As long as Chip Kelly is around, the Philadelphia Eagles will be defined by offense. When Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy came out playing at warp speed on Monday Night Football in Week 1, we were in. There was a lull in the middle of the season, but with the arrival of Nick Foles and the Eagles’ four-game winning streak, Philly is back to third in offensive DVOA. This team can score, and that’s the reason the Eagles are sitting at 7-5 and are currently the favorites to win the NFC East.
Quietly aiding that run to the playoffs, though, is what Philadelphia is doing on defense. A third of the way into the season, the Eagles were among the worst defensive teams in the league. Those first six games included a 52-point performance by the Broncos (no shame in that), 33 from San Diego, and 26 by Kansas City. Even the Week 1 fireworks display was followed by a bundle of second-half points from Robert Griffin’s offense. After surrendering 20 points to the winless Bucs in Week 6, the Eagles were 30th in defensive DVOA. Today, they rank 25th, but by Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which gives more value to recent performances, that ranking jumps to 21st. The point is the Eagles are getting better, and that may go a long way in turning a happy-to-be-here trip to the playoffs into one involving a win or two.
With Monday night’s shellacking in the books, we now have a rough sketch of the NFC playoff picture. The Seahawks need something biblical to derail them from home-field advantage, Detroit’s win over Green Bay (and the Bears’ loss to the Vikings) gives the Lions a clear path to the NFC North title, and Philadelphia’s win over Arizona gave the Eagles a leg up in the NFC East and the Cardinals a knock down the wild-card ladder. New Orleans and Carolina still play each other twice, and with the Panthers refusing to slow down, that division is still very much in question. But for the most part, we have a pretty defined idea of what our six or seven playoff teams/seeds will look like:
2. Carolina/New Orleans
5. New Orleans/Carolina
6. San Francisco
Of all those teams, San Francisco seems to be the one no one’s excited about. Detroit has Calvin Johnson; Philadelphia has Nick Foles. The Niners are just a team that a year ago seemed poised to annually challenge the Seahawks for NFC supremacy but instead have taken up residency among the conference’s also-rans. With Arizona dropping a game in Philadelphia, even a loss to Seattle would leave the Niners as the likely final team into the playoffs. But for a team one play from the Lombardi Trophy, that finish is nothing less than a disappointment.
The Seahawks don’t seem to get how this works. Becoming one of the best teams in football is a clearly defined process, and while they followed some of the early steps — find a franchise quarterback, build a great defense (although that one is optional) — they’ve struggled with the final one. When a team finally does prove it belongs, its purpose is then to square off with other great teams in perfectly hyped, insta-classic prime-time games that keep us fixed to the couch. Last night, for the second time this season, Seattle turned the Game of the Century into a rout and, in doing so, made it look like the NFC playoffs might just go the same way.
Any Week 13 game between teams with three combined losses would get the glossy "game of the week" treatment, but what made this one different is that for these two teams, home-field advantage actually does mean something. Including the playoffs, the Saints have won their past 15 home games with Drew Brees and Sean Payton on the sideline. They’re 6-0 at home this year, and the difference in Brees’s numbers at and away from the Super Dome are staggering. This was before last night:
For every football player, the helmet does a little something different. It turns some, like LaDainian Tomlinson, into superheroes. It felt like LT was from the future in part because he looked like he was. For others, it seems almost obligatory. I’m not sure how we’d even notice if Tom Brady played without one.
There’s a select few, though, for whom the helmet seems to make all the difference, and Nick Foles is one of those. Without it, the NaFoleseon Dynamite jokes are inevitable and apt, but with it, Foles looks like a 6-foot-6, strong-armed quarterback who belongs in an NFL huddle. It doesn’t hurt that every time he puts it on, he plays like one, too.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Washington’s nationally televised Thanksgiving-week game was an exhibition for the league’s most exciting new offense — a 38-31 win in Dallas that was never actually that close and saw Robert Griffin III throw what is still a career-high four touchdowns. With the late-November stage again last night, the results couldn’t have been more different. The win over the Cowboys was the second in a run of seven straight toward the playoffs. Yesterday’s sputtering, almost pitiful performance against the 49ers was Washington’s third loss in a row, and Griffin’s four touchdowns were replaced with numbers like this:
On the craziest day of the NFL season — as the Chargers hung 41 on the Chiefs, Tom Brady put together another classic, and the Cardinals stepped right into the playoff race — the NFC North still did its best to remain the most insane situation in football. In a span of about four hours, somehow, three different teams managed to gain control of their playoff futures only to lose them again.
