FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With only three weeks remaining in the 2017 season, the NFC playoff picture is beginning to become clearer. There are still several scenarios that can play out over the final stretch, but we have a good idea of the primary contenders for a playoff spot.
The Falcons are currently projected to be the No. 6 seed, but they could earn a better slot in the playoffs with a strong finish in their final three games.
Coach Dan Quinn and the team are adamant about not looking past the next game on their schedule – which is the correct approach – but as we near the postseason, let's evaluate the teams who are currently projected to make the playoffs and highlight their strengths and weaknesses both offensively and defensively in this week's After Further Review.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-2): Projected No. 1 seed
Strengths:While the loss of Carson Wentz is obviously a big blow to the Eagles' offense, it may not be a devastating one. One of the strengths of Philadelphia's offense is the balance they've been able to create. After Week 14, the Eagles had the No. 2 rushing offense, averaging 143 yards per game, and the No. 11 passing offense, averaging 247.5 yards. Nick Foles must prove he can command Philadelphia's offense, but the Eagles have a sound run game to rely upon until he does.
Defensively, the Eagles' front four is among the best in the NFL. Defensive end Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox are both graded as "elite" by Pro Football Focus and have combined for 14 sacks this season. Complementing them are Tim Jernigen and Vinny Curry, who have a combined 5.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss. Philadelphia has the No. 1 rush defense in the NFL, allowing just 71.2 yards on the ground, and the front four is a big reason why.
Weaknesses:It remains to be seen how the loss of Wentz affects the offense, and his absence could ultimately prove to be the Eagles' largest weakness. For now, however, it's much easier to look at how Wentz impacted those around him. Most notably, he was excellent at avoiding pressure and making up for some offensive line woes. Philadelphia has allowed 98 pressures on the quarterback this season and 85 knockdowns. Without Wentz back there to make plays with his legs, those pressures may be turned into a sacks at a higher rate.
The front four of Philadelphia's defense may be the best unit on the team, but the second level can be exploited. Much of the success the Eagles have had on defense comes from the pressure they've generated on quarterbacks and the integrity they've shown against the run. The Eagles' front four is vital in those two aspects, but a good offensive line can give opposing quarterbacks time to take advantage of the second level and open up holes in the run game.
How the Falcons match up:Unfavorably. The Eagles handed the Falcons their most complete loss last season, and their blueprint for success – running the ball and dominant defensive line play – are two qualities most of the teams that Atlanta has struggled against have possessed.
Minnesota Vikings (10-3): Projected No. 2 seed
Strengths:The Vikings are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL, if not the most. Offensively, they don't do anything flashy, but they are consistent and fundamentally sound. Perhaps the greatest playmakers for Minnesota's offense are on the perimeter in the passing game. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are a surprisingly effective duo this season and have each scorched opposing defenses at times.
The same balance that Minnesota displays as a team makes the Vikings' defense as dangerous as it is. At every level of the defense there are multiple playmakers. What truly separates this group from other talented units, however, is the control they play with. The Vikings play exceptionally sound football on the defensive side, it just so happens they also have elite defenders executing the game plan.
Weaknesses:Minnesota may have some playmakers on the outside, but it isn't an incredibly talented offense. The running back duo of Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon isn't too frightening to opposing defenses and quarterback Case Keenum has been very good this season, but he has mostly had success taking what the defense gives him. If the Vikings face a dominant defense that can lock down Thielen and Diggs, there might not be enough individual talent elsewhere to emerge victoriously.
On defense, there really isn't a glaring weakness to speak of. While the Vikings' defenders show great assignment integrity, there are times when they bite a little too hard on play-action fakes or take too aggressive an angle and miss a tackle. When those moments happen, other teams have created explosive plays against this defense.
How the Falcons match up:Favorably. Despite the outcome in Week 13, the Falcons can hit on enough explosive plays to be successful against the Vikings defense. It just so happens they couldn't do it in their loss. It's tough to imagine the Falcons going 1-of-10 on third down against the Vikings again, and a bit more success in that area could lead to a win in a low-scoring game.
Los Angeles Rams (9-4): Projected No. 3 seed
Strengths:The Rams' offense has been one of the top-scoring units this season, and running back Todd Gurley has scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the league. While Sean McVay and Jared Goff have rightfully received plenty of attention this year, Gurley is the driving force behind this offense. His abilities as a runner and a receiver adds another dimension to the Rams and makes it possible to exploit defenses in a multitude of ways. Gurley is currently second in the NFL with 1,637 total yards and leads the league with 13 touchdowns.
