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NFC Title Contenders Starting To Emerge

Courtesy—James Varney/Times-Picayune

The NFC at just past the midpoint of the 2010 season has been dominated by two circuses and a handful of near-Cinderellas.

Although considerable football remains to be played, the contenders for the postseason are beginning to emerge from a preseason in which the Dallas Cowboys were expected to be among them. Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants fans, for instance, are likely to see their heroes play more than one game in early 2011, as are, to a less certain degree, Who Dats everywhere.

There are new stars (Rams QB Sam Bradford) and even, perhaps unexpectedly, new coaches (the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett), just as Dallas is not the only city shaking its head over shattered dreams (hearts left in San Francisco are now broken).

A team-by-team breakdown of the race for the postseason

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons (7-2 overall; 2-0 division)

The Falcons, generally regarded as the Saints’ main threat in the division, have lived up to the hype. Any doubts should have been eradicated Thursday night when Atlanta came from behind in the last minute to beat Baltimore.

True, the Saints should have beaten Atlanta at the Superdome by making a short field goal in overtime, but they didn’t.

Only a total breakdown would keep Atlanta out of the playoffs. They are 4-1 in the conference and a perfect 5-0 at home, where the Saints will face them on Monday night two days after Christmas.

Grade: A

New Orleans Saints (6-3, 3-1)

One field goal is all that keeps the Falcons above the Saints. But in some respects, the Saints are thankful to be where they are.

After struggling against inferior teams with inexperienced quarterbacks, the Saints appear to have righted the ship by winning back-to-back games in impressive fashion. With key players due back this week after the team’s bye, the Saints are positioned to begin their run to the postseason in style, starting next Sunday against Seattle. Only three NFC teams have surrendered fewer points than the Saints.

Grade: A-

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-3, 1-2)

The Bucs’ division record illustrates that this is a team that, like Chicago, isn’t quite as good as its overall record indicates.

But it’s a much better team than last year, and signs of life in Tampa Bay are real. Only a goal-line stand by the Falcons kept them from losing to the Buccaneers in Atlanta, and the young Tampa Bay team has shown poise in amassing a 3-1 road record. But as that red-zone failure at the Georgia Dome and the Saints’ convincing win in Tampa underscored, this is a team that isn’t threatening the elite of its division, let alone the NFC.

Grade: B+

Carolina Panthers (1-7, 0-3)

Before the season began, this team was slotted into the dreaded “rebuilding” category. It has turned out to be simply dreadful. Beset by quarterback woes and coached by a man few expect to be employed by the team next year, the Panthers have gone from wobbly to worst in the NFC (a title they share with the Cowboys). Coach John Fox acknowledged he had no answers after the Saints dismantled his team a week ago, and whispers the team may have quit began to waft about Bank of America Stadium. Next year, perhaps, the team can advance to the rebuilding stage.

Grade: F

NFC EAST

New York Giants (6-2, 1-0)

As the breakdown of the Giants’ schedule suggests, the real season is about to begin for Big Blue. It’s only divisional game thus far was a smackdown of the Cowboys in Dallas. If the Giants beat Dallas again today, at home, as expected, it would be more than two years since the G-Men fell to their arch-rival.

And certainly New York’s 5-0 record in the NFC won’t hurt it as the playoff race tightens. The Giants are humming on offense and defense and have thoroughly righted their ship, which had been listing since they came to the Superdome undefeated in 2009 and limped out after being whipped by the Saints. Coach Tom Coughlin was on the hot seat after a 1-2 beginning, but the Giants are rivaled only by the Falcons for the title of best NFC team at this point.

Grade: A

Philadelphia Eagles (5-3, 0-1)

The Eagles again are a rock-solid team, which wouldn’t have seemed possible when the season began. After trading longtime franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington in the offseason, the Eagles rolled the dice with Kevin Kolb on the basis of two good games in 2009. Kolb has been dicey and sometimes hurt. However, the Eagles have gotten excellent play from Michael Vick.

All is not perfect for Philly, however. The team has given up an alarming 198 points, and its 3-2 record in the NFC leaves little margin for error as it chases a wild-card berth.

Grade: B

Washington Redskins (4-4, 2-0)

There’s something schizophrenic about the Redskins. On one hand, they’ve already won as many games as they did in 2009, and Coach Mike Shanahan seems to have stabilized a floundering franchise. On the other hand, the team hasn’t improved as the season progressed, and Shanahan’s benching McNabb threatens to toss the team right back into the quicksand it has labored in for years. Overall, then, mediocrity, thy name is Washington.

