DMN: A look at 3-2 teams’ playoff chances

QUOTE: “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” -- Harry S Truman

Currently, as we enter Week 7 of the season, there are six NFC teams with 3-2 records:

- Dallas and Philadelphia from the NFC East

- Chicago and Green Bay from the NFC North

- San Francisco and Arizona from the NFC West

Only the two teams from the NFC West are in first place. The Atlanta Falcons, at 4-1, have a wild-card lead over the other four. So which teams are the best 3-2 teams, and which ones have a chance to make a playoff run, whether as a wild card or an eventual division titlist?

Here’s my analysis:

Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have beaten three teams, but I’m not sure they have a solid win among any of them. On opening day, they beat a very bad Tampa Bay team yet struggled to shut down the Bucs’ pedestrian passing game. Their other wins came in overtime against the Chiefs and an impressive second-half comeback against the Panthers. Are the 2009 Cowboys good enough to be a Super Bowl team and go on a 10-game winning streak? Not unless they fix their secondary, which right now is allowing opposing quarterbacks a 94-plus quarterback rating, 27th in the NFL. They struggle to handle the pass, especially when they haven’t been able to generate any pass rush. Their inflated numbers on offense in terms of yards is impressive, ranking ninth overall.

Cowboy Nation will be up in arms if this team doesn’t reach the playoffs, especially my man John M, but to get there, the Cowboys must prove in the next 11 games that they’ve improved their pass rush, their passing game on offense and their inconsistencies overall as a team. Here are their remaining games:

Oct. 25 vs. Atlanta Falcons
Nov. 1 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Nov. 8 at Philadelphia Eagles
Nov. 15 at Green Bay Packers
Nov. 22 vs. Washington Redskins
Nov. 26 (Thurs.) vs. Oakland Raiders
Dec. 6 at New York Giants
Dec. 13 vs. San Diego Chargers
Dec. 19 (Sat.) at New Orleans Saints
Dec. 27 at Washington Redskins
Jan. 3 vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Sunday’s game will have playoff implications since the winning team will hold the advantage in the head-to-head battle if both are in the wild-card race. The December schedule must make Cowboy fans nervous because this has never been a strong finishing team under coach Wade Phillips’ administration.

Philadelphia Eagles: They always seem to have one game a year when the wheels fall off, and of course, quarterback Donovan McNabb takes all the heat — yet somehow they rally back during the season. Is this Eagles team good enough to make a Super Bowl run? Playoffs, yes. Super Bowl, no. Every game I’ve viewed on tape, they’ve exhibited flaws, particularly in their ability to generate a pass rush, which helps hide their secondary. Even against the Bucs, when they ran their zero blitz schemes (no player in the middle of the field), they weren’t always effective getting to the quarterback. The Bucs moved the ball via their passing game, which had to cause some concern inside the Eagles’ offices. Then the Raiders game again exposed this area, and as the season moves along and the Birds face better passing teams, this shortcoming will very hard to hide.

Trading for Will Witherspoon as their new Mike backer is not going to help solve the problems. Witherspoon is a Will-type backer and needs to be able to flow to the football and not be a downhill backer, which the Eagle defensive scheme needs from their Mike backer. They made the move to help, but I’m not sure it will. Here’s their remaining schedule:

Oct. 26 (Mon.) at Washington Redskins
Nov. 1 vs. New York Giants
Nov. 8 vs. Dallas Cowboys
Nov. 15 at San Diego Chargers
Nov. 22 at Chicago Bears
Nov. 29 vs. Washington Redskins
Dec. 6 at Atlanta Falcons
Dec. 13 at New York Giants
Dec. 20 vs. San Francisco 49ers
Dec. 27 vs. Denver Broncos
Jan. 3 at Dallas Cowboys

The Bears and Falcons games will be crucial games away from the NFC East. For the Cowboys and Eagles, a loss to the ‘Skins, either home or away, might put them on the sidelines at playoff time.

Chicago Bears: I like the Bears but worry about their offensive line, especially on the road. They play very well at home, but problems on their line (right tackle, center) will be exposed on the road with all the crowd noise. The Bears are a dangerous team because their coaches are learning more about the players every game, and that education will allow them to feel more comfortable in their talent level. Yes, the secondary is marginal, but the way they’re playing in their defensive line, I feel they can mask their lack of coverage men.

