With the Cardinals now officially a playoff team, I think it's appropriate to officially look ahead, and break down Arizona's biggest challengers to an NFC crown:
5. Minnesota Vikings
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has done a great job this season, but they are holding on by a thread defensively because of injuries. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is coming off one of his best games as a passer, but Minnesota's offense is still completely reliant on running back Adrian Peterson. He's a once-in-a-lifetime-type player, but he needs
help to win in the postseason. Minnesota is 31st in the NFL in passing, and 26th in scoring. The Vikings might be able to win a game in the playoffs, but it's hard to see them winning three straight road games as a wild card team to make the Super Bowl.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are one of the hardest teams to figure out in the NFL. They get blown out by Tampa Bay and Detroit, then beat New England and Buffalo in back-to-back weeks. Clearly, there is some discord in the city of Brotherly Love, but the Eagles do have talent. After watching quarterback Sam Bradford all of those years in St. Louis, we know what he is – an injury-prone, streaky quarterback. To Bradford's credit, he has gotten better as the season has progressed. Bradford is playing his best football over the last month and has three games with a quarterback rating over 99. The question I have is, what is wrong with their rushing attack? They're 19th in the NFL is yards per rush, and lead the league in lost fumbles with five. They have talent at that position, yet fans keep waiting for a breakout game. Philadelphia's numbers defensively aren't impressive either, yet because of a weak NFC East, they're a playoff contender. If the Eagles beat the Cardinals Sunday night, they could win out (they finish with division rivals Washington and New York) and win the NFC East.
3. Green Bay Packers
As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the Packers are a Super Bowl contender. Plus, they've been solid in the run game this season, averaging 121 yards per game on the ground, good for eighth in the NFL. They actually have some impressive statistics on defense, ranking sixth in the NFL in fewest points allowed. That number is a little deceptive,
because they've beaten poor offensive teams lately in Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota. Green Bay will visit University of Phoenix Stadium next week, and then we will get a true feel for whether the Packers are a championship-caliber team.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks aren't the hottest team in the NFC (Arizona with seven straight wins, Carolina has won 13 straight), but they are becoming perhaps the most dangerous. Since tight end Jimmy Graham's injury, their offense has been spectacular. They've won four straight, scoring 29 points or more in each game. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been on fire, with 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last four games, and a quarterback rating of 144. The Seahawks also continue to rack up injuries at the running back position, making me wonder if Wilson can carry this team to three road wins in the playoffs, assuming Arizona wins the NFC West.
1. Carolina Panthers
I've been looking for flaws with the Carolina Panthers all season long, but haven't seen anything glaring. Some argue their strength is schedule is weak because they play in the NFC South. However, outside the division, they've won in Seattle, and beat Philadelphia and Green Bay. They also won easily over Washington and Dallas. The Panthers are built similar to Seattle, in that they have a great defense, a strong rushing attack, and a dual-threat quarterback. Cam Newton has progressed, and is having his best season by far as a passer. He's made average receivers look good, and is still a major problem to stop in the run game because of his size and strength. Championship teams excel in short yardage, goal-line situations, and in the red zone. Newton has been very good in those areas this year, mainly because he's a power running threat. I think the Panthers will go as far as Newton takes them. He's already won a playoff game, and I think that experience and success has propelled him to where he is now. The Panthers are going to get home field advantage in the playoffs, and because of that, they're the biggest threat to the Cardinals in the NFC.