Race for NFL playoffs hots up in the cold
Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally where the NFL switches into a higher gear as the race for the playoffs heats up. This year is no difference and two games this weekend will decide the shape of the post-season in the NFC.
Cardinals @ Eagles
Three weeks ago, this game looked like being a boring irrelevance as both teams slid towards winter mediocrity, however recent bursts of form have seen Arizona and Philadelphia enter the last few weeks of the season with the playoffs in sight.
Despite an inferior record, the 6-5 Eagles have a smoother road to the knockout stage than the Cardinals. Consecutive wins over the Raiders (featuring 7 (seven – such a ridiculous number that it demanded double brackets) Nick Foles touchdown passes), Packers and Washington Professional Football Team (no place for that nickname), have put them atop the NFC East alongside the Cowboys, even before Dallas’ traditional wintery demise. Their offense is moving the ball nicely, with Foles playing the best football of his young career alongside the league leader in rushing, LeSean McCoy. The Chip Kelly offense has breathed new life into the slumbering DeSean Jackson. After a quiet couple of years, Jackson has the sixth most receiving yards in the league thus far this season, and alongside the controversial Riley Cooper, he makes up one half of a fearsome duo.
The real question mark for the Eagles is their defense. Yes, they’ve restricted teams in their last three wins, but with all due respect Terrell Pryor was barely fit, Scott Tolzein continued to be Scott Tolzein and RG3.0 yards per attempt is a different beast to last year. The newly invigorated Carson Palmer will be a trickier test.
Or will he?
There’s no doubting Carson Palmer’s upside. The former Heismann Trophy winner and number one overall pick in 2003’s talent is not in doubt, but his decision making occasionally is. There’s no QB in the league who throws into double or triple coverage with more regularity, but very few are able to do so with such accuracy. It’s that aspect of Palmer that makes him both frustrating and exciting, and with a pair of receivers such as the legendary Larry Fitzgerald and the breakout Michael Floyd he’s able to take more risks than many signal callers in the league. The Cardinals sit at 7-5 and in with a good shot at the final NFC wildcard spot, but face tough competition from divisional rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.
Unlike the Eagles, Arizona’s defense has been the real star this season. They restricted Andrew Luck and the Colts to just 11 points last weekend, and will go into this game confident of a similar performance, with their dominant defensive front backed up by the star power (and talent!) of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.
It’s a tough one to call and both teams will know that a win is crucial to keep them in the playoff hunt, but I fancy the Cardinals defense to make the difference in this one.
Betting Instinct tip: Cardinals +3 is 1.91 with Intertops Sportsbook
Saints @ Seahawks
The matchup between possibly the two best teams in the NFC will go a long way towards determining the playoff hopes of these two sides. Both New Orleans and Seattle probably hold the two best home-field advantages in the league and a number one seed in the NFC for either side will make them very tough to beat. Seattle go into this one with a single game lead over the Saints and the winner of this one will see it as a huge step towards the Superbowl.
For the Saints, there was never any doubt about the productivity of their offense going in to the season – the combination of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and a myriad of receivers meant scoring points wasn’t going to be the issue. But New Orleans has stepped up on the defensive side of the ball this season. Rob Ryan has been the brains behind the revival from last year’s historically bad unit, and without adding any spectacular pieces (rookie Kenny Vaccaro has been impressive) there has been a huge improvement in that unit – enough to keep them in games when their offense has spluttered.
The Seahawks are known for their tough, uncompromising defense, and this season has been no different. They’ll be without a couple of key pieces from their secondary on Monday after (MORE!) suspensions for substance-related misdemeanours but it still remains a team strong on that size of the ball. That’s not to suggest that the Hawks will struggle to score points – Russell Wilson has continued to impress in his second season, and will be delighted to have Percy Harvin alongside him, after a small debut cameo in their game before the bye week. Add that to Marshawn ‘Beast mode’ Lynch and you have an offense that will go toe-to-toe with the Saints.
There’s much to love about both of these teams, but the line is too high here to back the Seahawks.
Betting Instinct Tip: Saints +5 is 1.91 with AllYouBet.ag
Jamie Cutteridge is a journalist for a real magazine, but spends an inordinate amount of time writing about NFL. He’s the editor-in-chief of anygivensundaynight.co.uk and its associated twitter feed @UKNFL