#1 New Orleans Saints
#1 New Orleans Saints
Strength:Offense/ Drew Brees & Sean Payton
The Saints have one of the most balanced offense attacks in the league as future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees can carve any defense with his accurate arm or they can pound the ball on the ground with RBs Alvin Kamara, a solid dual threat, and Mark Ingram, a solid power back who only loss his job by suspension; both backs are more than capable starters. Brees has been able to throw to multiple targets despite only having a real reliable target in 3rd year pro WR Michael Thomas, but his growth has been amazing and he has shown he can more than handle the double teams and is a very underrated #1 WR in the league.
HC Sean Payton has had a great offensive scheme since joining Brees in New Orleans with both bright offensive minds winning for over a decade together. They would love to add a title to the resume and with their offense clicking on all cylinders they would love to take advantage; the suspension gives them a relatively fresh Ingram to rely on too. Brees isn’t getting any younger and this team is heavy favorites thanks to the steady arm of Brees and the coaching of Payton.
Weakness: Passing Defense / Defense Inconsistency
DC Dennis Allen has done a great job rebuilding the Saints defense, which was a push over for a while holding back the offense, but they have been able to stuff opposing running backs throughout the season. However, the problem lies in the pass defense where they were hoping to grow off of last season with CBs Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley were having good success against teams and they brought back Patrick Robinson after a solid season with Eagles, but Robinson has been the most consistent of the bunch with Crawley falling down the chart. The team traded for young CB Eli Apple from the Giants, but he hasn’t been very consistent or productive either. The team got a better pass rush with the development of 3rd year DT Sheldon Rankins who finally put it together next to star pass rusher Cameron Jordan. Rookie pass rusher Marcus Davenport hasn’t developed as quickly as they hoped, but if they can add even more pressure it could really help the back end struggles.
#2 Los Angeles Rams
Strength: Offense / D-Line
The Rams have one of the best offenses in the league with a nice balance of the running of top RB Todd Gurley and the growth of 3rd year QB Jared Goff who continues to carve teams with a nice set of weapons in WRs Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp (before the injury). The offensive line has stayed healthy and played well led by veterans LT Andrew Whitworth, who has been a leader for the team since leaving the Bengals, and LG Rodger Saffold, who has been through it all with the Rams. Gurley alone keeps coordinators up all night, but the accuracy of Goff and the playmakers available makes this team hard to stop.
The defensive line is so strong that I almost listed balance as a strength, but the secondary stood in the way. The Rams have one of the most talented defensive lines in history which says a lot led by DT Aaron Donald, considered the best player in the league, constantly taking on double teams, DT Ndamukong Suh, who has been a problem in the league for over a decade terrorizing teams, and DT Michael Brockers who is a huge run stuffing lineman; all three of these guys require double teams which means somebody will get loose. To add insult to injury the team added former 1st round pick pass rusher Dante Fowler from the Jaguars for additional pass rush depth going into the playoffs; he also has experience at LB where he could help as well.
Weakness: Secondary / Stopping the Run
The Rams invested a lot in the strengths mentioned above, but the secondary doesn’t have the depth needed after veteran CBs Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters were injured early in the season. Both were considered perfect fits to finish off a stingy defense, but that has not been the case as the return of Peters has led to ineffective and extremely inconsistent play after solid seasons in KC as a #1 CB. The poor play of this unit could lead to an earlier exit from the playoffs than they would like, if they continue to put their offense in a shootout, although they are more than equipped for that, but the playoffs are a different beast.
Despite the talent and quality of the defense and especially the defense line, the team has struggled mightily at times against the run which is a huge issue in the playoffs, as teams try to reduce turnovers. The team has an exceptional pass rush led by the guys up front, but that leads to big rushing lanes; this problem must be addressed very soon, with the quality of RBs in the NFC. The young and struggling LB core has been the source of this problem, but someone will need to step up on the unit; LB Mark Barron was expected to be that guy after receiving a nice contract extension.
#3 Chicago Bears
Strength: Defense / Tarik Cohen
The Bears already had a good defense led by DC Vic Fangio who had been considered a top HC candidate the past few seasons, but the addition of pass rusher Khalil Mack via trade from the Raiders took the defense to the next level making the Bears contenders. The defense has playmakers at all levels, but a strong group at LB led by Mack, veteran Danny Trevathan, and two 1st round picks in Leonard Floyd and rookie Roquan Smith. The team plays with a physical style that makes it tough to move the ball for any team, as you already have to at least double team Mack. 1st year HC Matt Nagy has done a great job and he is in consideration for the HC of the year award after leading the Bears to a NFC North title. Nagy’s ability to use the small (5’6), but extremely tough RB Tarik Cohen in different ways, as he mentioned when he first came to the team, has been a key to the season. Cohen has been able to help a stalled run game when power back Jordan Howard has struggled or when 2nd year QB Mitch Trubisky can’t get anything going, and even on special teams; he will be a key x-factor to keep an eye on.
Weakness: Pass Offense / Injuries
While Nagy has done a great job finding ways to move the ball offensively, Mitch Trubisky at times can hinder the offense with his lack of accuracy, despite signs of growth like the 6 TD game earlier this season; he has been extremely inconsistent. This was known coming into the year, so the growth has definitely been a plus, but for a team with Super Bowl hopes the defense and run game will need to pave the way or Trubisky will need to pull a Flacco. It doesn’t help that they have nagging injuries to the WR core leading up to the playoff matchup and they have injuries in the secondary, which at times can bring inconsistent play, as well.
