Late Season Games Deciding NFC Supremacy
Eagles host Seahawks in biggest NFC matchup of week 14
The Packers have been on the best run lately in the NFC, while the Cardinals were able to jump out to the best start to the season. At this point all the teams in the National Football Conference with only three or four losses, have to be considered as teams that have a legitimate chance to earn the top playoff seeding in the conference. This includes six teams currently that sit at either 8-4 or 9-3. These teams are the Packers, Cardinals, Eagles, Seahawks, Cowboys and Lions. With the Eagles hosting the Seahawks in week 14, this marks just one of the huge late season matchups that could help to decide who gets home field advantage in the NFC playoffs this year. With the way the top contenders in the NFC have played at home this season and in recent years, home field advantage should prove to be very helpful to the team that earns it late in the 2014 season. With each of these teams currently playing at a high enough level to get to this point in the season, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses will portray a clearer picture of which team is the most likely to earn home field advantage.
Green Bay Packers
The strength for the Green Bay Packers, is what has been so obvious during their recent winning streak. The ability of Aaron Rodgers to complete downfield passes, along with the Packers ability to protect their quarterback, is what stands out for this team. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the various other options for the Packers in the passing game have been nearly unstoppable in recent weeks. The Packers biggest weakness would be some of their defensive issues that have become apparent in close games for them this season. The Packers' run defense has caused problems for them on the defensive side of the ball at times this season, which in turn has hurt their pass defense when they have had to commit more defenders to stopping the run. Overall the Packers have been able to overcome their issues with stopping the run by putting up points early and often enough to prevent the opposition from committing to the running game. In the Packers most recent close ballgames, they were able to build a double digit lead before a rally by the opposition got the score closer. As expected, the opposition had some success running the football in those games, but limited the amount of carries due to facing a double digit deficit at some point. The remaining schedule is quite favorable for the Packers, as their most difficult game is the season finale at home against the Lions. Their second most difficult game is a week 15 road game against the Bills, but both of these matchups are quite winnable for the Packers. If the Packers run the table the rest of the way, they will be the team that takes home the NFC's top seed in the playoffs this season.
The Cardinals were off to a 9-1 start to the season with Carson Palmer available at the quarterback position for them in most of the first ten games of the season. Palmer's injury has created a significant weakness for the Cardinals, who otherwise have very few weaknesses. The Cardinals have a great running back, along with great downfield threats in the passing game. They cover well on defense, and they stop the run, but without Carson Palmer taking the snaps at quarterback, their offense has struggled as a result. With the Cardinals finishing the season with game against the Chiefs, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks, they could be in for a struggle to hold onto playoff position rather than battling for the top seed in the conference. Drew Stanton may be able to stabilize things somewhat with the Cardinals passing game, but at this point it would be very surprising if the Cardinals entered the final week of the season with a chance to clinch the NFC's top seed.
The Eagles have played complete team football this season, with contributions from every area to get to the 9-3 mark where they currently sit. Strong contributions from the special teams units have allowed the Eagles to take blocked kicks back for touchdowns, along with setting up touchdowns with great kick return units. LeSean McCoy and the Eagles running game are having another strong season in Chip Kelly's high paced offense, but the breakout seasons from two Eagles wide receivers have been the story for their offense so far this season. Jeremy Maclin has emerged as a true number one receiver in the NFL, with his first one thousand yard season of his career. Jordan Matthews has emerged as his sidekick with seven touchdowns as a rookie, along with being on pace to challenge the thousand yard receiving mark. Recently it has been Mark Sanchez who has seen the success that has been common for Eagles quarterbacks under Chip Kelly. On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles front seven has been fantastic against the run, as well as getting after opposing passers. Even with defensive signal caller Demeco Ryans lost for the season, the Eagles have been able to play at a very high level at the point of attack. Their biggest weakness however is on the defensive side of the ball in the secondary, and that was very apparent in their loss to the Packers that currently keeps them from controlling their own destiny for the top seed in the conference. A win in a big week 14 matchup with the Seahawks will go a long way towards allowing them to overtake the Packers if they stumble. For this big matchup, the Eagles offense will be tested by a physical Seattle defense that will give them nothing easy. On the other side of the ball though, the Eagles have a significant advantage with the size and physicality to stop the Seahawks running game. With the Seahawks not having the perimeter pass catching threats to present a huge threat to biggest weakness for the Eagles in the secondary, the Eagles will have an advantage in that game at home. Their other significant test down the stretch is their second matchup with the Cowboys in week 15.
