We know the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have clinched playoff berths and stalwarts in the NFC playoff race. We know that Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady know how to handle themselves when they reach the postseason, giving all four teams a legit chance to reach the Super Bowl. But what about the NFC playoff bottom feeders of the standings in this race? The Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, and huddled masses of the NFC East.
Do any of them pose a real threat to the top contenders and their proven quarterbacks? NFL Recap surveyed the field of lingering playoff hopefuls at the end of Week 16 and determined that some of them could create havoc by winning a playoff game or two. And the most dangerous teams among the also-rans just might surprise you.
NFC Playoff Race 2020: The fringe teams not in the NFC East
Arizona Cardinals (8-7)
The Cardinals’ run defense allowed 227 yards in Saturday’s 20-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. They have allowed 100-plus yards in five of their last six games. Both the Cardinals’ offense and defense are terrible in third-and-long situations.
Kyler Murray often looks like he is wearing roller skates when slipping and sliding when moving around the pocket. Worst of all, Kliff Kingsbury’s offense lacks the personality it had last year and the start of this year. Opponents caught up to the team’s intricate screen concepts, and Kingsbury responded by just becoming more conventional and predictable.
The Cardinals’ résumé
The Cardinals’ signature victories in 2020 have been wild down-to-the-wire shootouts against the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills. They’re built to win NFL Blitz 2000-style games where Murray scrambles around and lofts bombs to DeAndre Hopkins while their defense tries to string a few sacks and turnovers together.
The Cardinals are like the junior varsity Chiefs in that respect. While they could surprise someone in the postseason, they’re more likely to be exposed after the NFC playoff race dust settles as not being ready for the spotlight against Packers, Seahawks, and Buccaneers teams who know how to live and not die by the big play, or the disciplined, ball-controlling, clock-munching Saints.
Chicago Bears (8-7)
Mitch Trubisky has completed 72.4% of his passes for seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in four December games. Yes, it has helped that the Bears faced the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars in various stages of quit mode, plus the reliably-mediocre Minnesota Vikings.
And yes, anyone who thinks Trubisky now deserves a franchise quarterback contract (see: Adam Schefter’s ESPN report) needs to stop chasing the edibles down with mulled wine. Interestingly, the Bears offense looks balanced and semi-dangerous as the playoffs approach, and their defense ranked seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA before shutting down the Jacksonville Jaguars in a 41-17 rout.
The Bears’ résumé
The Bears are by far the best team and most deserving playoff participant on this list, which is scary because they are not very good. They beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 and took the New Orleans Saints to overtime in Week 8, indicating that they can force a contender to play their grimy brand of football in the postseason.
And heck, maybe Trubisky will prove that he’s the next Ryan Tannehill in the playoffs. But please don’t put money on that despite their current status in the NFC playoff standings.
Los Angeles Rams (9-5)
The Rams need to either beat the Cardinals or hope the Bears lose to the Packers in Week 17. Both scenarios are quite possible, even with Jared Goff’s availability in doubt due to a thumb injury. It should not have been this hard for them though. These Rams would be among the Saints/Packers NFC contender tier if not for turnovers, special teams woes, and an inability to play well from behind.
The Rams’ résumé
The Rams split with the Seahawks and beat the Buccaneers this season. They won’t be helpless if they reach the NFC playoffs — their current standing isn’t so bleak.
But even if Goff is healthy, once an opponent takes a 10-point lead on them, they’re done. The same cannot be said of the Cowboys or Cardinals, or even the Bears or Washington, who are always one big defensive play away from making things interesting.
And if the Rams are stuck with obscure backup John Wolford for the rest of the year, then nothing else really matters.
NFC Playoff Race 2020: The fringe teams in the NFC East
New York Giants (5-10)
There is absolutely nothing playoff-worthy about the Giants, who have lost their last three games by a combined score of 73-26. But the Giants swept Washington this season, so here we are. They will win the NFC East in the event of a three-way 6-10 clusterfart. Which we all know is entirely possible.
If the Giants do reach the playoffs, look for them to be double-digit home underdogs in the opening round.
Dallas Cowboys (6-9)
The real NFC contenders will be rooting hard for the New York Giants next week. The Washington Football Team has a dangerous pass rush and nothing else, and the Giants are a joke. However, the Cowboys’ receiving corps of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup can pressure any defense in the league. That’s especially now that Andy Dalton has settled in, and Ezekiel Elliott isn’t fumbling twice before halftime anymore.
Do you think Brees can win a shootout the way he is currently playing? Or Wilson for that matter? Or Brady, when facing an opponent whose coaching staff hasn’t been filled out by groundskeepers and social media managers, and is also not the Atlanta Falcons?
The Cowboys are perfectly capable of a first-round home upset, if not more, beyond the NFC playoff race.
Now that Dwayne Haskins’ maskless strip club antics are out of the bag, NFL Recap no longer has to be subtle and polite. Haskins hasn’t focused or prepared the way a young quarterback must. It has been a problem in Washington for a while.
Haskins may not be a complete lost cause, but he needs a change of scenery at the least. There will be no coming back from his dreadful performance and benching in favor of Taylor Heinicke in a 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers that could have clinched the NFC East for Washington.
All eyes are now on Alex Smith. He might end up wearing a Stark Industries exo-suit onto the field in Week 17 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Robo-Smith is a barely-capable quarterback at this point, but all Washington’s defense next week is for the offense to not commit self-sabotage.
The Eagles have already reached the point where they are politely pretending not to notice Jalen Hurts’ significant fumbling problem because they are too deep in their quarterback controversy to climb out now. (Also, Carson Wentz had a major fumbling problem). If Smith can limit turnovers and lead a few field goal drives, Washington wins the NFC East.
If they reach the playoffs, Washington could beat the Saints the way they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (wallop the geezer quarterback, generate a wisp of offense) or cause trouble again in a Seahawks rematch (dominate the line of scrimmage, pick the Seahawks defense apart with micro-passes). Neither scenario is likely, but both are possible. We’re left wondering just how good Washington could have been with even mediocre Trubisky/Dalton-caliber quarterback play.
More from Mike Tanier beyond the NFC playoff race and standings
If you are looking for more breakdowns from this week’s slate of games, make sure to check out Mike Tanier’s Week 16 NFL Recap in one easy article. Click here to get started: NFL Week 16 Recap: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chiefs highlight NFL action