In the NFC, there’s Dallas — and everyone else.
The question for the Cowboys isn’t where Tony Romo lands next — sorry, every pregame show in America — but whether or not another challenger inside the conference can possibly throw this fever dream of a roster off course.
Over their past three games, the Cowboys (10-1) have outdueled a pair of high-octane attacks in Pittsburgh and Washington while blasting through Baltimore’s mighty defense. It’s hard to imagine a squad in the NFC fit enough to match wits with the ‘Boys, who can clinch a playoff spot this week with a win and either a Redskins defeat or Buccaneers loss/tie.
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With the Vikings, Giants, Bucs, Lions and Eagles left on the slate, Dallas would need to implode down the stretch to lose the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Outside of an angry asteroid wiping out a jam-packed AT&T Stadium, that’s not going to happen.
It’s far more likely the Cowboys rampage through the conference en route to Super Bowl LI, but I’ve been called on to write another 600 words on the rest of the NFC, so let’s dig in:
Seahawks still Super?
Seattle’s nine-point loss at Tampa Bay was the Seahawks’ worst defeat since Week 2 of last season, when the Packers toppled them by 10 points.
Coming off their worst offensive showing of the year, the ‘Hawks (7-3-1) have failed to score an offensive touchdown in three games this season, tying them with the snickered-at Rams.
Still, Pete Carroll’s teams have always found a way to overcome their issues and surge into January. Quarterback Russell Wilson is finally healthy and the Seahawks have the ugly NFC West salted away. Currently the NFC’s No. 2 seed, it’s hard to imagine Seattle imploding when none of their remaining opponents — the Panthers, Packers, Rams, Cardinals and 49ers — own a winning record.
If anyone can take over that second slot, my money is on …
The NFC’s secret weapon
The experienced, resilient Seahawks have earned our trust, but I don’t see them as the top threat to Dallas. Let’s head east to Atlanta, where the Falcons (7-4) are on pace to set franchise records in points per game (32.5) and total yards per outing (411.5).
Setting an NFL record of 50 straight starts with 200-plus passing yards, MVP candidate Matt Ryan has served as a top-three quarterback all season for a versatile offense that uses different weapons weekly to scatter opponents.
When All-Pro wideout Julio Jones isn’t eating up secondaries, fellow pass catcher Mohamed Sanu and juicy deep threat Taylor Gabriel have flipped the switch for Atlanta. With Devonta Freeman and a healthy Tevin Coleman in the backfield, the Falcons have the weaponry to go punch for punch with the ‘Boys.
They’re currently notched as the NFC’s fourth seed, but that’s deceptive: The Falcons share an identical record with the third-seeded Lions (7-4) and rest just a half-game behind Seattle. Facing games against the Chiefs and four teams with losing records — the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints — Atlanta is the last club Dallas wants to see come January.
The muddled North
The Lions sit atop their division after handing the fading Vikings (6-5) another crushing loss on Thanksgiving. That win — along with Week 9′s come-from-behind overtime victory in Minnesota — gives Detroit a critical season sweep over the Vikes.
Still, Detroit’s schedule is tricky. The Lions play the Saints and Bears before finishing against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers. It’s fair to wonder if that regular-season finale will decide the North. Green Bay (5-6) has been a mixed bag all year, but given the win over Detroit back in Week 3, the Packers — currently the NFC’s 10th seed — have a legitimate shot to steal this division.
Back to Minnesota: Losing five of their last six games, the Vikings are on the outside looking in as the NFC’s eighth seed. A loss to the Cowboys on Thursday would continue Minnesota’s awful slide, but it’s still too early to rule Mike Zimmer’s bunch out.
The wild, wild East
If the season ended today, the Giants (8-3) and Redskins (6-4-1) would earn wild-card spots as the conference’s fifth and sixth seeds.
Washington’s offense alone makes these Redskins a fascinating watch and — like the Falcons — a potentially dangerous matchup for the Cowboys come January. Following the explosive showdown on Thanksgiving, we’d love to see Dallas and Washington battle one more time in an elimination game.
The Giants have feasted on some underwhelming clubs during their six-game winning streak (see: the Rams, Bengals, Bears and Browns), but let’s not discredit a team that simply took care of business. They’d own the NFC’s second seed if the league (wisely and logically) re-seeded the playoffs by record and not by division winners.
Fear not: We’ll find out who the Giants are with upcoming games against the Steelers, Cowboys, Lions, Eagles and Redskins. That Week 17 tilt at Washington looms especially large.
Magic in Tampa?
After stymieing the Seahawks, the Bucs (6-5) have our attention. Once a roaming disaster, Tampa’s defense has given up just 10.7 point per game since Week 10. Meanwhile, quarterback Jameis Winston has grown into a respected leader with plenty up his sleeve.
Three straight wins has Tampa back in the playoff picture as the NFC’s seventh seed, with remaining bouts against the Chargers, Saints, Cowboys, Saints and Panthers. The Bucs’ best hope for playoff football is a Redskins collapse paired with a sweep of New Orleans (5-6), which would destroy any playoff hopes for Sean Payton’s club.
We refuse to take the Eagles (5-6), Cardinals (4-6-1) or Panthers (4-7) seriously, barring a sudden uprising from one of these wayward operations.