As the NFL regular seasons heads into the stretch run, there are a handful of teams toeing the line between looking like solid Super Bowl contenders and others looking like they might have just been exposed as playoff pretenders.
With Week 12 granting us another opportunity to see these teams in the spotlight, it’s the perfect time to break out a stock market index that forecasts their chances of emerging or fading down the stretch.
The Cowboys’ beat down of the Vikings showcased the impressive talent and potential of a squad that has rediscovered the formula that has led to multiple division crowns over the past decade. With a dynamic running game anchored by Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott and an opportunistic defense featuring a host of playmakers (Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, Demarcus Lawrence and Dante Fowler) with outstanding pass-rushing skills, the Cowboys can knock off any opponent when they are on their game. If Dak Prescott continues to thrive directing a complementary passing game, the Cowboys could waltz through the rest of their schedule and enter the postseason as a primary threat.
Did Cowboys put the NFC on notice?
Joy Taylor and David Helman discuss the Cowboys’ 40-3 win over the Vikings in Week 11. Helman says he has never before seen such an impressive win by Dallas in his 10 years of covering the team.
Don’t look now, but the 49ers are rounding into form as one of the heavyweights in the league. Kyle Shanahan has assembled an offensive lineup that features multidimensional playmakers at every skill position. In addition, he has crafted an offensive scheme that puts his biggest stars — Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Aiyuk — in prime positions to make plays as runners or receivers.
As the offense finds its stride with Jimmy Garoppolo at the controls, the 49ers defense is emerging as an elite unit under the direction of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The former NFL linebacker-turned-defensive-playcaller has deftly mixed in exotic pressures with vanilla rush schemes to disrupt the rhythm of San Francisco’s opponents. In a league in which a dominant running game and destructive pass rush can spark a deep postseason run, it is not a coincidence that the 49ers have emerged as a Super Bowl contender this season.
Ignore some of the hiccups that have knocked the Bills from their perch atop of the AFC. Buffalo remains a viable title contender behind Josh Allen‘s extraordinary playmaking skills. If the MVP candidate can curb his turnovers, particularly in the red zone, while continuing to deliver the splash plays that ignite this offense, the Bills are the offensive juggernaut that no one wants to face in the playoffs.
As the defense settles in with Von Miller & Co. adapting and adjusting to their roles, the Bills are beginning to resemble that team that destroyed top opponents at the beginning of the season. If that team shows up for the playoffs, the Bills’ Super Bowl drought could end this season.
After shooting to the top of the charts on the strength of a string of one-score wins, the Vikings must rebuild their confidence after an embarrassing home loss at the hands of a conference rival. The 40-3 loss to Dallas not only knocked off some of the swagger that helped the Vikings seize control of the NFC North, it exposed some of the flaws that could derail the team’s hopes as a dark-horse title contender.
The Vikings’ leaky run defense and suspect pass protection could prevent Kevin O’Connell’s squad from maximizing its potential. Although there is enough time for the Vikings to fix their issues, the division leaders are vulnerable and future opponents will continue to pick at their wounds until the staff comes up with remedies.
Nick is not comfortable with Vikings as No. 2 seed in NFC
The Cowboys were so dominant vs. the Vikings in Week 11 that the game was taken off TV in favor of a more competitive one. Nick Wright believes all the attention should focus on the Vikings’ poor performance and details his concerns for Minnesota later in the season.
The end of the Zach Wilson era could coincide with the Jets’ playoff hopes going up in flames. The former No. 2 overall pick has been a major disappointment, and the team has decided to hand the ball to Mike White to see if he can spark an offense that needs to contribute more to the team’s winning formula.
If the plucky quarterback can make a few plays while taking care of the ball, the Jets could utilize a complementary football approach that puts the onus on the defense to keep the score down while creating scoring opportunities for the offense on takeaways and splash plays. Considering how well Sauce Gardner, Quinnen Williams & Co. have played on defense, the Jets’ playoff hopes hinge on the play of a journeyman quarterback and an underachieving offense.
It has been a great run for the Giants this season, with their conservative approach leading to a string of wins that vaulted them into playoff contention. While I am not ready to suggest that the clock has struck midnight on New York’s Cinderella run, it is hard to imagine the Giants beating top teams while relying on a one-man show. Sure, Saquon Barkley is a rare talent at running back, but the lack of star power around him makes it easier for opponents to neutralize him with creative tactics and schemes.
With the defense also showing some vulnerability against the run, the Giants do not look like a playoff team trending in the right direction down the stretch.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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