Even though the Seahawks have played excellent football lately, being at 8-4 through 12 games puts them in a tough spot as they try to earn home field advantage in the NFC. The Seahawks are great in every area defensively with Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor back to anchor the middle of their defense. They run the ball very well with a physical downhill running attack that is led by Marshawn Lynch, and supplemented by the scrambling efforts of quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks downfield passing attack has not been up to the standard they established last year in the postseason however. With Doug Baldwin being their best perimeter pass catcher, the Seahawks have struggled in this area, but they can surprise some teams because of Russell Wilson's outstanding ability as an NFL passer. With the way the Seahawks defense has played lately, its hard to pick against them in any game, but this week they face the tough task of trying to slow down a prolific Philadelphia offense. It will be tough for the Seahawks to establish the run against the Eagles defensive front, however it can be done. With a good effort from their defense, combined with a significant ground attack being established, they could earn a win on the road against Philadelphia. Following that game, the Seahawks finish the season with a home game against the 49ers, a road game against the Cardinals, then a home game against the Rams. This portion of the schedule will present the Seahawks with a significant test, but with a win in Philadelphia, they would be in position to take the top seed if the Packers stumble once. This is due to the Seahawks having the tie breaker because of their season opening win head to head against the Packers.
The Cowboys have established consistency this season behind the outstanding ground game that is led by DeMarco Murray. The running game has set up downfield passes for the Cowboys so often this season that Tony Romo has been able to operate at an extremely efficient level in the downfield passing game. Early on in the season, defense was not a weakness for the Cowboys, but recently that issue from last season has popped up again. The Cowboys lack impact talent on their defense, but with strong team play on that unit, along with rallying to the ball, they have been able to perform at a solid level for stretches this season. With the Cowboys easily defeating the Bears, they only have three games remaining on their schedule as they move to 9-4 on the season. Their next game will be another road game, as their re-match with the Eagles who dismantled them in Dallas. That game will be followed by a home game against the Colts, which will provide the Cowboys defense with one of their final tough tests of the regular season. Finishing out the season at Washington should allow the Cowboys to finish the season with a win, but the two games leading up to that will likely prevent the Cowboys from having a chance to compete for the NFC's top playoff spot.
The Lions have done just about everything well this season on their way to an 8-4 record through 12 games played. With Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate as perimeter pass catching threats, the Lions have put on a display a fantastic downfield passing attack. Joique Bell has allowed the Lions to establish a physical presence on offense with the running game, but Matt Stafford has struggled with some inconsistency this season. The Detroit defense has ranked among the top scoring defenses in football all season long, while being very strong at the point of attack. Veteran Rashean Mathis has helped to anchor the Lions secondary, which is a unit of the Lions defense that has performed above expectations so far this season. With upcoming games against the Vikings, Buccaneers and Bears, the Lions could head into their week 17 matchup on the road against the Packers, with an 11-4 record. This puts the Lions as the most significant underdog challenger to take the top seed in the conference, because a scenario where an 11-4 Lions team wins that game, would give them a season series sweep over the Packers and the top seed in the NFC.
There are some big matchups still yet to be decided in the National Football Conference, with the fans having the privilege of seeing one of them in Philadelphia this coming weekend. Even though the Packers currently hold and are favored to take the NFC's top seed, this might not be decided until the final week of the regular season. The Seahawks proved last year how important the top seed in the NFC can be, and the team that earns it this season will look to repeat their success. With all of these great football teams competing at the highest level in the coming weeks, NFL fans are in for a treat with big games on the schedule that will decide who gets home field advantage. What further intensifies this playoff race, is that one of these six teams will not be able to qualify for the postseason, due to the NFC South division winner getting an NFC playoff spot.