Any referendum on the weirdness probably has to start with what happened at Lambeau yesterday afternoon. With the Packers trailing a Vikings team 23-7 at home, it looked like everything we thought about Green Bay a month ago was true. Losing Aaron Rodgers was maybe the most significant blow any team could suffer. Before Rodgers went down, the Packers were a 5-2 team whose only two losses came to San Francisco and Cincinnati on the road. Losing Rodgers meant a fall from clear division front-runner to a team that puts up 13 points against the Giants. With Scott Tolzien completely unable to get anything started for the Packers yesterday, Rodgers’s MVP case was somehow stronger than it could ever be while he was actually playing. As Detroit started its comeback against the Bucs, it looked like one more Packers stumble would be enough to end their chances in the division. Then Matt Flynn scored 16 straight points, Matthew Stafford threw the ball to the other team a bunch, and somehow Green Bay is a half game closer in the division than it was before yesterday began.
If I’d asked you in August who would lead the league in defensive DVOA through 11 weeks, how many guesses would it have taken before you landed on the Arizona Cardinals? I’m comfortable saying at least 10, and probably more. It would have been reasonable to believe that Arizona would have the worst defense in its own division, but certainly not one of the best in the league. Yet here we are, 10 games into the season, and the Cardinals have ridden that defense to a 6-4 record and face a season-defining game against the Colts on Sunday. The last team to beat the red-hot Panthers? That would be the Cardinals, who dominated the Carolina offense and held Cam Newton to just six points back on October 6.
The pertinent question here seems to be, “How the hell did this happen?” Well, for the most part, things aren’t all that different than they were a season ago. The Cardinals finished sixth in defensive DVOA last year, and they brought back most of the pieces from that team for this year. One major change was at defensive coordinator, where Ray Horton was replaced by former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but schematically, things have been very similar for Arizona. They still play a variety of fronts, which is possible because of the stable of defensive-line bodies they can throw out there at any time.
Every season, Thanksgiving is about when we start figuring things out, and this year is no exception. Several teams made their playoff case last week, with the Saints, Panthers, Colts, and Eagles all gaining ground in either a division or wild-card race. But it’s also the time of year when teams finally come to the sad realization that it’s time to close up shop. Last week, with losses to a one-win Bucs team and a Matt McGloin–led Raiders team, respectively, those teams were the Falcons and Texans — two teams that came into this season with back-to-back trips to the playoffs.
Including Atlanta and Houston, there are currently eight teams down at least two games in the loss column for a playoff spot, and we know that for those fans, the holidays can be a cold, lonely stretch. So with Black Friday just around the corner, we wanted to give those teams a little something to keep them warm by putting together a holiday wish list for that one gift each needs as it looks forward to next year.
Explaining the excitement about the past six weeks of Panthers football is fairly easy. So many of us were rooting for Carolina last night against the NFL’s bluest blood because the Panthers are new, and new is what we want. As ESPN flashed graphics about how Tom Brady and Bill Belichick compare to Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi, the Panthers — wrapped in black — lined up and beat the Patriots with a 22-year-old superstar linebacker and a 24-year-old superstar quarterback.
Amid all the newness, though, resides someone very familiar, and last night he was everything we might expect. Steve Smith finished the game with four catches for 62 yards — the same sort of pedestrian night that has become standard for him at age 34. But when you consider when those catches came, whom they came against, and Smith’s general presence for Carolina, it’s not hard to see how he’s the final ingredient to the Panthers’ newfound potency.
After yesterday, I have all the proof I need. I don’t know what it is about this year, but I’m now convinced that more teams than ever just have no interest in going to the playoffs. The Bengals held off the Browns, but they needed two defensive scores and four turnovers to do it. And I’m starting to believe Andy Dalton is a double agent taking some off the side from the Ravens. Meanwhile, the NFC East is now a jumbled mess, and somehow an Eagles team that couldn’t stop anyone for the first month of the season is 6-5 and looking firmly in control — for now.
Nowhere, though, does the division crown resemble a game of hot potato more than it does in the NFC North. A week ago, the Lions were 6-3, holding a one-game lead, and fresh off a tiebreaker-clinching win over the Bears. It’s a division filled with flawed teams. The Vikings are the Vikings, Chicago is without more than half its defensive starters, and yesterday’s Packers game included the dreaded “Who’s that guy?” montage about their starting quarterback:
This is our reward. For everyone who kept the faith through weeks of Titans-Rams and Ravens-Browns, the days of meaningful, excellent football are finally here. Along with the underappreciated marquee game of the week, we have a pair of hugely important, season-defining matchups to boot. Carolina–New England, San Francisco–New Orleans, and Kansas City–Denver would probably have been the best game from any of the past four weeks. Some might say it’s too much all at once. I disagree. To get you fully prepared, we decided to break down the (possibly) deciding matchup from the weekend’s three best games. Enjoy, everybody. We deserve this.