Jay Cutler’s ability to protect the ball will be key, but his ability to make plays in the pass game is what can separate the Bears from the rest of the 3-2 pack. Here’s their schedule:

Oct. 25 at Cincinnati Bengals
Nov. 1 vs. Cleveland Browns
Nov. 8 vs. Arizona Cardinals
Nov. 12 (Thurs.) at San Francisco 49ers
Nov. 22 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Nov. 29 at Minnesota Vikings
Dec. 6 vs. St. Louis Rams
Dec. 13 vs. Green Bay Packers
Dec. 20 at Baltimore Ravens
Dec. 28 (Mon.) vs. Minnesota Vikings
Jan. 3 at Detroit Lions

Tough road ahead for the Bears as they face four of the six teams that are in the 3-2 category.

Green Bay Packers: If the Packers can get their offensive line problems fixed — which won’t be easy -- they can separate themselves from this cluster. I’m worried about their lack of pressure on the passer, but once they get early leads on teams, they can scheme pressure. Plus, I’m counting on Aaron Kampman playing at a higher level. The Packers were searching for a big-time back at the trading deadline but failed to find one and settled for Ahman Green, who is just 46 yards away from breaking Jim Taylor’s team rushing record (by the way, I loved watching Jim Taylor run).

Oct. 25 at Cleveland Browns
Nov. 1 vs. Minnesota Vikings
Nov. 8 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nov. 15 vs. Dallas Cowboys
Nov. 22 vs. San Francisco 49ers
Nov. 26 (Thurs.) at Detroit Lions
Dec. 7 (Mon.) vs. Baltimore Ravens
Dec. 13 at Chicago Bears
Dec. 20 at Pittsburgh Steelers
Dec. 27 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Jan. 3 at Arizona Cardinals

The Packers play four of the six 3-2 teams in the next 11 games, and each one will have playoff implications. If they lose next week against the Vikings, they’ll be hoping for a wild-card bid, making every one of those games against 3-2 teams more important.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cards are now a passing team, and we’ll find out Sunday in New York if they can find a way to play well on the road in the East. Other than the playoff game against the Panthers, the Cards have never been effective in the eastern time zone. However, the larger issue concerning the Cards is whether they’ve made the right adjustments to be NFC West champions. Their offensive line is always a concern, especially at left tackle, where Mike Gandy doesn’t always rise to the level of competition and affects the team&rs quo;s ability to throw the ball in big games.

Oct. 25 at New York Giants
Nov. 1 vs. Carolina Panthers
Nov. 8 at Chicago Bears
Nov. 15 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Nov. 22 at St. Louis Rams
Nov. 29 at Tennessee Titans
Dec. 6 vs. Minnesota Vikings
Dec. 14 (Mon.) at San Francisco 49ers
Dec. 20 at Detroit Lions
Dec. 27 vs. St. Louis Rams
Jan. 3 vs. Green Bay Packers

I believe the NFC West will have only one playoff team, so the battles in the division are the most critical.

San Francisco 49ers: They must hope their defense can carry them for the rest of the season and their offense doesn’t make mistakes. The 49ers’ style of play is essential to how they win, and once they’re removed from their comfort zone, they don’t have the capability to play catch-up. Their defense is solid and physical but will struggle to handle the good passing teams in the league.

The 49ers have to hope that rookie Michael Crabtree can make some big plays in the passing game. They won’t be a playoff team if they don’t get their yards-per-pass-attempt above 6.0, which means an increase of one yard.

Oct. 25 at Houston Texans
Nov. 1 at Indianapolis Colts
Nov. 8 vs. Tennessee Titans
Nov. 12 (Thurs.) vs. Chicago Bears
Nov. 22 at Green Bay Packers
Nov. 29 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Dec. 6 at Seattle Seahawks
Dec. 14 (Mon.) vs. Arizona Cardinals
Dec. 20 at Philadelphia Eagles
Dec. 27 vs. Detroit Lions
Jan. 3 at St. Louis Rams

The key to the 49ers’ success in reaching the playoffs will be how many good passing teams they face. The next two weeks might be a huge challenge.

Today in the Tavern, I’ll rank the teams.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

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