Cardinals- The Quarterback.
Luck matters in sports, particularly luck with injuries. The Cardinals were forced to flip-flop its quarterback situation all season due to the wavering health of Carson Palmer, but after tearing his ACL in Week 10, Arizona was forced to turn to backup Drew Stanton permanently. Since Stanton took over as the starter, the Cardinals have averaged a pedestrian 12.8 PPG in five games. To make matters worse, Stanton exited the Cards’ most 12-6 victory over the Rams last Thursday night with a knee injury. Stanton was originally expected to miss from four weeks to possibly a month, but the timetable for his return has not become clear. After Stanton exited Ryan Lindley entered the game and will serve as the Cardinals’ starter over rookie Logan Thomas moving forward. Stanton’s performance over the last five weeks was underwhelming, but Ryan Lindley’s career numbers are historically poor. In seven career games, Lindley stats are 89-171, 51.3%, 782 Yds, 4.32 YPA, 0 TD, 7 INT, 46.8 QB rating, 9.0 QBR. My eyes are burning too Cards fans.
The Cards managed to clinch a playoff berth due to its hot start and outstanding defense, but the Cards aren’t scaring anyone in the postseason with Lindley or even Stanton trotting onto the field as its starting quarterback.
Seahawks- Big Explosive Receivers
The Seahawks defense has become the immoveable object it was last season in recent weeks, vaulting to 1st in overall defense allowing 272 YPG and 2nd in scoring defense 17.3 PPG. The offense, however, still has holes and weaknesses. The Seahawks rank 30th in the league in passing at 192.8 YPG, besting the Jets and barely edging the Jags at 192.6 YPG, despite Russell Wilson’s heroic play-creating tendencies. The Seahawks lack explosiveness downfield in the pass game as they rank above just six teams in 40+ yard completions. While the Seahawks are not a downfield passing team, instead relying on their small, shifty wideouts to find holes in the defense and get YAC by making defenders miss after the catch, it could pose problems in the postseason if defenses deploy more man coverage and attempt to jam the smaller receivers at the line while also coming up in the coverage to play shorter routes. Not only is Seattle’s offense devoid of explosiveness, but it also lacks a big target that can consistently make contested catches over defenders and in traffic. Seattle’s top three wideouts, Doug Baldwin (5’10” 189), Jermaine Kearse (6’1” 209) and Paul Richardson (6’0” 183) are clearly lacking in size and strength and may struggle to deal with press coverage. However, Russell Wilson’s scrambling ability cautions defenses against playing with help over the top as his ability to extend plays give Seattle’s receivers time to fend off physical coverage and break free downfield.
It’s worth noting that Seattle had this same problem last season and how did that work out for them? Seattle is comfortable in its style of play, leaning on its top-ranked defense and run game, while using creativity and route combinations to manufacture plays through the air when necessary.
Cowboys- Pass Rush.
The Dallas offense has been humming all season with Tony Romo having perhaps his best season (3rd in the NFL in QBR) DeMarco Murray chasing down Emmitt Smith’s franchise rushing marks, Dez Bryant torching Eagles’ DBs and saving numerous fantasy teams from a playoff exit and arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. The defense, however, particularly the pass rush is still a major concern in Big D as the Cowboys possess what is likely the most unheralded defensive line in the NFL. The Cowboys lack an explosive edge rusher and rely on castoffs Jeremy Mincey and George Selvie as its starting defensive ends. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrance has been a non-factor this season and hasn’t seen the field much since coming back from injury and Anthony Spencer’s injury has clearly sapped him of any burst off the edge. Dallas’ two best pass rushers are arguably DTs Henry Melton and Tyrone Crawford who rotate as the 3-technique tackle that is such a vital cog to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s scheme.
The Cowboys rank 28th in the league with just 23 sacks this season and its adjusted sack rate ranks 30th as the Cowboys are sacking the quarterback on just 4.4% of dropbacks. The Cowboys may be able to survive its mediocre pass rush, which has contributed to a leaky pass defense, in terms of scrapping out a playoff berth, but may jeopardize a potential playoff run.
Eagles- Poor Play at the Most Crucial Position.
Chip Kelly’s offense is a marvel of speed, simplicity and efficiency. With its spread option rushing attack and quick timing pass offense combined with the constant fast pace, Kelly’s offense in unlike any other throughout the league’s history. The results have been a paced offensive spread attack that presents defenses with major headaches and a necessary level of conditioning, however, the most critical position in football is something that Kelly’s offense has been unable to fully mask.
