A look at which teams are poised to make a Super Bowl run
With the final month of another NFL season looming, it’s time to take a closer look at the teams hoping to make a run into the postseason. This year of professional football has been as unpredictable as ever, as major injuries and impressive performances from some unexpected players have made for an exciting season. Through 12 weeks, five teams that finished in the bottom half of their division last season now currently claim first place. Needless to say, the road to Super Bowl 52 will be full of captivating storylines and new heroes.
The half of the league that has experienced the most change from last season is the NFC, as all four of the current division leaders were bottom finishers last season. The most surprising division leader among them is the Minnesota Vikings, sporting a 9-2 record despite suffering key injuries at the quarterback and running back positions. When quarterback Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury following the team’s week one victory, sixth-year quarterback Case Keenum emerged as the Vikings’ starter. After a rocky start in a week two loss at Pittsburgh, Keenum has since led the boys in purple to an 8-1 record while sporting career numbers across the board: nearly 2,500 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air, coupled with a 66.1 completion percentage.
The biggest factor in Minnesota’s success, however, has come on the defensive side. Head coach Mike Zimmer –– well known for his impervious defensive schemes –– has the Vikings ranked second in the league in stopping the run and fifth in yards allowed per game (total defense). Defensive end Everson Griffen, who is tied for a league-leading 12 sacks, anchors Minnesota’s defensive front that has contributed greatly to the team’s knack for interfering with opposing offenses. With a full three-game lead atop the NFC North, the Vikings will battle three of their last five games on the road. The offense may face adversity in the final stretch, but the Vikings defense will carry them through the hostile trips to Atlanta, Carolina and Green Bay.
Much like that of the Vikings, the success that the Los Angeles Rams have had this season has surprised most NFL critics. The Rams are led by second-year quarterback Jared Goff, who, despite a dismal performance in his seven appearances for the team last season, has shone under a revamped offensive system constructed by rookie head coach Sean McVay. The youngest head coach in NFL history, McVay has been making waves with his balanced offensive style that features Goff’s methodical passing attack alongside running back Todd Gurley’s punishing ground game. Goff’s 2,964 pass yards are the sixth most in the league while Gurley’s 865 rushing yards rank third. Fresh off a statement win over New Orleans, the 8-3 Rams are rolling into week 13 with high confidence. Los Angeles will also be on the road for three of its final five matchups, including a divisional showdown in Seattle a week after battling the Eagles at home.
Coming off a week 12 loss in Los Angeles, the New Orleans Saints are still leading in a tightly-contested NFC South. In his 17th NFL season, quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 3,029 passing yards –– the third most in the league –– but New Orleans is used to benefitting from this seasoned gunslinger. What’s notable is that Brees is finding the fountain of youth by way of a more balanced offensive workload. The Saints can finally run the football successfully, thanks in part to an improved offensive line and rookie running back Alvin Kamara. The athletic youngster out of Tennessee has proven to be a powerful new weapon for head coach Sean Payton’s offense. Kamara has racked up nearly identical rushing and receiving totals, with 546 yards and five TDs on the ground and 548 yards and four TDs through the air. The 8-3 Saints will be continue to be tested in their final five games, two of which are contests against the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.
How could we discuss the NFC without mentioning the team with the NFL’s best record?
At 10-1, the Philadelphia Eagles have been one of the most dominant teams this season, taking care of business in all phases of the game. The Eagles have the league’s best run defense –– which has been improved thanks to veteran defensive lineman like Fletcher Cox and Chris Long –– as well as the league’s third best offense in terms of yards per game. Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s prolific offense, as the man out of North Dakota State has vastly improved upon last year’s performance. Wentz has thrown a league-leading 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions through 12 games, as opposed to his totals of 16 touchdowns and 14 INT’s in 16 games in 2016.
The Eagles have won by 10 points or more in seven of the team’s 10 wins. Even in close games, Philadelphia has found a way to persevere. The grit of this team will come into play down the stretch as the Eagles will play on the road in their next three games –– traveling to Seattle, Los Angeles and New York –– until they return home for the final two weeks to take on playoff hopefuls in the Raiders and the Cowboys.
Moving across to the AFC, we see that the usual suspects continue to rule atop their respected divisions. The powerhouse New England Patriots, still led by head coach Bill Belichick and his reigning Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady, are 9-2 and possess a healthy three-game lead in the AFC East. Brady leads the league in passing and has helped the Patriots rattle off seven straight victories after beginning the season 2-2. The Pittsburgh Steelers also boast a 9-2 record and a solid grip on the NFC North. The Steelers offense is one of the most productive in the game, which is not difficult to believe when it is led by the NFL’s leading rusher (running back Le’Veon Bell) and receiver (wideout Antonio Brown).
The Kansas City Chiefs have also found themselves once again leading in the AFC West, although narrowly so. The 6-5 Chiefs opened the season with a hot 5-0 start, but have since cooled down to only win one game in the last six contests. Despite a beat-up defensive secondary, expect the Chiefs to remain competitive with an above-average defensive front captained by expert pass-rusher Justin Houston and a rejuvenated rushing attack led by the speedy rookie running back Kareem Hunt. Still, Kansas City will face daunting divisional matchups in three of its final five games, including a home battle against a surging Chargers squad who whooped the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the most surprising teams this season are the two that are fighting for the lead in the AFC South. The Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars both hold 7-4 records and have displayed flashes of brilliance at several points during the season. The Jaguars, for instance, have had several dominating, blow-out victories, including one over the Steelers in week five. The Titans, too, have collected a handful of signature victories, like wins over the Jaguars and the Seahawks. Both teams, however, suffer from inconsistency. Poor play in several games against relatively weak opponents has cast some doubt on whether or not these clubs are ready to return to the postseason. Nevertheless, one of these two franchises is very likely going to win the division. The question of which team will make the most of the opportunity remains to be answered.
For now, Jacksonville has found enormous success behind a defense that has allowed the fewest per game passing yards and total offensive yards. On offense, no team in the league runs the ball better, as the Jaguars’ rushing attack has been bolstered this year by rookie running back Leonard Fournette. For Tennessee, defense has also been a bright spot. The Titans are fifth in rushing defense and have the league-leader in interceptions, Kevin Byard, lined up for them at free safety. The teams will meet in Nashville for a week 17 game that could decide the winner of the AFC South.
Written by: Dominic Faria — firstname.lastname@example.org