Grade: C

Dallas Cowboys (1-7, 0-2)

Those who despise America’s team from coast to coast have had much to savor in 2010, as a team some picked to become the first home team in a Super Bowl has instead imploded. Given the expectations, the money spent, the reputation, etc., the Cowboys probably deserve the label as worst team in the NFL. And there are precious few signs of a quick turnaround. Quarterback Tony Romo, who has a career 1-3 playoff record as a starter, is hurt, and the defense is practically non-existent (already yielding 232 points). Another coaching change in the offseason widely is expected.

Grade: F

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (6-3, 2-1)

After a shaky start, the Packers seem to have stabilized, and with each passing week appear more like a playoff team. That said, they do not yet seem like the Super Bowl team many analysts saw them as when the season began. Still, they entered Week 10 as the highest scoring offense in the NFC, and their defense has allowed only 143 points. That’s the kind of “both sides of the ball” quality that serves a team well in the push to the postseason.

Grade: A-

Chicago Bears (5-3, 2-0)

Unlike Tampa Bay, whom most regard as a young team perhaps blossoming toward becoming a playoff participant, the Bears are often dismissed as fakes. The opinion that Jay Cutler is not a top-shelf quarterback has hardened, as has the thought that were it not for a couple of wins early, this team would be mired in the basement. In fact, that view is too harsh. Any team that has surrendered just 133 points at this stage is playing great defense, and a 3-1 road record means the contempt has not spread to the locker room. None of that will be enough to get Chicago to the playoffs, though.

Grade: B-

Minnesota Vikings (3-5, 1-1)

Were it not for Dallas, Minnesota would wear the conference’s dunce cap at midseason. The Vikings, flying high after an NFC championship game appearance in 2009 that many of them felt they should have won, have instead become a circus. Coach Brad Childress is disrespected inside and outside the locker room, a brief fling with wide receiver Randy Moss reflected badly on the corporate brand, and quarterback Brett Favre remains, as always, a soap opera in cleats.

Grade: F

Detroit Lions (2-6, 0-3)

That concerned grumbling growing in the Motor City isn’t only because Pontiac bought the farm. Evidence is mounting that its No. 1 overall draft pick, quarterback Matthew Stafford, is a paper lion after all. Stafford cannot stay healthy, and the Lions can’t seem to climb out of the cellar. While expectations were far from high in Detroit this season, something better than this stumbling week after week was expected. Bad luck is a part of it, but bad engineering is the real yoke on this town and probably the main reason the Lions can’t even win a game in their weak division.

Grade: D

NFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks (4-4, 2-1)

Forgotten for some time now in the misty Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks are showing signs of stirring again. But they could be fleeting signs. The team’s scoring — 130 for, 181 against — is of the lopsided nature of also-rans, and Seattle has shown no indication it can win on the road. If the Saints play anything like they did the previous two weeks when Seattle visits New Orleans, the Seahawks will drop to 1-4 on the road. Because they play in the West, however, Seattle is not out of it.

Grade: B

St. Louis Rams (4-4, 1-1)

If the NFL’s vaunted parity never seems to settle on Detroit, it is staking another claim for itself in St. Louis. Here, No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford appears to be doing for the Rams what Stafford could not for the Lions: stay healthy and make the team better. Actually, the Rams are a lot better. So much better, in fact, they could make the playoffs. Some team from the West Division has to make it, and how long before the Rams’ locker room starts asking, “Why not us?” And that cry may be getting heard by Dec. 12, when the Rams are slated to play the Saints in New Orleans.

Grade: B+

Arizona Cardinals (3-5, 1-1)

Quarterback Kurt Warner had to retire and begin drafting his Hall of Fame speech some time; it’s just unfortunate for Cardinals fans that time was 2010. Without Warner, Arizona quickly has begun to sink to also-ran status. It’s possible running back Beanie Wells, who has been disappointing this season, will hit his stride and Coach Ken Wisenhunt will settle on a quarterback, but a playoff shot has to be considered a long one.

Grade: C-

San Francisco 49ers (2-6, 0-1)

Picked by some to win the division, the 49ers instead lost one close game after another until it became clear they were unlikely to win games in batches, and Coach Mike Singletary began to look obstinate rather than fiery. True, if Troy Smith leads them to another victory at home today over St. Louis, the 49ers probably will have found a quarterback and thrown a weird division into even greater turmoil. But a team 0-5 in its conference doesn’t deserve a happy ending. The 49ers are not going to the playoffs this year.

Grade: F

Babes

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