Point-Counterpoint: Will the NFC North have 3 Playoff Teams?

Are the Lions and Vikings on a collision course for the second wild card spot? - Raj Mehta-US PRESSWIRE

If the season ended today, the Bears, Packers, and Vikings would all be in the playoffs. But will three NFC North teams survive the second half of the year to make the second season?

According to division records, the NFC North is the best division in football. The Vikings, Packers, Bears, and Lions have combined for a 19-11 record after eight weeks; the NFC West is the only other division in the entire NFL with a winning record (17-15). There's still a ton of football left to play, with plenty of divisional matchups to sway the records of the top teams. So the question Kev and I are discussing this time out: will the NFC North have three playoff teams?

TJ: Yes, I think the NFC North will have three teams in the playoffs, and I think all four NFCN teams have a legitimate chance to reach the postseason. There are only six teams in the NFC that are above .500: Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, and the Bears, Packers, and Vikings. That's three NFC North teams and the division leaders from the NFC East, South, and West. If the playoffs started after week eight, the North would have three teams in. And even Detroit has a legitimate chance as the Detroit Phoenix's keep rising from the ashes of bad games to pull wins out at the end.

Kev: It would be tough for me to think that the NFC North can get three teams in the playoffs. Here's the NFCN and the combined records of their opponents for the rest of the season:

Bears (6-1) - Opponents 43-29
Packers (5-3) - Opponents 35-26
Vikings (5-3) - Opponents 38-22
Lions (3-4) - Opponents 43-24

Every team in the NFC North has a pretty tough looking schedule from here on out, and two of those teams only have 8 games left. The Bears have built themselves a bit of a cushion by eating the faces of their inferior opponents to begin the season, but the fact is, there's a ton of parity in the NFL this season. For example, look at the close win by the Packers over the Jaguars. Experience tells us these things shouldn't happen, yet they do.

I'm not particularly convinced that the Vikings offense can keep them in games against teams like the Seahawks, Bears, Packers, and Texans. I think they fall off. The Lions could surprise, but I'm not sure they can settle themselves down and keep that pace. The Bears offense needs to find something soon or they'll have a tough road to the playoffs. The Packers are the most overall consistent, I'd say, but even then, they've shown that they're not the juggernaut they were last year.

To the following point: "If the playoffs started after week eight..." They don't. There'll be a team right now that looks eh, that will come on strong over the second half. (I'm personally looking at the Buccaneers for that.) I think, if anything, tiebreakers are going to come heavily into play. If it's two teams from different divisions, you first look at head to head, and then conference. Then common games, minimum of four. With the way the NFC West is shaping up, their could be a team that jumps up there, too.

I would not bet money on there being three teams in the NFCN in the playoffs this year. The talent gap on the back end of the division is too wide.

TJ: I won't bet on three NFCN teams making the playoffs either, but I still say its a strong likelihood, in large part because of the teams they'll be competing with to claim those two wildcard spots. You ran down the NFCN remaining opponents records, but look at the quality of the teams they're battling to make the playoffs:

Eagles (3-4): Doing so well that they're thisclose to starting a rookie quarterback.
Cowboys (3-4): No, just no. Not with Romo and an injured DeMarco Murray.
Buccaneers (3-4): Playing great football the last three weeks, but still an unproven commodity.
Seahawks (4-4): Solid defense, solid running game, rookie quarterback. One of those three things will prevent them from a playoff run, although they will be dangerous.
Cardinals (4-4): Throw those birds on the bbq and get your fork ready, cus the Cardinals are done.

Does the NFC North in its entirety have a difficult remaining schedule? Yes, and there will be plenty of divisional games to sway the win-loss records when it comes down to playoff seeding. But seriously, Detroit is the worst NFC North team, has some problems playing the first 45 minutes of any game with offensive adequacy, but of the above teams I listed, in terms of performance going forward, they're behind Seattle and maybe Tampa Bay. That's it. So if the fourth place NFC North team is almost on par with the best remaining wild card contenders in the NFC, then how does the North not get three teams into the playoffs?

