Who's the best of the inferior NFC bunch?
Who will get the privilege of losing to either Indy or New England in Super Bowl XLII? Mike Sando sizes up the 12-best teams in the highly mediocre NFC.
It's not yet November and the 42nd Super Bowl is all but over for the NFC.The AFC has won the last four NFL titles, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10. The margin was a field goal in three of the five most recent NFC defeats. But perennial AFC powers New England and Indianapolis are so dramatically superior this season that one of them almost certainly will win it all in Arizona come February. Less certain, for now, is which NFC team stands the best chance at joining Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia and Carolina as the conference's most recent Super Bowl losers. Any list begins with Dallas and the resurgent New York Giants. We break down the favorites and 10 others -- a faker's dozen if there ever was one.
Note: The teams are listed in the order of how well they might do in the playoffs, independent of current power-ranking status.
Dallas Cowboys (6-1)Power rankings: No. 9 preseason, No. 3 now
Why they can make it: Unlike most teams, the Cowboys have players on each side of the ball who, at their best, can force an opposing team away from its preferred game plan. Terrell Owens and DeMarcus Ware can be that good. And when Tony Romo isn't imploding the way he did in Buffalo, the Cowboys can make even a great team like New England work for a victory.The Cowboys have as many touchdowns (27) as preseason NFC favorites Chicago (14) and New Orleans (13) combined. Dallas has a physical offensive line, a dominant receiver in Owens, a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end (Jason Witten) and one of the finest young defensive players in the game (Ware). Adding Tank Johnson to the defense should provide needed depth following Jason Ferguson's season-ending injury. Why they might not: Dallas owns one victory against a team with a winning record, catching the Giants at the right time. The Cowboys can't control their past schedule, of course, but their future schedule isn't as favorable. They have five games remaining in the NFC East, which could be the toughest division. They play three of their final four games on the road against teams with winning records. Romo struggled down the stretch last season. His five-interception performance in Buffalo reminded us that he's still unproven.
New York Giants (5-2)Power rankings: No. 17 preseason, No. 4 now
Why they can make it: We hear too much about Tom Coughlin's softening up and not enough about the Giants' toughening up. Eli Manning made a compelling statement early in the season when he played through a shoulder injury that could have sidelined him for weeks. Instead of taking weeks off to rehab a painful ankle injury, receiver Plaxico Burress is following his quarterback's lead. Brandon Jacobs provides a physical presence in the running game. Guard Chris Snee and the offensive line have quietly exceeded outside expectations. On defense, new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is playing to the Giants' pass-rushing strengths without going overboard on blitzes. Players seem to believe in his system. It helps, too, that the Giants generally have avoided serious injuries.
Why they might not: The Giants still have to prove they can finish strong under Coughlin. This is their fourth consecutive 5-2 start during his tenure. Coughlin's previous Giants teams finished with 6, 11 and 8 victories. The current schedule gets tougher following a Week 9 bye. The Giants close the season with four road games during a six-week span, followed by a home date with New England. Burress' long-term health could be a concern as he continues to play on that bad ankle.
Green Bay Packers (5-1)Power rankings: No. 24 preseason, No. 5 now Why they can make it: The bye week came at the right time for Green Bay. Brett Favre was slipping into some old habits, tossing four interceptions with only one touchdown in the Packers' two most recent games. Despite the rough stretch, Favre is throwing fewer interceptions per pass attempt than he did in all but three of his 16 previous seasons (1994, 1995 and 1996). He still can get it done if he can find that balance between calculated aggression and carelessness. Green Bay's defense ranks only 15th in yards allowed, but the Packers can rush the passer and cover on the outside.
Why they might not: Experience says the passing game can take a team only so far. Soon the weather will turn cold and offensive balance will become more important. The Packers rank 32nd in rushing yards and 30th in rushing yards per attempt. They won't find a suitable replacement for Ahman Green until the offseason and that won't do them any good in, say, a road playoff game at the Meadowlands.
Washington Redskins (4-2)Power rankings: No. 28 preseason, No. 10 now Why they can make it: Defense doesn't always win championships, but the Redskins have a good one. It ranks among the top-5 in allowing the fewest total yards, yards per play, rushing yards, rushing yards per play, passing yards per play, first downs, third-down percentage and points. No defense in the NFC comes close to that level across the board. Baltimore and Pittsburgh come closest among AFC teams with top-5 rankings in six of those eight categories. The Redskins' young safeties are playing with more savvy and restraint than expected.
Why they might not: The Redskins barely beat Miami and Arizona at home. They draw New England and Dallas on the road over the next four weeks. The offense will have to score more points, but injuries on the line are making things tougher for quarterback Jason Campbell and the ground game. While Campbell looks like a keeper, he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass to a receiver. Santana Moss has six drops, another indication that the passing game might not hit stride in time to put the Redskins over the top this season.