The combined play of quarterbacks Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez has put limitations on the effectiveness of Kelly’s offense. Although the combination of the Eagles’ quarterbacks ranks from among the top to mid-level in most passing categories including yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns, turnovers have become a major problem. The Eagles have thrown the most INTs in the league edging out Cutler and the Bears 20 to 18 and have fumbled 11 times while losing six of them. These turnovers have plagued the QBRs of both QBs as Foles’ QBR of 62.2 ranks 14th in the league, while Sanchez’s QBR has plummeted to 48.8 ranking 27th according to Football Outsiders. The DVOA which measures an offense’s overall effectiveness against the level of its opponent defense mirrors both quarterbacks’ QBR. Foles’ DVOA is 3.6%, 17th in the league, while Sanchez’s rating of -13.7% ranks 31st. As explosive as the Kelly’s offense is, the potential of its effectiveness seems almost limitless with improved quarterback play.
Packers- Rodgers against the elite.
The Packers’ seemingly have almost chinks in its armor this season as it boasts a top-flight scoring offense led by Aaron Rodger’s MVP-type season and a strong running game. The Packers also have a bounty of productivity among its receiving core led by Jordy Nelson. Even the Pack defense, which has plagued them in a number of recent playoff losses, including the past two seasons against the 49ers, grades out as a middle-of-the-road defense in straight statistics and efficiency.
However, it’s fair to question that Packers’ level of overall toughness and ability to thrive offensively against the league’s top defense. Three of Green Bay’s four losses have come in dogfights in which the thought-to-be invincible Aaron Rodgers has been stymied. In those three losses to the Seahawks, Lions and Bills, which rank 1st, 2nd, and 4th in both total defense and scoring defense, Rodgers’ is just 56-102 with an average 178.7 YPG and 2 TDs with 3 INTs. Also the offense has averaged just 12 PPG in those three games compared to 36.4 PPG in its other 11 games. Perhaps its unfair to pick the Packer’s three worst offensive outings, which will likely naturally coincide with losses, but the fact that Rodgers and the offense has struggled so mightily against the NFL’s top defenses is a concern with the likes of the Seahawks, Lions and Cardinals sure to be in the NFC playoff field. The Pack have shown its been incapable of winning low-scoring, drag-it-out games in which Rodgers and the offense struggles and that could hamper them dearly in January.
Lions- Offensive Consistency.
The Lions’ defense had acted as a liability for years under Jim Schwartz, but now under the direction of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin the defense ranks 2nd in yards and 1st in scoring. Strangely it has been the offense that has hampered the Lions this season. The Lions’ offense ranks 17th in yards and an alarming 23rd in scoring at 20.1 PPG. The Lions offense also hovers around league average in advanced efficiency metrics. The offense has been inconsistent all season and perhaps no player represents those inconsistencies better than its quarterback, Matt Stafford. Stafford has five games with a QBR below 35, but also has four games with a QBR above 80. For the season Stafford’s QBR is 56.4 which ranks 19th in the league. Average! Even the return of a healthy Megatron hasn’t helped the offense’s productivity. Although Megatron has put forth solid production, look at the scoring outputs since his return against Miami in Week 10: 20, 6, 9, 34, 34 and 16.
The passing game, however, has actually been the positive side of the Lions’ offense as its rushing offense ranks among the worst in the league. The Lions are averaging just 83.8 YPG and 3.4 YPC on the ground, both 30th in the league. Lions’ running back have been stuffed (tackled at or behind the line scrimmage) on 23% of its runs which ranks 30th in the league and also rank 31st in second-level (yards gained between 5-10 yards within the line of scrimmage) yards per attempt via Football Outsiders. The Lions run game and overall inconsistency this season is a concern and it’s to-level defense may not be able to carry them during the postseason.
NFC South- Look at that division and tell me what isn’t.
This entire division could be considered a weakness. Atlanta’s defense ranks last in passing yards and total yards and 28th in scoring. Atlanta’s pass rush has been non-existent for much of the season, while the team’s defensive communication in terms of coverage assignments has to big plays on the backend. Matt Ryan and the incredible physical gifts of Julio Jones will only be able to carry this team so far.
New Orleans’ defense isn’t much better as it ranks 28th in total yards allowed, while its scoring defense is 29th at 26.7 PPG. Offensively Drew Brees’ decision-making hasn’t been up to par with his usual standards and he has struggled at times with turnovers and his downfield passing accuracy has slumped considerably this season.
The Panthers defense has improved after a dreadful start to the season, but its scoring defense has allowed an average of 25.6 PPG this season. The offense, meanwhile, has been inconsistent throughout the season and Cam Newton’s play has been erratic at times, not to mention his wavering health this season. The running game has also lacked productivity at times, but it has picked up recently as Newton has become more of a focal point in the rushing attack.
 The Cardinals still managed a 3-2 record over that five game stretch thanks to its incredible defense.
 Stanton was limited in practice this past Thursday and it appears he may be ready to return much sooner than originally expected.
 Mincey has actually been somewhat effective at times this season. He is tied for the team league with 5 sacks and is tied for eighth in the NFL in hurries with 15 according to Sporting Charts.
 As of publication the Eagles’ Saturday game against Washington are included in these statistics.