Thanksgiving is next week, meaning time for me to take a break from my typical “team notes” column I’ve been writing since the start of the NFL season.
It’s time to focus on the big boys – teams with playoff aspirations. Who can get hot down the stretch and make us some money winning games and covering point spreads? Which squads are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; which are pretenders?
Let’s take look through the NFC this week, gauging which squads have ATS value moving forward, and which have already reached their zenith, poised to tumble back to earth down the stretch.
I did not include notes on Carolina (they don’t play till Monday Night) and Dallas (on bye this week) due to space limitations. That leaves Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona to consider; all of whom remain “live” for the postseason as Week 12 approaches.
SERIOUS SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS
Seattle: I don’t think anyone is going to beat the Seahawks at Qwest Field, where Seattle has won 13 straight (10-3 ATS). Russell Wilson is a born leader who’s won wherever he’s been, dating back to his days at NC State and Wisconsin in college. And now Wilson has Percy Harvin to throw to.
New Orleans: The Saints’ 3-point win over San Francisco on Sunday was every bit as impressive as their 32-point blowout over Dallas the previous week. Against Dallas, we saw the Saints at their best; Sean Payton’s offense that can’t be stopped against second tier defenses. But the 49ers win proved New Orleans could win a muck-it-up, grind-it-out kind of game that’s not generally their style. And they did it despite three turnovers that were all extremely costly – two set up the 49ers for scores, and one was a fumble through the end zone costing New Orleans a sure touchdown.
San Francisco: Anquan Boldin has two TD catches this year. Vernon Davis has seven. No other receiver on the team has a single TD or more than 200 receiving yards. Davis and Boldin have combined for 19 receptions of longer than 20 yards. The rest of the team has five. Right now Colin Kaepernick and the Niners passing game are a shell of what they were last year when this team went to the Super Bowl.
Help is on the way in the form of Michael Crabtree; potentially an impact player on this offense. And there’s no question this stop unit remains a Super Bowl caliber unit now that Alden Smith is back on the field – heck, they just contained Drew Brees in the Superdome, no easy task. And I like Jim Harbaugh’s mentality following rare back-to-back losses for San Fran.
Last year, the Niners had to win one road game to reach the Super Bowl. This year, they’ll need to win three, because the loss to New Orleans essentially ended their chance to win the division
Green Bay: Right now, I have the Packers power rated in the range of Houston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Buffalo; a full 10 points lower than it was a month ago. But that’s going to change in a hurry once Aaron Rodgers returns to the lineup, probably in the next week or two. One of Rodgers’ favorite downfield targets, Randall Cobb, should be back shortly as well.
It’s surely worth noting last year’s Super Bowl champion Ravens lost three straight in December before getting hot in the playoffs. Also, Rodgers guided this team to the Super Bowl only three years ago as the Packers won three straight on the road in the postseason. If Green Bay can end their slide and reach the playoffs; they’re live to do some damage once they get there.
NOT SO SERIOUS CONTENDERS
Philadelphia: If RG3 hadn’t thrown a miserable red zone interception off his back foot in the closing seconds at Philly on Sunday, the Eagles’ 10-game home losing streak might well have become 11. Now they’ve won three straight and taken over first place in the NFC East. But their non-division wins this year have come against Oakland, Green Bay with Tolzien at QB and Tampa.
Chip Kelly’s offense reels off plenty of big plays, but they don’t grind clock well and have struggled in the red zone all year, ranked No. 28 in the NFL. This defense has improved dramatically since their 1-3 start, but it’s just not a Super Bowl caliber stop unit.
Detroit: The Lions are allowing six yards per play on defense. Other teams in that range include Jacksonville, Atlanta and Washington. Their defense hinges on their line, but that supposedly elite unit has notched only 16 sacks all season. Detroit has struggled to run the football and they still don’t have a “step-up” receiver on the other side from Calvin Johnson.
The Lions last playoff win came back in 1991; and that’s their only postseason victory since 1957. I’m not willing to call for multiple playoff wins this year.
Chicago: Jay Cutler has a grand total of one playoff win in his career, and he can’t stay healthy. Key defenders Charles Tillman, DJ Williams, Henry Melton, Kelvin Hayden and Nate Collins are all on injured reserve, out for the year. Ray Rice just reached nearly half his season’s total yardage on the ground in one game against this Bears stop unit.
Chicago has only two more games at Soldier Field, both tough ones: Dallas and Green Bay. I like the direction of this franchise under Marc Trestman, but the Bears aren’t serious Super Bowl contenders, and they’ll be hard pressed to make the playoffs at all.
Arizona: I’m a huge Bruce Arians fan, and the Cardinals’ 6-4 record includes signature wins over the Lions and Panthers. But Arizona’s other four wins came against teams with a combined 7-33 SU record (the Bucs, Falcons, Texans and Jaguars). They’ve been blown out by double digits in “step-up-in-class” games against the 49ers, Seahawks and Saints.
Carson Palmer has thrown at least one interception in every game, except this past week against hapless Jacksonville. And with the Colts, Eagles, Seahawks and 49ers still remaining on their slate, it’ll be a very tough stretch run for a decent, but not exceptional squad.
NY Giants: I know Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin have two Super Bowl rings; a coach and a quarterback with an impressive postseason track record. But even after four straight wins following their 0-6 start, the Giants remain a fundamentally flawed team. And when we look at the four QB’s they’ve just beaten – Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien – it tells us nothing about this suspect stop unit’s ability to contain the likes of Tony Romo, RG3, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford over their final six games.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]