Which NFC teams can still catch the Eagles?

More importantly, can they avoid the nightmare scenario … losing to Dallas?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
danlevy_0328s

It’s November, when the football season really starts to take shape. The Eagles are 7-1 at the halfway point (check out our midterm grades here) and clearly the favorites in the NFC East. FiveThirtyEight projects the Birds to win 12 games this season and has them at a 93 percent probability to make the playoffs, an 81 percent chance to win their division and a 59 percent chance to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. 

On top of the Eagles’ success so far this season, Dallas was hit a blow — finally — when a judge refused the NFLPA’s claim to throw out the six-game suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Finally, the league’s third-leading rusher (and top running back in football last season) will be out for six games, meaning he’ll miss the first meeting with the Eagles on Nov. 19. And the Eagles bolstered their running game by trading for Jay Ajayi.

Everything’s coming up Eagles!

But that doesn’t mean it will continue. So far, injuries haven’t stopped the run of Philly wins, but at some point the rash of key players going down could be too much for the Eagles to overcome. That, plus the schedule is not going to get any easier, even with Denver looking like a total mess on offense right now. The Eagles host the Broncos Sunday before heading into their bye week, so 8-1 is likely. But Denver’s defense is still pretty good. If they can figure out anything on offense, they have a chance to get back in the win column against the Eagles.

Following the bye, the Eagles end the season like this: At Dallas, home against Chicago, at Seattle, at the Los Angeles Rams, at the Giants, home against Oakland and home against the Cowboys. Will Philly go 15-1? Probably not, no, which means who they lose to could have enormous playoff implications.

The nightmare scenario: Dallas runs the table. That would mean the Eagles could, at best, tie Dallas at 13-3, but two of the Eagles losses would come at the hands of the Cowboys. The Eagles would have, probably, the second-best record in football and be relegated to a Wild Card.

Worse than that? Wentz gets hurt and the Eagles plummet back to the pack and miss the playoffs entirely. But let’s be somewhat optimistic.

The most likely scenario is that Dallas, without Elliott, will lose a few games and the Eagles will lose a few games and still win the division and be in a fight for a first-round bye.

Let’s take a quick look at the NFC’s other contenders.

Seattle

NFL: Houston Texans at Seattle Seahawks
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Seattle is 5-2 after a barnburner victory over Houston Sunday. The Seahawks have the 10th-ranked scoring offense and seventh-ranked scoring defense, and they just traded to bolster their anemic offensive line tasked with protecting Russell Wilson. Carson Wentz might be the front-runner to win MVP, but Wilson is fast on his heels.

Seattle doesn’t have an easy schedule down the stretch, but the Dec. 3 game against the Eagles at CenturyLink Field could determine the top seed in the NFC.

Minnesota

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings are 6-2 despite having Case Keenum at quarterback for all but parts of two games. Sam Bradford is hurt, again, and Teddy Bridgewater isn’t back yet, so Minnesota’s offense isn’t anything to write home about as they’re middle-of-the-pack in rushing, passing and points. It doesn’t help that heralded rookie running back Dalvin Cook is out for the year.

But Minnesota is winning on the backs of their defense. They have the fourth-ranked scoring defense and the third-ranked defense in yards per game. They’re a top seven unit against both the pass and the run and with Green Bay regressing without Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings are the favorites to be kings of the North. The one thing that could trip them up: of their final eight games, just three are at home and all eight are against teams currently holding onto playoff hopes.

That’ll change as the season goes on, but their schedule isn’t easy, and it’s part of the reason FiveThirtyEight only projects them at 10.4 wins and a 55 percent chance to win their division.

The Weird NFC South

2016 MVP Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz...only on of them is playing this weekend.

2016 MVP Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans is 5-2 and has one of the top offenses in the NFL, but it’s the defense — ranked 12th in scoring — that’s been the surprise for much of the season. In the Saints’ two losses they gave up a combined 65 points. In the five wins since they’ve given up more than 20 once. Compared to other contenders, they may have the easiest schedule left.

Carolina already lost to the Eagles, so if they end up with the same overall record atop their respective divisions, a bye and/or top seed would go to the Birds. But Carolina could be tough to play in the playoffs as at 5-3, they’ve given up just 142 points. They have a top-5 defense across the board, so if Cam Newton and the offense catch up, watch out.

Atlanta is the defending NFC champion, but the Falcons have been wildly inconsistent this season. Still, at 4-3, it’s hard to count them out just yet. They still have two games against Carolina, two against New Orleans, two against Tampa Bay and they travel to Seattle and host the Vikings. Atlanta’s last four games have been against AFC East teams, and they went 1-3. Good thing for them they’re in the NFC.

LA Rams

NFL: International Series-Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

This team scares me.

The Rams host the Eagles on Dec. 10, part of Philly’s tough foray into the NFC West for a few weeks in early December, and that game could also determine home field, first round byes or which team wins their respective division.

The Rams are currently 5-2, keeping pace with Seattle, and have the second-best scoring offense in football behind second-year quarterback Jared Goff and stud running back Todd Gurley. The LA defense is giving up just 19.7 points per game, 11th-best in the NFL and have a top-10 pass defense. But…but, they have one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL. With 23 sacks, it seems they’re spending all their energy getting to the quarterback.

Dallas

Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

FiveThirtyEight still has Green Bay slated to win more games than Dallas — 9.3 to 9.0 — so perhaps the Elliott suspension will derail the Cowboys more than nervous Eagles fans may fear. Still, it’s Dallas, and the Eagles very well may lose a few other games before the season final, which could make that game mean something. It’s a nightmare scenario, so the best way to avoid being in that situation is to win at Dallas on Nov. 19. Or keep winning in general.

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