best offense in the league. In fact, I would call the Saints the Big Brother to the Packers, if only because of experience in the playoffs. Are they a better overall offense? That depends on if you consider the running game as important as the passing game. The Saints easily have the best tandem at running back in the NFC. Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram is the best 1-2 potential, and there is simply no argument against the potential of Mark Ingram as a power running back in the second half of the season if he can stay healthy.
The Giants, despite the strange tendencies of their offense to be able to run the ball, pass the ball, and then not be able to do those things in the same game, still have the best defensive line/linebacking core in the NFC. This despite the fact that Goff and Sintim are on IR for the rest of the season. If they can get a shutdown corner with Prince Amukamara, then the Giants defense will be able to get nearly as insane as the Jets do in terms of blitz variety and amount of guys they can send to rush the passer.
Someone completely out of their mind may assume the 49ers are the second best team in the NFC. That sort of proclamation can easily be countered by looking at the number of quality wins they have. Philly? Didn’t have their team together yet. Lions? A team so up and down you never know what you’re gonna get. They will face the Giants, Ravens and Steelers, and most likely lose 2 out of 3 games there. Those defenses will show everyone that they are at least a 4 loss team.
Where will I give the 49ers credit? For finally utilizing the pieces that should have been walking all over the NFC West for the past 3 years. Mike Singletary was a great player. He was a below average coach and the turnaround by Harbaugh is most likely split credit between the coach and the division.
Look at what they’ve had. Justin Smith is a 2 time Pro Bowler. Patrick Willis is a 4 time Pro Bowler who will be the only linebacker to be mentioned in the same sentence as Ray Lewis. Vernon Davis averages 12.7 a catch and has over 29 receiving touchdowns as a tight end. They had pieces, and the fact that the 49ers took a defensive back in the third round and the sixth round while grabbing another linebacker in the first round makes it clear that Jim Harbaugh is going to have the perfect mix of youth and experience on defense. The fact that they did not take a quarterback in the first round may have been the best decision by the front office in years.
The Green Bay Packers have caught that Patriots bug of luck mixed with insanely efficient quarterback play. Cullen Jenkins? Gone. Nick Barnett? Gone. Nick Collins? Out on injured reserve. They get Jermichael Finley back, resurrect the youth of Donald Driver, and sling it to Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Greg Jennings in no particular order. They’ve got their future linebacker tandem of Hawk and Matthews for another 7 years and the secondary is stacked with young value talent. The only thing more terrifying than this year’s Packers is what next years Packer’s will look like when Randall Cobb finds his role at receiver and their two tight end draft picks (5th and 7th round) start to see more playing time.
By the end of the season, look for the 49ers to win their division easily, sneak in at 11-5, and lose at home to either the Lions or the Saints. The one thing I think can happen is the rematch of Falcons/Packers in the divisional round. If the Giants play the Packers I think they’ll be able to get to Aaron Rodgers, but only for a half. He will exploit the middle of the field and keep the pass defense on their toes. The Packers are much harder to scheme for than the Patriots. There has been a torch passed, whether people are willing to admit it or not.