Chicago Bears (3-4)Power rankings: No. 5 preseason, No. 18 now Why they can make it: The Bears are showing signs of improvement after a disappointing start marked by defensive injuries and Rex Grossman's demise. They can build on the 97-yard drive Brian Griese led to beat Philadelphia in the closing seconds. Griese has six touchdowns and three interceptions over his last three starts. Devin Hester's transition to receiver commanded headlines over the summer, but the Bears were more excited about what tight end Greg Olsen might bring from play to play. Olsen's return from injury restores some of that optimism. The defense isn't stopping anyone on third down, but improved play in the red zone is giving the Bears a chance. Chicago faces few explosive offenses down the stretch. Why they might not: The Bears miss Thomas Jones now and they would miss him more in the playoffs. Opponents worried more about him than they worry about Cedric Benson and his 3.1-yard average. The defense ranks 25th in yards allowed and 23rd in scoring. The swagger might not be gone, but it's spending too much time in the training room.
Seattle Seahawks (4-3)Power rankings: No. 11 preseason, No. 15 now Why they can make it: Seattle sputtered much of last season before pushing Chicago to overtime in the divisional playoffs at Soldier Field. The same potential exists this season if receivers Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett bounce back from injuries. The NFC West is one of the worst divisions, and the league's easiest schedule could send Seattle on its way to double-digit victories.
Why they might not: Shaun Alexander can't get anything going on the ground, even against mediocre defenses. Good teams stop him cold, as Pittsburgh did. Seattle's offensive line has regressed dramatically from the 2005 form that launched Seattle to a Super Bowl. At some point, the Seahawks have to prove they can develop young starters Rob Sims and Chris Spencer.
Detroit Lions (4-2)Power rankings: No. 30 preseason, No. 11 now Why they can make it: Quarterback Jon Kitna gives the Lions a badly needed leader. He's an outspoken proponent of coordinator Mike Martz's offense and so far he's making it work more often than not. Running back Kevin Jones' return from injury gives the Lions a better chance to disguise Martz's desire to pass on every play. The ground game was critical to the Lions' victory over Tampa Bay in Week 7, even though the Bucs dominated in time of possession. The Bears' struggles give Detroit an opportunity in the division. Why they might not: The Lions aren't talented enough to lose the time-of-possession battle so consistently. And with December games against Dallas, San Diego and Green Bay, this team will have a hard time reaching Kitna's prediction of 10 victories.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3)Power rankings:No. 27 preseason, No. 16 now Why they can make it: Jeff Garcia makes anything seem possible. He nearly took the Eagles to the NFC title game last season. The Bucs' schedule sets up more favorably now that Jacksonville is without quarterback David Garrard. Tampa Bay also gets Atlanta twice and San Francisco late in the season. Why they might not: Injuries have hit the Bucs hard at running back and along the offensive line, where there wasn't much depth anyway. The defense ranks 28th on third down.
New Orleans Saints (2-4)Power rankings: No. 6 preseason, No. 24 now Why they can make it: Drew Brees has four touchdowns and one interception in his last two games, both victories. He should continue to rebound from a horrendous start as long as he stays healthy. Brees takes fewer hits than any starting quarterback in the league. Reggie Bush appears increasingly comfortable as a full-time back. Like Brees, he has too much talent to struggle all season. Why they might not: Even if the offense turns things around, the Saints continue to have issues in their secondary. Good quarterbacks will make them pay down the field.
Philadelphia Eagles (2-4)Power rankings: No. 8 preseason, No. 22 now Why they can make it: The Eagles finished strong last season to overcome a 5-5 start. They have experience in key positions and a head coach with the patience to ride out a storm. Why they might not: If the Eagles don't miss Garcia now, they might eventually. Donovan McNabb takes more punishment than most quarterbacks, not good for a player coming off major knee surgery. Opponents have scored 36 quarterback hits on the Eagles this season. Only Atlanta (43), St. Louis (43) and the New York Jets (36) have allowed as many. Those teams already have lost quarterbacks this season. How long before McNabb goes down?
Arizona Cardinals (3-4)Power rankings: No. 22 preseason, No. 20 now Why they can make it: The NFC West is a mess. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has committed to the ground game, helping the Cardinals keep games close to the end. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is incorporating 3-4 principles without straying too far from his comfort zone. The result is an aggressive, physical defense that ranks ninth overall and 10th on third down. Why they might not: Kurt Warner can't stay healthy as a full-time starter. With Matt Leinart already finished for the season, the Cardinals probably will need Tim Rattay more than they would like.
Carolina Panthers (4-2)Power rankings: No. 16 preseason, No. 12 now Why they can make it: The Panthers' defense has improved in each of the last four games. Why they might not: The Panthers know they can't expect miracles from Vinny Testaverde every week, even when the alternative is David Carr. Carr wasn't the answer in Houston. He wouldn't be starting in Carolina if Jake Delhomme were healthy.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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