Commentary

Stretch Drive: What NFC teams must do in the final month

In the season's final four weeks, the only remaining intrigue is in the wild-card races. One of the league's toughest teams will overcome injuries to its stars and snag a wild-card spot, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: December 6, 2007
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Four weeks are left in the regular season. Four weeks to claim a playoff spot -- or begin planning for the draft. Here's a look at every NFC team -- what it has accomplished thus far, what it still needs to accomplish in the final month, and its playoff outlook. Welcome to the NFL's stretch drive.

For the AFC teams, check out Len Pasquarelli's report.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys (11-1)

How far they have traveled: Coach Wade Phillips has proven that he really can take this team places that Bill Parcells couldn't. He's thrived with a potent offense -- one that has been greatly helped by Terrell Owens' willingness to let his brilliant play do the talking for once -- and a decent defense that has been exploited by only one team, the New England Patriots. Guess owner Jerry Jones had it right in training camp: This team really is good enough to win it all.

What they have left in the tank: The Cowboys' win over Green Bay on Nov. 29 established them as the team to beat in the NFC. They've shown no signs of decline since that loss to New England, and their offense has only improved with more touches for running back Marion Barber. They could be a 15-win team heading into the postseason.

Road to the playoffs: It's only a matter of time before Dallas locks up the top spot in the NFC playoffs. It should wind up in the Super Bowl.


New York Giants (8-4)

How far they have traveled: This team was supposed to be done when it opened the season with two straight losses. It has rebounded with eight wins in its past 10 games, and was especially impressive during a six-game win streak. The keys: dominant defensive-line play and a lighter touch by reputed hard-line coach Tom Coughlin.

What they have left in the tank: As usual, this all depends on quarterback Eli Manning. He appeared to be making strides earlier this season, but his recent play (six interceptions in his past two games) has to have the Giants worried. His life won't get any easier now that injuries have hurt New York's running game (Derrick Ward is out for the season).

Road to the playoffs: The Giants will be a wild-card team but they won't win more than one playoff game. They will face a Super Bowl team  but it'll be in the final regular-season game against the Patriots.


Washington Redskins (5-7)

How far they have traveled: No team in recent memory has endured more emotional trauma during a regular season than this bunch. The Redskins already were struggling with inconsistency before the shocking slaying of free safety Sean Taylor. His death has been so devastating that it's hard to imagine the Skins' recovering from it in the season's final month.

What they have left in the tank: There isn't much hope left here. The Redskins lost a great friend and teammate, but it's important to note that Taylor also was a critical member of their defense. This team simply doesn't have enough playmakers of his caliber to make a run at the postseason.

Road to the playoffs: The Redskins have had bigger issues to deal with than football.

Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)

How far they have traveled: The Eagles had the potential to win the NFC East until injuries (especially to quarterback Donovan McNabb) and off-the-field drama (the family problems of head coach Andy Reid) caught up with them. They continue to play hard -- as they did in close losses to New England and Seattle. But this team hasn't been steady all season. It's too bad, because the Eagles might not have many good years left in them for the foreseeable future.

What they have left in the tank: McNabb's future has been under the microscope since this season began, and that won't change now that we're in December. The Eagles also have to look at the remainder of their aging roster. It's safe to say that defensive end Jevon Kearse, for one, is in jeopardy of not returning next season.

Road to the playoffs: They're done.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (10-2)

How far they have traveled: This team has been the NFC's biggest surprise this season. Brett Favre has been the big story, but an improved defense -- led by a swarming front seven -- has made life easier for second-year coach Mike McCarthy. The emergence of running back Ryan Grant also has been a welcome surprise for a team that had no backfield threat for half the season.

What they have left in the tank: Don't put too much stock in that recent loss to Dallas. The Packers have won enough tough games to be a dangerous postseason team. What they have to hope for now is the health of cornerback Charles Woodson, who's been nagged by a toe injury of late.

Road to the playoffs: They'll be the second seed in the NFC. If they somehow play the conference title game in Lambeau Field, they'll be in the Super Bowl.

Detroit Lions (6-6)

How far they have traveled: Jon Kitna's offseason prediction of 10 wins for Detroit sounded really prescient when the Lions were 6-2. But now they've dropped four straight games, and a knee injury has put star wide receiver Roy Williams on the shelf for the remainder of the season. It's starting to look like Kitna -- who has been sacked 47 times this year -- needs to be concerned for his livelihood in the final four games.

What they have left in the tank: The Lions are about to have an ugly month. They'll face Dallas, San Diego and Green Bay in their final four games, and the best they can hope for right now is an eight-win campaign. It also would be nice to see a little more production from first-round pick Calvin Johnson, who has had a disappointing rookie season.

Road to the playoffs: It would take a miracle to get them in at this point.

Minnesota Vikings (6-6)

How far they have traveled: The Vikings' fortunes changed as soon as running back Adrian Peterson started getting more touches. Even after missing two games with a knee injury, he's proved to be the Vikings most dynamic player since Randy Moss left town three years ago. There are still questions at quarterback, but the Vikings have a nice combination -- strong run game and tough run defense -- to work with at this time of year.

What they have left in the tank: Minnesota quietly has become a dangerous team. The Vikings knocked off the Giants two weeks ago and they trounced the Lions on Sunday. If quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can be dependable -- he's completed 77.6 percent of his passes over the past three games -- they just might sneak into the postseason.

Road to the playoffs: They're good enough to reach 8-8, but it will take nine wins to snatch a wild-card spot.

Chicago Bears (5-7)

How far they have traveled: This is easily the NFL's most disappointing team. The Bears have been playing the quarterback shuffle (first Rex Grossman, then Brian Griese and now back to Grossman) and their normally staunch defense has underachieved all season. They've also realized that running back Cedric Benson, who's now on injured reserve, isn't as good as initially advertised.