: Consider this, then. The Vikings play the Seahawks this weekend, in Seattle. Should the Vikings lose (quite the possibility, given the circumstances of their QB not being very good and Seattle being a very hard place to win at), they will essentially flip-flop in the standings. Given that the Packers beat the Cardinals (likely), you're looking at standings like this:

1. Falcons
2. Bears (or Giants, depending on outcomes)
3. Giants (or Bears, depending on outcomes)
4. 49ers
5. Packers
6. Seahawks

In one game, Seattle will have taken a decided advantage in the wild card standings. Those same Seahawks have home games for 5 of their last 8 games. That's a big bonus. You'll recall they took the Packers to the last play of the game, and all of their loses have been decided by 7 or less points. Combine those factors, and I think you're looking at a team that you're counting out a bit early. Their schedule consists of teams like the Jets, Cardinals, Bills, and Rams. I would argue they have a very good chance of 5 or more winnable games.

That then leaves the back end of the NFC North looking up at a Seahawks team with a favorable second half. The Seahawks would then own a tiebreaker vs. the Packers, the Vikings, and still be a game ahead of the Lions. It's still a bit early, and I can't wait to revisit this topic around Week 10 or so. But the more I look at the evenness of the league this year, and the schedules for the in the hunt teams, the less I feel good about thinking the NFCN will have three teams this year.

: Yes, one game going a particular way can and likely will sway the conference standings. I think whoever gets the last wildcard spot will have a winning record (either the Packers or the Bears are getting the first one, and I highly doubt the 49ers, Giants, or Falcons don't win their respective divisions), and honestly, I don't see the Seahawks finishing above .500. Check out their remaining schedule; yes they have five home games, but I couldn't declare any of those games easy (the Jets and Cardinals fluctuate between good and bad). Let's say they win either the Vikings or Jets game, the Cardinals game, and beat the Rams.

That gets them to 7 wins, but I don't see them winning more than one road game the rest of the way. At Chicago or Miami? Against those defenses? Doubtful. Buffalo should get beat, but its also a cross-country trip for the 'Hawks (although its a 4:05 start time for some reason). A win in Buffalo gets them 8-8, and a trip back home for the playoffs. I just don't see Russell Wilson doing what Andy Dalton did last year (although he proved its possible).
The Vikings do have a brutal schedule remaining; if a home game against 3-4 Detroit is the "easiest" gimme game, then that's a tough schedule. But I really don't see them just nosediving out of the standing like Arizona will. I think they win at least 2 of their five remaining division games, which leaves them with 7 wins, possibly 8. Then, they need 1 or 2 wins from: @ Seattle, @ Houston, @ St. Louis. Their schedule may be tough, but they still have a game up on the 'Hawks.

As for the Lions (who just beat Seattle), their schedule is tough, but they've been in every game just like Seattle (5.25 average points margin of defeat). They have 5 home games remaining, already have head-to-head versus Seattle, and play the Jaguars and Colts. If Minnesota falters, I think Detroit sneaks ahead of the pack and squeezes into the playoffs. Sorry Seattle, but I don't see you in the playoffs this year (hey, there's always the Sonics). After the dust of the season settles and teams like Dallas, Philly, Arizona and Tampa Bay stumble, either the Vikings or the Lions will be joining the Packers and the Bears in the NFC playoffs.

Kev: I just can't agree with you about the Vikings, my good man. I'm guessing they lose Seattle, which puts them at 5-4. Then they go into FOUR divisional games in a row, which if they come out .500 or better, I may very well change my tune. I'm thinking, though, that they're likely to come out of that stretch 1-3, at best. They're solidly middle of the league on defense, and their passing game is near the bottom of the league.

While their defense and running game may be able to grind them out games, in Seattle they're looking at the fifth ranked rushing defense. Two games against Chicago, currently allowing the league-leading 77.9 ypg. (And only 1 rushing TD!). Green Bay, who's 12th against the run. It's going to be tough for them unless Ponder pulls it together, and frankly, I don't think he will.

That would put them at 6-7 going into their last 3 games, which just happens to include the Texans and Packers. The Vikings are, at best, a 7-9 team when this is all over with. I'm calling it now. Get their toe-tags. Seattle is your 6th playoff team.

As for the Lions, watching the team I'm just not sure they have the magic intangibles needed to rally from 3-4 to get to the playoffs. Winning 6 out of 9 is a tough feat. Let's say we give them JAX, that makes them an even 4-4. Which five of these next games would you be reasonably confident in them winning?

I'd say ARI, and maybe MIN. Those others are all tough matchups for a team who consistently relies on late game play to win. GB, HOU, and ATL may put up too many points for them to be able to overcome in the fourth quarter. They may squeak to 8-8, but I think that's the best they can hope for after a slow start.

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