By William Howard Shaft
We’re more than halfway through the 2017-18 NFL season, but it’s never too early to predict who will make the playoffs:
NFC East Champions: Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)
It’s only Week 9 but at this point, the division looks like it’s theirs to lose. Philly’s lone setback thus far was to the Chiefs, and they have strung together an impressive seven consecutive wins since that early loss. The Eagles boast the league’s 5th-best offense led by Carson Wentz, who has tossed nearly 2300 yards and 25 TDs through the first half of the season. Legarrette Blount has proven to be a solid pickup from the Patriots and has racked up over 500 yards rushing so far. TE Zach Ertz and WR Alshon Jeffery continue to pace the Eagles’ passing attack with over 500 yards each. Defensively, the Birds lead the league in rushing yards allowed and give up just under 20 points per contest on average. They have also benefitted from a weak division (cough cough Giants) and a relatively easy schedule (T-10 in strength of schedule according to ESPN). Barring a late-season collapse or a surge from the Cowboys, the Eagles look to have the East locked up.
NFC West Champions: Los Angeles Rams (6-2)
The Rams are coming off of a three-game winning streak in which they averaged 37 points a game. The offense, led by Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, looks completely different than the one we saw last season. Goff has thrown for over 2000 yards and 13 scores so far, while Gurley is top 5 in the league in rushing with nearly 700 yards and 7 scores. Former Bills receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins have provided a spark offensively and have hauled in nearly 800 yards collectively. First year HC Sean McVay has energized the Rams and turned the team around. Defense has been sluggish so far despite hiring of DC Wade Phillips, but offense has played well enough to win games.
NFC North Champions: Minnesota Vikings (6-2)
The Vikings were able to capture the NFC North in 2015 from the Packers, and they may be able to do it again this year. The loss of Aaron Rodgers was devastating for Green Bay and dampened their chances of making a playoff appearance. Since his injury, the Packers have dropped two straight and now sit at 4-3 with challenging games against Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota on the horizon. The Vikings have been able to capitalize on this and have moved into first place in the division with a 6-2 record. Case Keenum has filled in nicely for Sam Bradford, throwing for over 1500 yards and 7 TDs through 7 games. The rushing attack has been led by rookie Dalvin Cook, while Jerick McKinnon and ex-Raider Latavius Murray have carried the ball well for the Vikings as well.
NFC South Champions: New Orleans Saints (6-2)
After their Super Bowl appearance last season, the Falcons have dropped to .500 following close losses to the Bills, Dolphins and Panthers. Meanwhile, the Saints are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now having won 6 straight games, including a 34-13 beatdown of the Panthers in Week 3. The Saints have the league’s 2nd best offense which is led by veteran QB Drew Brees. Brees is in classic form, already throwing for over 2200 yards and 13 TDs. Mark Ingram and rookie RB Alvin Kamara have already rushed for nearly 900 yards collectively and 7 TDs, while WR Michael Thomas and former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. have propelled New Orleans’ passing game. The Saints have already notched 2 wins against divisional rivals so far this season, and have a chance to play each team one more time. If the offense keeps rolling and their players stay healthy, expect the Saints to clinch the NFC South for the first time since 2011.
Wildcard #1 (5th Seed): Carolina Panthers
Although the Saints are likely to win the NFC North, the Panthers are not far behind at 6-3. They still have some lighter games on their schedule (Dolphins, Jets, Bucs all average or below average). Cam Newton is having a good season with nearly 2000 passing yards, 340 rushing yards, and 14 total TDs. The downside is he has not been taking care of the ball that well and has already thrown 11 INTs on the year. Rookie Christian McCaffrey has provided a spark offensively, in both the passing and rushing game (750+ all-purpose yards total). The passing attack has been fairly balanced, as four receivers have 350+ receiving yards (including McCaffery). The Panthers boast the league’s best defense and average just over 17 points per game.
Wildcard #2 (6th Seed): Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys currently have the 2nd best rushing attack in football led by Zeke and Dak Prescott, who have combined for nearly 1000 yards. They are riding a 3-game winning streak, including an impressive win over the Chiefs last night in Dallas. Despite some nagging injuries, Dez Bryant continues to produce offensively, with 440 yards receiving and 4 TDs. Balanced passing attack between Dez, Williams, Witten, Beasley and Zeke. The defense has been improving and is now 14th overall.