What they have left in the tank: The Bears could've injected some life into their postseason hopes with a win over the Giants on Sunday. Instead, they did what they've done too often this season -- they found a way to let a victory slip away. The only question about this team now is whether Grossman can do something with his second chance as a starter before he becomes a free agent.

Road to the playoffs: What road?

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-4)

How far they have traveled: It's hard to find a team that has been more resilient this year. The Bucs lost their top two running backs -- Carnell (Cadillac) Williams and Michael Pittman -- but they've carried on behind quarterback Jeff Garcia and an improved defense. The Bucs are not the prettiest team in the league, but they sure are the toughest mentally.

What they have left in the tank: They're about to run away with the NFC South. The Saints and Panthers aren't strong enough to make up a three-game deficit, and the Bucs have a favorable schedule in December (they finish with Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Carolina). Give coach Jon Gruden credit for keeping this team focused through its setbacks.

Road to the playoffs: The Bucs aren't good enough to play with Dallas and Green Bay, but they'll win at least one postseason game.


New Orleans Saints (5-7)

How far they have traveled: All we know about the Saints is that they're completely unpredictable. They lost their first four games, won their next four, and now they've dropped three of their past four. The bottom line here is this team really hasn't been the same since running back Deuce McAllister was lost for the season in Week 3.

What they have left in the tank: The Saints are starting to look very much like the Saints who opened the season in disappointing fashion. They've struggled with turnovers, penalties and way too many big plays that have been given up by their defense. The Saints still talk like they can turn things around, but they've shown no indication that they're capable of doing that.

Road to the playoffs: It's time to talk about next year.


Carolina Panthers (5-7)

How far they have traveled: This team's chances of contending for a championship looked solid until quarterback Jake Delhomme sustained a season-ending elbow injury in Week 3. Since that time the Panthers have discovered David Carr isn't going to turn his career around in Carolina and Vinny Testaverde can't pull any miracles out of his 44-year-old body. In other words, it's been pretty ugly in Charlotte, N.C., this year.

What they have left in the tank: The Panthers had lost five straight games before Sunday's 31-14 win over San Francisco. That says all you have to know about where they're heading. In fact, it's time to start wondering when they'll give more playing time to second-year running back DeAngelo Williams, who's been backing up DeShaun Foster all season.

Road to the playoffs: They're done.

Atlanta Falcons (3-9)

How far they have traveled: The Falcons have been a mess ever since quarterback Michael Vick wound up in the crosshairs of the federal government. However, what has to be even more unsettling for the Falcons is the acrimony between coach Bobby Petrino and veterans like Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall. If Petrino cannot salve those wounds in the offseason, he'll be a short-timer in the organization.

What they have left in the tank: The best they can hope for is another high draft pick. This team needs a quarterback -- neither Joey Harrington nor Byron Leftwich is the answer -- and general manager Rich McKay might face some scrutiny. His roster moves haven't exactly been the stuff of legend, particularly the decision to trade quarterback Matt Schaub.

Road to the playoffs: The Falcons are right where they thought they'd be -- thinking about next season.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (8-4)

How far they have traveled: The Seahawks have been winning ugly this season. They have plenty of flaws -- including a lousy running game and atrocious special teams play -- but they've played solid defense (they're second in the NFL with 36 sacks) and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has been his normally efficient self. Somehow this team just keeps getting it done.

What they have left in the tank: The Seahawks are hitting their stride at exactly the right time. They've reeled off four straight wins and they've benefited from big plays on defense (like the three interceptions produced by middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu in last Sunday's win over Philadelphia). However, they need to get more from running back Shaun Alexander, who's been nagged by knee and wrist injuries this season.

Road to the playoffs: They're about to wrap up their fourth consecutive NFC West title.


Arizona Cardinals (6-6)

How far they have traveled: Nobody ever would've predicted that Kurt Warner would be the starting quarterback of a Cardinals team still in playoff contention at this point of the season. But that says plenty about Arizona's toughness. The Cardinals have been hurt by injuries -- Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and quarterback Matt Leinart have been lost for the season -- but they haven't lost their focus.

What they have left in the tank: The schedule favors the Cardinals; aside from Seattle this Sunday, they'll face three losing teams in the final four weeks (Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Louis). Now the downside: Starting wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (groin) and Anquan Boldin (dislocated toe) are nicked up. The Cardinals really need some backups to step up this month.

Road to the playoffs: They've surprised all season long and they'll do so again. They'll qualify with a 9-7 record.


San Francisco 49ers (3-9)

How far they have traveled: This team was a sexy pick to win the NFC West until it actually started playing. Thanks to offensive woes -- including the regression of quarterback Alex Smith, inadequate line play and a disappointing year from Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore -- there's a lot more work to do if San Francisco is going to become a playoff contender under coach Mike Nolan. This year simply has been a disaster.

What they have left in the tank: It's all about Smith right now. There have been reports that the 49ers already are thinking about replacing him and he's just starting to test his injured throwing shoulder this week. If he can't impress in the season's final month, he might be gone.

Road to the playoffs: It seemed like this would be their year to get back into the postseason. Oh well.


St. Louis Rams (3-9)

How far they have traveled: Injuries really have dogged this team all year. Several starters -- including quarterback Marc Bulger, running back Steven Jackson and left tackle Orlando Pace -- have been lost for long stretches or for the full season and the Rams opened the year with eight straight defeats. But they have looked better with three wins in their last four games so they might finish on a positive note.

What they have left in the tank: Their improved play could make the offseason much easier for coach Scott Linehan. Questions about his job security started popping up when the Rams were 0-8 but he's kept them together. Three more wins should be enough to ease the scrutiny on him.

Road to the playoffs: They never had a reason to think about the postseason this year.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.