I love Thanksgiving week in the NFL because this is the point in the year as a player, coach, GM, etc., where seasons are essentially won or lost — depending on the type of playoff push you can manage.
And Sunday, we got to see firsthand how the NFC wild card race is starting to unfold, which teams are still alive and which are basically out — and getting ready to play out the stretch and start over at the Combine in February.
But more importantly, as we get ready to eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day, there’s nowhere to hide, because after 10 games, this is who you are as a football team. The hot starts, the big wins, the early season hype are all gone. Either you win and play well now or fade away with the rest of the conference. There isn’t a gimmick play or certain personnel package that’s going to save you. No, Thanksgiving week lays out the path for us to see.
In saying that, let’s look at the NFC after a crucial weekend of games that exposed some teams but also proved there are others that can still be considered “playoff quality.”
The wild card contenders
Four teams are essentially fighting for two playoff spots:
I like the Eagles because they’re dangerous — on both sides of the ball. Donovan McNabb didn’t play his best game Sunday night here in Chicago, but he made crucial plays at crucial points. I love the way the Philly defense can pressure, and you have to buy this team as a serious playoff contender because it’s capable of swinging a game on any given play.
N.Y. Giants (6-4)
Huge win for the G-Men over Atlanta, but a telling win, as Eli Manning had to have a career day for them to beat the Falcons without Michael Turner. The Giants are loaded on offense, but their lack of playmakers in the secondary and at linebacker position isn’t good enough for me right now. Can they beat Philly? Dallas? I don’t see it.
Green Bay (6-4)
The good news is that the Packers showed us that they’re a much better football team than San Fran, but the bad news is the injuries. Can they replace Al Harris and Aaron Kampman? From my perspective, this is a defensive football team, and now they’ll have to find a way to continue to bring pressure and be creative on that side of the ball without two of their top players. Yes, I’m a fan of Aaron Rodgers and this team’s ability to create the big play on offense, but defense will win in December for the Pack.
The Falcons are always going to be in games because they can score on offense and TE Tony Gonzalez is becoming the toughest matchup in the NFC. But their secondary is young, they don’t make a ton of plays, and until Turner is back in the lineup, I see too much stress on QB Matt Ryan. In the race for sure, but I can’t buy them until they’re a complete team again.
Isn’t it obvious, starting on Thursday night, that these three teams can start getting ready to restructure their rosters— and maybe their coaching staffs— this week?
I was at Solider Field last night and saw what everyone else did who tuned in — Jay Cutler doesn’t have it for the Bears this season. He left 21 points on the field, and when he had that one final chance to hit Johnny Knox — who had just smoked Sheldon Brown — he didn’t deliver. That play was a season killer for Chicago. Add in the fact that the defense under Lovie Smith is inconsistent and average in the secondary, and we’re looking at a team that will be on vacation in January.
Going back to Thursday night, not only did Ricky Williams end any playoff hopes for the Panthers, it’s obvious that no matter how well DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart run the football, this is still a quarterback-driven league — and Jake Delhomme isn’t a big-play QB. And that has killed the production of Steve Smith and this entire franchise.
San Francisco (4-6)
The reality is that the Niners — despite their comeback in Green Bay — aren’t a playoff team yet. They’ve had too many games where their defense has vanished, and QB Alex Smith isn’t ready to make a playoff run. I’ll agree that this team is close, but that doesn’t matter in ’09.
Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41
For more coverage on the playoff push in the NFL, check out this article from Bleacher Report.