Breaking Down The NFC’s Big Three

San Francisco’s win over Pittsburgh last night has the 49ers back on track. New Orleans is playing some of the best football in the NFL right now. And Green Bay’s loss to Kansas City re-opens the question of whether the NFC Championship is still up for grabs. A look at the postseason seeding implications is a part of The Notebook’s free weekly newsletter (sign up on right hand side). This post will take a look at all three teams and see how they compare and contrast…

Green Bay (13-1, 4-5 odds to win NFC title): You’ve probably read and heard about the problems with the Packers’ defense. And when it comes to surrendering pass and rushing yardage, those criticisms are true. Green Bay ranks in the bottom quadrant of the NFC in both areas. But the last I checked, they keep score with points and not total yards, and here the Packers grade out considerably better. They’re 6th in the NFC in points allowed and that’s more than enough to win when you have the NFL’s most prolific offense.

The Packers’ bigger problem is the condition of their offensive line. The running game is mediocre and the pass protection is a serious problem. Kansas City’s four sacks were not an isolated incident. Green Bay has been without veteran left tackle Chad Clifton since Week 5 and there’s talk he’ll play on Christmas night against Chicago. But how realistic is it to expect a 35-year old to step right in after two seasons battling injuries? It’s the best shot Mike McCarthy has of fixing his line problems before the divisional playoffs start the weekend of January 14-15, but it’s not a high percentage move. Aaron Rodgers might want to take out some more of the State Farm Insurance he’s hawking and put it on myself.

Speaking of Rodgers, I felt the Kansas City game paradoxically showed exactly why he’s the MVP. There’s been a minor movement of dissent to his eventual coronation, arguing that while New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees is a little behind Rodgers in numbers, the Packers deep stable of receivers gives their signal-caller an edge. I disagree. I felt all along that with the exception of Greg Jennings, it’s the pass design of McCarthy and the laser-precision of Rodgers that make the receivers, not vice-versa. And with Jennings out, there weren’t nearly as many open receivers. Rodgers was just a little bit off, and if he’s not at the absolute top of his game, the Packers sputter. It speaks volumes that it took until December 18 for such a rough outing to occur.

All that does underscore the importance of Green Bay piecing together a running game. McCarthy got his ground attack going late last season, with James Starks turning into a playoff revelation that helped key a Super Bowl run. He missed Sunday’s game, as did third-stringer Brandon Saine, who’s looking like he could be this year’s great January surprise. Ryan Grant alone doesn’t look it will be enough and McCarthy needs to find his way to get his quarterback some help, be it with better protection or an improved running game.

New Orleans (11-3, 5-2 odds to win NFC): New Orleans trails Green Bay in terms of points scored, but as the season hits its conclusion the Saints do have a more balanced attack than the Pack. New Orleans ranks fourth in the NFC in rush yardage and they’re the conference’s best at protecting the passer, making their offensive line the mirror image of Green Bay’s. Like Rodgers, Drew Brees has one top receiver in Marques Colston and beyond that it’s the ability of the quarterback that makes the pass-catchers.

Where New Orleans has issues is stopping the run and forcing turnovers. The secondary is woefully short on playmakers. The four starters have a combined two interceptions between them. That’s half of what Green Bay corner Tramon Williams has by himself—and Williams has fewer picks than teammate Charles Woodson and Niner defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rodgers. If this pattern holds, New Orleans would need two consecutive playoff games with Brees playing perfect football against aggressive ball-hawking secondaries. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. The Saints could also a stronger defensive presence from end Cameron Jordan to take some of the heat off counterpart Wil Smith.

The Saints also play the toughest remaining schedule of any of the three leading contenders, with a Monday Night game coming up against Atlanta, followed by a game with Carolina. I know New Orleans is hot right now, but let’s not crowd up the bandwagon too quickly.

San Francisco (11-3, 5-1 odds to win the NFC): These odds may come down after Frisco’s big win over Pittsburgh. As noted above, they do a terrific job in intercepting passes and are one better than Green Bay in the turnover ratio department (+21 to +20). One caveat though—the Niners still trail the Packers in interceptions, 27-18. It’s recovered fumbles that are making the biggest difference and I’d argue that luck plays a bigger factor there than in intercepting a pass. A defense can force fumbles with hard-hitting, but in recovering there’s still a bounce-of-the-ball factor that doesn’t exist with an interception. Needing luck to continue in a playoff sequence of the Saints and Packers is a lot to bet on.

The 49ers do a terrific job stopping the run, although against the Packers that might be a wasted talent, since it appears just about anyone can control their ground attack. It might play a bigger factor against New Orleans, if they can disrupt the Saints’ balance and force Brees into some mistakes. Right now, the Niners biggest issue on defense is just getting inside linebacker Patrick Willis healthy. Offensively, Frisco is what they are by this point in the season—as in, Alex Smith can manage a game, but he needs to ride the defense and running game as far as they can take him.