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Last week, we took a look at a lot of the NFL's wild card morass, attempting to differentiate between the bevy of realistic contenders for just four combined postseason slots in both conferences.  Those races didn't receive any more clarity, as there are still many plausible scenarios in which three- and four-way ties bring obscure tiebreaking procedures into play.

While the AFC races need another week (or four) to ferment, the NFC postseason picture is starting to receive clarity.  There are seven realistic contenders for five postseason slots—this excludes the NFC South, which itself managed to mercifully expunge Carolina and Tampa Bay from serious postseason consideration. 

Our deeper dives this week will focus on a few of the teams in these races, highlighting a quartet of teams whose stock seemed to shift most drastically during Week 13.


Picking Up Steam

These two won their most difficult remaining game on Sunday, putting them in prime position for December.


- "Game of the Week" labels often lead to drastic overreactions, as pundits feel the need to make sweeping conclusions to justify all the pregame hullabaloo.  However, even disregarding Sunday's result, there is a very real possibility that the Green Bay Packers are the league's best team.  AFA ranks the Packers third, but with a season-high 0.66 Gross Winning Percentage (GWP), Green Bay is closing the gap on top-two fixtures Denver and Miami.

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers have been a wholly imbalanced team, with a lack of defensive speed often forcing the burden onto Aaron Rodgers.  Based on Pro-Football-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), the Packers have only had one season in which their defense has outstripped their offensive productivity—not coincidentally, in 2010.

That's not going to happen this year, and every metric will suggest that the Packers are powered by an elite offense.  However, some systems are at odds over how effective Green Bay's defense truly is.  AFA ranks the Packers' D 13th overall, including 10th in pass Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and 31st in rushing EPA/P.  That latter number obviously jumps out, as the run defense would seemingly be Green Bay's defensive Achilles' heel:



That graphic may appear slightly misleading.  Although Green Bay's run defense has evened out over the past five weeks, they have posted an above-average rushing EPA/P just once in that stretch, which came in Week 10 against Chicago.

However, that five-game point of demarcation is not simply a round arbitrary one, for that Bears game was when Dom Capers undertook the surprising shift of Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.  In that stretch, the Packers' surface run D stats have improved dramatically, as Green Bay has allowed just 3.67 yards per rushing attempt in that span, 12th-best in the league and over a yard better than their 4.78 average over the first nine weeks.

It's strange that the advanced metrics don't seem to align with that seemingly massive improvement.  While yards per carry is flawed, it's strange that the EPA/P and success rate stats would barely have budged.  Since Week 10, the Packers have allowed an average of 0.25 rushing touchdowns and 2.25 carries of 10+ yards per game, well below their average of 1.13 scores and 3.63 "big gains" per game through the first nine weeks.  The lack of overall improvement may stem from critical short-yardage situations—on 3rd- and 4th-and-3 or less since Week 10, Packers opponents have turned 83.3 percent of rushes into first downs, as opposed to 66.7 percent over the first nine weeks.  But there have only been six such rushing plays in the past five games, so a small-sample size caveat is in order.

Truthfully, though, nothing really matters so long as Aaron Rodgers continues piling up a historically successful season.  The Patriots' excellent secondary payed its worst game of the season since Week 4 against Rodgers (based on both EPA and SRS), as he was able to abuse younger nickel and dime backs with secondary targets like Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers.  The graphic below illustrates how Rodgers has not only been the best QB in 2014, but how his season is on pace to match legendary campaigns like his own 2011 season, 2013 Peyton Manning and 2007 Tom Brady:



Like those previous three seasons, Rodgers looks like the leading MVP candidate at this point.  MVP voters will probably use Rodgers' head-to-head victory over Brady as justification for that vote, and while that's flawed logic, it's hard to make an argument against Rodgers based on the objective big picture.

It will be interesting to see how the playoff odds update, but it appears Green Bay should have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the NFC.  The Packers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Philly but lose it to Seattle, though the Seahawks face a brutal closing stretch.  The Lions could also steal the division by winning out, which would include a Week 17 win at Lambeau.  We'll get to the Cardinals later, but in spite of these scenarios, it is extremely difficult to envision the Packers hitting the road during the conference playoffs.


- If the Packers have been a locomotive picking up steam, the New Orleans Saints are more like a dilapidated horse-and-buggy carriage wheezing along a rocky path.  Still, while the 2014 NFC South will always be a cherished source of schadenfreude, the Saints at least possess the elements of a scary playoff team, unlike the rest of their woeful division.

New Orleans ranks 13th this week, and has hung around the top 10-15 slots all season.  The reason for that partially stems from AFA's de-emphasis of turnovers—while the Saints rank 21st in giveaways per game, the offense also ranks third in EPA/P and first in success rate, suggesting an elite per-play unit.

Drew Brees has declined a bit from his heyday, but despite whispers about the Saints moving on, the 35-year-old still ranks third in EPA/P and sixth in adjusted yards per attempt.  The latter stat illustrates how some of Brees' turnover issues are slightly overblown.  Though he has had high-profile game-changing mistakes against the Niners, Lions and Ravens, Brees' 106 INT%+ suggests he is still above-average in terms of taking care of the ball.

However, unlike in recent seasons, the Saints can complement their spread sets with an actual power-running game.  Mark Ingram has shed the curse of recent Heisman Trophy winners to turn around a moribund career.  Among backs with at least 100 carries, Ingram ranks sixth in EPA/P, as he has been one of the best high-usage backs in the league (though as a side note, Le'Veon Bell has absolutely blown the NFL away and has probably taken belt for best all-around running back): 



In terms of career path, Ingram's trajectory is eerily reminiscent of Cedric Benson.  Like Ingram, Benson was a former first-rounder who floundered his first three years in the league, never accruing more than 674 rushing yards in a season (Ingram never had more than 602 until this year).  Based on PFR's Approximate Value metric, the former fourth overall pick ranked 46th among all running backs in total value between 2005-07.  Benson accrued 12 total AV in that span; Ingram accrued 11 AV over his first three years.

Whereas a change of scenery jumpstarted Benson's career, Ingram has been the beneficiary of injuries and the Saints' general salary-cap mismanagement.  Benson posted 1,251 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per attempt over 13 games during his breakout 2009 campaign in Cincinnati; Ingram is on pace for 1,107 yards on 4.5 yards per attempt over 13 games this year.

Ingram isn't the only young breakout on the Saints' offense, as Kenny Stills has also experienced a huge sophomore year jump.  Stills leads New Orleans in receiving yards, yards per receptions and catch percentage, no small feat when surrounded by Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and (for a while) Brandin Cooks.  Stills is on pace for 942 receiving yards on 15.7 yards per catch; even in the pass-happy era since 2000, only one second-year receiver per year typically reaches those benchmarks:



That's an extremely impressive list, as most of the future busts were derailed by injuries (Johnny Knox, Cecil Shorts) or off-field issues (David Boston, Koren Robinson).  Quincy Morgan is the only player who truly regressed into irrelevance on his own accord, though the jury is still out on Michael Floyd.

The Saints have far too many defensive holes to pull out anything beyond a mild Wild Card round upset at the Superdome.  But when Brees and his young brigade of weapons do go down, there should at least be fireworks.