Week 9 is in the books, and we are now officially past the half way point for all 32 NFL teams. With every team playing at least half their games, this is a good time to take a look at the legit NFC contenders for the Super Bowl.
I'm not really seeing a clear cut, no doubt about it contender among the NFC playoff hopefuls. I see a spattering of good defenses, a spattering of good offenses, and a few solid all around teams. Most teams have a draw back or two that could nip them come playoff time, but as history tells us, it's often the hot team that rides through the playoffs come January. Among the 4 current NFC division leaders the Chicago Bears have a good a shot as any to represent the NFC at Super Bowl XLVII.
The Bears have an opportunistic defense that is closing in on some all time records, and the unit is littered with playmakers at every level. They can get after the quarterback from the four defensive line positions and have seven linemen with at least 1 sack. The five sacks a piece from tackle Henry Melton and end Julius Peppers lead the team.
Linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are their usual spectacular selves through 8 games, but the secondary has been a pleasant surprise. Charles Tillman, who I've always thought was an underrated player, is having a defensive MVP season so far. His running mate across the field, Tim Jennings, finally has the interception numbers to match his physical brand of corner that has endeared him to Lovie Smith's cover 2 scheme.
Offensively they are still searching for their identity, but any team with Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall on the field will have a chance on game day. You could do a lot worse than having two top 5 type players at their respective positions, and with Jay Cutler under center the potential for a very good offense is there. But the
o-line, check that, the protection issues could be their bugaboo.
The NFC West leading San Francisco 49ers have a stout and physical defense and the top running game in the NFL, but if they run up against a D that can take away the run, do you trust Alex Smith? So much of Smith's success is predicated on the fact that they can run the ball so well. Slow down the run and make the game manager QB become a playmaker and you will see a different Alex Smith.
The Atlanta Falcons seem to have the NFC South locked up at 8-0, but they have some issues as well. They are in the bottom third in rushing defense and the bottom third in rushing offense, and even though this is a passing league, playoff football sometimes reverts back to the old staple. Run the ball, stop the run. And until Matt Ryan can get the playoff monkey off his back, his 0-3 record will be there... lingering... and lingering...
The defending champion New York Giants can never be counted out, and they seem to have a very good all around team, but at 6-3 they have the worst record among the NFC division leaders. The Steelers nipped them this weekend, but they've lost to the Eagles and Cowboys earlier this year, and both those teams look bad.
I can see any of these four teams representing the NFC come Super Bowl Sunday, as well as a few of the wildcard hopefuls.
The Seattle Seahawks have a very good defense, and arguably the most physical group of defensive backs in the game today. They have a solid run game behind Marshawn Lynch, but even with how impressed I am with their rookie QB, he's still a rookie, and rookie QBs down the stretch are a crap shoot.
The Detroit Lions can get after the QB, and have a very good passing game, but their run game is still a work in progress. And then there's their reputation of playing on the edge. Come playoff time when every yard is so critical, will one of their knuckleheads draw an idiotic flag?
The Buccaneers are 4-4 and a full 4 games behind Atlanta in the NFC South, but with the way their offense has looked of late I think they have a chance to get back in the thick of the race. They have two games with the Falcons coming up, and if they can figure out what's ailing their defense, they have the look of a team that might get hot.
The Green Bay Packers have a few key injuries to fight through, but that team has the best depth in the NFL. They also have the best QB in the game today, and a burgeoning star in wide out Randall Cobb. Their defense is playing better than last year when they were statistically the worst, but you can still move the ball on them.
The stats are one thing, but the biggest reason I see the Bears having as good a shot as any other team to go all the way is the simple eye test. The other teams in the running just don't look that great.
The Bears have a tough next couple of games in prime time. They host the Texans this Sunday night, then travel to San Fran next Monday night. Everything we need to know about the Bears we'll find out these two games. They also have Seattle, Green Bay, and the Lions left on the schedule, not to mention the two Minnesota games that are always tough and a trip to the desert to play the Cardinals. Chicago has a tough second half, but that's exactly how you'd like it as a coach. The Bears will have a lot of games down the stretch that will have a playoff vibe, and it'll help the younger players get their 'battle tested mojo' moving towards the playoffs.
So why not the Bears?