#4 Dallas Cowboys
Strength: Run game / Defense
Everyone knows who the team’s MVP is and it was more obvious last year in his absence in Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott has continued to lead the way behind a tough O-line, despite injuries to important lineman. Elliott has also shown that he can be a factor out of the backfield catching the ball this season and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get him the ball. The offense and the team will go as far as Zeke can run.
The defense of the Cowboys has been underrated this season as they have a very strong front 7. The switch to young LBs Jaylon Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch has worked wonders as they have been sideline to sideline tackle machines, while pass rushers Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence use their size, motor, and athleticism to chase down opposing QBs. The switch of CB/S Byron Jones to CB has worked wonders giving them a big CB duo to pressure teams while they try to avoid the rush. Teams will have to look out for these defensive playmakers, as they should be around the next few seasons.
*Leighton Vander Esch has won Defensive Rookie of the Year*
Weakness: Pass O / Coaching
Everyone, including the Cowboys own fans, have been waiting for QB Dak Prescott to become a more consistent passer and take a few chances letting the deep ball go. The offense was supposed to take the next step after adding WR Amari Cooper and while he has helped a lot a true Prescott to Cooper connection could lead to a strong playoff run with Zeke doing his usual dirty work. Dak does provide a nice dual threat skillset, but he must take care of the football and simply make plays. Jason Garrett is in the same boat with Dak as the fans and everybody wants to see him make better coaching decisions and put the team in a position to really win. It will be telling if he has learned from past mistakes and can help get this team over the edge.
#5 Seattle Seahawks
Strength: Offense / Coaching
The Seahawks really surprised me after a lot key losses via free agency and retirement on both sides of the ball it looked, as if they were a team in transition or rebuild. However, the team chose to do what they do best and that’s run the football and controlling the tempo with the dual threat ability of MVP caliber QB Russell Wilson. The team went without its top target WR Doug Baldwin early in the season, but Wilson continued to make plays to no name TEs and little known WRs outside of speedster Tyler Lockett. RB Chris Carson took charge of the running game showing off the ability to be the workhorse back they imagined, when he first came to the team, 1st round pick Rashaad Penny was expected to do more, but has come along later in the season as a playmaker, and power back Mike Davis was looked over, but has been a valuable change of pace. The offensive line was thought to need major upgrades, but rolling with the same pieces the Seahawks have made major improvements and pride themselves with run blocking. The safe and smart play of Wilson with a strong run game makes this team difficult to get off the field.
All the above and the ability to make the changes in personnel to very inexperienced rookies and younger players, goes to the coaching of HC Pete Carroll. Carroll has been an underrated coach in the league with his defensive schemes and ability to put his team in the best position to win. He has done a great job with a roster that most coaches would have struggled to win with, but he has young players stepping up in key places and is getting the most out his draft picks; even ones he’s plucked from other teams. The job of talent and coaching Carroll has done hasn’t gotten the credit due, but I don’t think it will go unnoticed this year when the average fans are confused by the lack of household names without the Legion of Boom.
Weakness: Pass D
As mentioned above the Legion of Boom is gone and the Seahawks now have a very young secondary that was holding up well before a season injury to Earl Thomas, who knowingly wanted a trade which finally ends the LOB era. The teams has not fully replaced Thomas which may have been the reason for holding on to his talent, but with a strong pass rush the team has found ways to get it done. As stated several times, the playoffs are a different beast and now the secondary is in the hands of 2nd year CB Shaquill Griffin, lesser known than his brother Shaquem Griffin, and veteran Bradley McDougald. However, Coach Carroll should use a variety of ways to try to mask this problem.
#6 Philadelphia Eagles
Strength: Balance / Willpower (Foles Magic)
The Eagles have good balance on both sides of the ball with starting QB Carson Wentz (injured) and playmakers WRs Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor, Golden Tate (acquired late in the season), and TE Zach Ertz along with a plethora of RBs behind a stout O-line; not to mention the best backup in football in QB Nick Foles. The defensive side of the ball is led by veterans: FS Malcolm Jenkins, pass rushers Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett and Chris Long, and franchise DT Fletcher Cox; these guys give this unit huge leadership and consistent play. They have the weapons and leaders to make any team come prepared for a two-way battle.
Backup Nick Foles has regained the starting spot similar to last season, due to injury, really igniting the team with his accurate throws and poise with the football. When Foles is on the field, the Eagles play like a different team on both sides of the ball and want to win for him which is a testament to his leadership; and, of course respect for that SB run now. The team feels rejuvenated and ready to go to going into the playoffs; with Foles and the swagger he brings to the team; especially the defense who just wants to get him the ball, no one wants to see them in the playoffs.
Weakness: Injuries / Pass D
The Eagles have been hit hard by injuries depleting their depth at RB and most importantly CB; as mentioned above injuries haven’t been horrible news with Foles taking over the job. However, the RB core is down to rookie Josh Adams, veteran Darren Sproles, who still has something left in the tank, and Wendell Smallwood, who the team dangled for teams for weeks. This tandem is full of dual threat backs that can make plays in space, but it’s a big unknown heading into the playoffs, outside of Sproles; of course, size and now age limits his carries. The coaching staff led by HC Doug Pederson is very creative getting them the ball, but things could get 1 dimensional quick.
The CB position was already suffering from inconsistent play and a lack of production, but injuries have the Eagles at the bottom of their depth chart. Luckily, they have a strong front 7 that knows how to get after the quarterback quickly, but someone will need to make a name for themselves on this unit.