Wade Phillips' arrival in Los Angeles turned the Rams' defense from a talented unit to a productive one. That is especially true in the front seven, where they have developed one of the league's best pass rushes. Led by star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Robert Quinn, the Rams have produced 40 sacks this season, which is tied for third-most in the league.
Weaknesses:In most of the Rams' losses this season, their offense has been forced to become one-dimensional. In Los Angeles' four losses, Gurley averaged 14.5 carries for 66 yards. In the Rams' 10 wins, Gurley averaged 20 carries for 86 yards. Limiting Gurley's production on the ground isn't a surefire way to slow down the Rams' offense, but putting the burden on Goff's shoulders is a good place to start.
The Rams have a ferocious pass rush, but they've proven less capable at defending the run. In three of their four losses, the Rams were gashed on the ground. Washington gained 229 rushing yards against Los Angeles in its win, and both Minnesota and Philadelphia established a balanced offensive attack, using their ground games to control pace. While the Rams defense has been sound against the pass, they are 28th in rushing yards allowed per game, surrendering 124.1 yards.
How the Falcons match up:Favorably. Atlanta has the offensive firepower to compete in a shootout against Los Angeles, even if it hasn't consistently played up to its capabilities this season. Defensively, the Falcons are a much more balanced unit, which should give them a slight edge over the Rams.
New Orleans Saints (9-4): Projected No. 4 seed
Strengths:Although Drew Brees and the passing game has been the Saints' main force of production on offense over the years, this season it's been all about the rushing attack. Led by Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, the Saints have the No. 4 ground game in the league, averaging 135.5 rushing yards. They are also first in average yards per rush, gaining nearly five yards per carry. The duo is a big part of everything the Saints have done offensively, gaining a combined 2,516 yards, which accounts for nearly half of the unit's entire production this season.
Defensively, the Saints have been much better at creating takeaways. New Orleans is tied for eighth with a plus-five turnover differential this season and the Saints have forced at least one turnover in all but three games this year, including 10 of their last 11 games.
Weaknesses:For as much potency as the Saints have on offense, they've struggled to keep drives alive on third down. New Orleans is No. 18 in the NFL in third-down percentage, converting just 38.36 percent of the time. In their loss against the Falcons, the Saints were 3-of-10 on third down. As good as New Orleans has been on offense this season, it hasn't been hard to force that unit back to the sideline.
Like the Rams, the Saints' run defense is the weakest aspect of their group. New Orleans is allowing an average of 114.3 rushing yards to opposing offenses, which places it 19th among all teams. The Falcons gained 132 yards on the ground, despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry against the Saints.
How the Falcons match up:Favorably. New Orleans is a very good team, but Atlanta showed a nice blueprint for how to beat them on Thursday night. Granted, injuries and penalties played a big factor in that win, but the defensive performance against the Saints was no fluke. Matt Ryan likely won't throw three interceptions the next time these two teams face each other, and the Falcons' ability to run the ball will help open up the passing attack.
Carolina Panthers (9-4): Projected No. 5 seed
Strengths:While not a traditional ground game like the one the Saints' possess, the Panthers' rushing attack is easily their biggest offensive strength. The combined talents of Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey make the Panthers a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Carolina is No. 5 among NFL teams in rushing yards per game, averaging 134.5 yards. That trio has combined for 1,538 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, and they expand the possibilities for the Panthers' offense on the ground.
The front seven of Carolina's defense is among the best in the league. Led by Luke Kuechly, the Panthers are tied for third in rush yards allowed, giving up an average of 89.5 yards per game, and third in sacks registered with 40.
Weaknesses:When he's locked in, Newton can throw the ball as well as any quarterback in the league. His inconsistency in that aspect of his game, as well as the lack of true weapons at receiver has limited the Panthers' passing game. Carolina is No. 28 in passing yards per game, averaging under 200 yards through the air. Stopping the Panthers' rushing attack, while difficult, makes the offense rely on an area where they have not excelled this year.
The Panthers' front seven makes up for a lot of the deficiencies on the back end in the secondary, but it's a unit that can be exploited if an opposing quarterback is given time. Carolina is just in the middle of the pack, defensively, in explosive pass plays allowed. The Panthers have given up 37 pass plays of 20-plus yards and seven plays of 40-plus yards.
How the Falcons match up:Unfavorably. While the Falcons can undoubtedly beat the Panthers, the way these teams are comprised gives a slight edge to their NFC South rival. Newton's rushing ability was on display the first times the two teams squared off, and the Falcons have had a tough time slowing down downhill ground games. Kuechly and the front seven can generate enough pressure and take away the middle and underneath parts of the field well, forcing the Falcons' offense to execute at a high level.