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As we approach the midway point in the NFL season, we are already beginning to see how the playoff picture is shaping up.
In the AFC, the heavyweights such as Denver, Indianapolis, and New England are making a push to be the top three seeds, while a surging Ravens squad is pushing to overtake the Bengals for the top spot in the AFC North. San Diego appears to be a lock for a Wild Card berth, but let’s not count out what Pittsburgh and Buffalo have to say in the matter.
Over on the NFC side of things, we have a two-horse race between the Eagles and Cowboys brewing in the East, and a similar sort of race is shaping up in the North with the Packers and Lions. Arizona is leading the NFC West, while the 49ers and defending champions make a push for the Wild Card. All’s fair game when it comes to the South.
Trying to figure out which six teams will represent their respective conferences come December is always a mystery. There are MVP candidates and role players that both decide such outcomes. Here’s a list of the six players that’ll decide the playoff picture and — excuse the hyperbole — the Super Bowl.
The MVP front-runner has been the consummate workhorse so far this season, and his record-setting push toward the rushing title has put the 6-1 Cowboys in the driver’s seat for an NFC East crown.
However, we know Murray’s Achilles’ heel is the ability to stay healthy. Earlier this week, there were whispers about a snap count being placed on the running back in an effort to keep him healthy, not only for the rest of the 2014 season but beyond. Keep in mind he’s a free agent after the season.
Murray’s health and his ability to keep the Cowboys’ offense potent and balanced will be key for the team as it looks to stave off Philadelphia for a division title. In the trenches Dallas is superior to Philly, but without Murray they’re an entirely different team.
Trent Richardson has been as big of a disappointment as a No. 3 overall pick as we’ve seen over the years, especially given how productive he was to begin his career in Cleveland. But in Indianapolis, Richardson has never rediscovered his form, and it’s the wily vet Bradshaw who’s been Andrew Luck‘s right-hand man.
In the Colts’ first two losses to begin the year, Bradshaw had 16 attempts for 85 yards and no touchdowns and 10 receptions for 96 yards. But as the Colts have reeled off five straight wins, Bradshaw has been a driving force in the offense. He’s had 44 carries for 251 yards, 19 catches for 116 yards and five total touchdowns.
As a threat in both the running and passing attacks, Bradshaw has been a steadying force for Luck in the Colts’ offense. If he can stay healthy and continue his solid production in both areas, the Colts are destined for a top-two seed in the AFC and perhaps a lengthy playoff run.
Foles has been a major surprise in Philadelphia this season, and for all the wrong reasons. After a 2013 campaign in which he exercised extreme ball security, Foles has 10 turnovers in six games this season, hampering the potent Eagles offense.
Foles’ carelessness with the football has been a thorn in Chip Kelly’s side. And even the Eagles’ tremendously opportunistic defense cannot continue to rescue its quarterback, as the team owns a -5 turnover differential.
If the Eagles can manage to do one thing after their Week 7, it’s help correct what’s ailing Foles. Despite the turnovers, Philly is right behind Dallas in the NFC East standings. Ironically, it’s cutting down on turnovers which has propelled rival Tony Romo and the Cowboys, and it could be the difference in a playoff spot this year.
This just in: as Gronk sees more playing time, the Patriots offense has woken up.
Since New England’s triumph past Cincinnati, which sparked three wins a row for the reigning AFC East champs, Gronk has increasingly seen his role in the offense grow. The tight end saw nine targets against Buffalo and 10 a week ago against the Jets. According to the Boston Globe, Gronkowski was on the field for 93 percent of the Pats’ snaps in Week 7.
A healthy Gronkowski transcends the Patriots’ offense, giving Tom Brady a clear-cut go-to receiver to overcome what’s lacking on the perimeter and in the backfield. Between Gronk, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman, Brady has just enough talent to work with as the team potentially marches to another top-three seed.
Really, a rookie? Yes, a rookie.
Shazier has been out of the Steelers’ defensive lineup for the past month, and not surprisingly his absence has forced the likes of Arthur Moats to play valuable snaps. The first-round linebacker could return as early as Week 8 in a pivotal match against Indianapolis, immediately bolstering a lackluster Steelers defense.
Shazier racked up 14 tackles in his first three games of the season, proving to be stellar against the run and as good of a pass-rusher as there is on the roster. Overall, this season Pittsburgh’s defense has generated 10 sacks, good for 23rd in the league. If Pittsburgh wants to make a run at the AFC North, or at least a push to overcome the Bengals for what looks to be the second Wild Card berth behind the Chargers, then this defense needs to play like the teams of old. Shazier is a Dick LeBeau type of player that can single-handedly alter the direction of the unit.
Color me Mr. Obvious, but the Saints’ playoff chances now rest solely upon the right arm of Brees. The Saints’ defense is among the league’s biggest disappointments through the first half of the year, so with that side of the ball almost a non-factor the pressure falls onto Brees and Co. to simply outscore their opponents.
Fortunately for New Orleans, the rest of the NFC South has fared equally as bad this season. Carolina leads the way in the standings, but is as inconsistent a team in the NFL. Cam Newton is as critical to the Panthers’ success as Brees is to the Saints’, but his defense is capable of being a difference-maker. This season Brees doesn’t have that sort of luxury.
With a healthy Mark Ingram and Jimmy Graham, expect the Saints’ offense to take a step forward. That gives Brees the element of a running game plus his top target. Brees will need to play up to his best ability against the upcoming division schedule to give the Saints a chance at cracking the playoff picture.
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