This year there were three Thanksgiving NFL games (up from the traditional two) and the playoff picture is starting to clearly emerge. This late in the season two of the games were a bit inconsequential but there was a good battle in the NFC Central - the MN Vikings vs. the Detroit Lions.
It was no surprise to many that the MN Vikings outpowered the Lions, despite a really strong 4th quarter comeback by Detroit’s QB Matthew Stafford. The Vikings look unstoppable in the NFC except for perhaps, the other dominant team in the division (more on that in a minute). The NFL is really starting to see that the Vikings have a super star receiver in Adam Thielen who already has 1000 yards receiving with another five games to play. Despite losing rookie sensation Dalvin Cook in game 4 the Vikings remain strong in the running game and have a top five defense. The 9-2 Vikings remain dominant on top of the Black and Blue division (NFC Central) and are legitimate contenders this year.
That being said, the 9-1 Philadelphia Eagles remain the team to beat in the NFC. Skeptics say the Eagles (who were 7-9 last season) had an easy schedule this year but beating winless teams (like they did vs. the 49ers) and beating teams that you should beat is all part of the NFL. There is a reason “any given Sunday” is a known colloquialism. Winning is hard in the NFL and you just never know if this is the game that winless opponent you are going up against has an amazing game and puts up 45 points. So if you make mistakes and lose to teams you should not lose to -- you won’t make the playoffs. And the Eagles are just not making mistakes like that. Much of the credit needs to go to greatly improved Eagles QB Carson Wentz. He’s spreading the ball around, avoiding pressure and is blindsiding defenses with pinpoint accurate throws.
The wild card here is the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is on fire and just won't stop throwing TD's. But -- much like the Packers, the Saints only have Brees. If Brees has a single bad or mediocre game the Saints lose big time. They don't have a deep bench (as folks say in basketball) which is why I expect them to easily make the playoffs and then not make it past the divisional round. This is a bit pessimistic of me as many are picking the Saints to be a true contender. Fair enough. I just don't buy it.
The 7-3 Rams are good but -- well, not good enough to beat the Vikings or the Eagles. The Vikings have already crushed the Rams once this season 28-7 and the Eagles will beat them in the upcoming match up in December. So, I fully expect the Rams to make the playoffs and lose in the divisional round.
The Cowboys and the Packers were expected to be in the playoff running this year but Dallas has had a string of lackluster offensive games and I think will miss the playoffs with an 8-8 record and the Packers season ended the moment Aaron Rodgers was injured. Sorry Green Bay fans. Even as a MN Vikings fan I actually really like Aaron Rodgers and am happy to see him succeed but if he goes down, your team loses. A lot.
As for the Carolina Panthers, as long as Cam Newton remains healthy the Panthers (7-3) should make the playoffs but nothing about their team screams "true Super Bowl contenders." I know they went 15-1 two seasons ago, made it to the super bowl and lost but even that team was generally acknowledged to be the worst team to ever start at 11-0. I kind of feel the same way about the Panthers this season. Their decent record will take them to the playoffs but they’ll have an early exit.
Finally, rounding out the NFC contenders - the Seahawks, the Atlanta Falcons both at 6-4 and the Detroit Lions at 6-5 but all of them have been playing too inconsistent to be a deep playoff threat. Similar to the Panthers, I can see any or maybe all three teams making it to the wild card match ups if things suddenly turn sour for the Rams and the Saints but don’t believe any of them will make it to the championship game.
NFC Championship game: MN Vikings vs. The Philadelphia Eagles
Who wins: Even chances. I suspect this will come down to who has the healthiest team. The Eagles have a much better offense. The Vikings have a slightly better defense. As the saying go, “Defense wins Championships.”
That may be true. But offense wins Super Bowls.
As for the AFC, that’s even easier. The Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) and the Tennessee Titans (6-4) have all shown moments of extremely exciting, smart football. But similar to the Seahawks and the Falcons - consistency is the problem. Really good but inconsistent teams usually make it to the playoffs and rarely advance to the championship game.
The Chargers, Ravens and Buffalo Bills are all begging for scraps at the table and I could see any one of those teams pulling out three or four more wins and making it to the postseason. But - again - consistency.
And it all comes down to the fact I don’t see any of the AFC teams beating the two big boys on the block - The New England Patriots (8-2) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2).
I feel like the Steelers are good this year, but not as good as their 8-2 record implies. And I feel the opposite about the Patriots. New England should probably be 9-1 or maybe even 10-0. A few lucky breaks for opposing teams and NE ended up with two loses. I just don’t see anyone in the AFC beating Tom Brady’s Patriots.
AFC Championship game: New England Patriots vs. The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Who will win: The Patriots in a blowout win over the Steelers.
Which brings us to:
Unless something goes spectacularly wrong, which can always happen in the NFL, I expect Super Bowl 52 to be the NE Patriots vs. either the Vikings or the Eagles.
The Super Bowl is actually in Minneapolis, MN this year. As a Vikings fan I would love to see them play the Super Bowl in their home town. But - alas - I suspect it will be the Patriots and the Eagles with Tom Brady and winning his sixth ring.
But I hope not.
I hope it’s the Vikings! Unless, of course, they get waylaid by that silly Vikings curse that always waylays them!