The Patriots will only have to face one NFC team in the playoffs (during the Super Bowl), but it is important to look at the top teams in their conference to determine who has the best chance to be there.
If the season were to end tomorrow, the Cowboys, Lions, 49ers, Panthers, Saints, and Seahawks would be in the playoffs for the NFC. If the Patriots were to make the Super Bowl, they would have to play at least one of these teams.
Lets take a closer look to further determine how the Patriots match up to them.
Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Points Per Game: 27.4 (3)
Opponents Points Per Game: 25.3 (22)
Points Per Game Differential: +2.1
Turnover Differential: +12
Dallas is a very interesting team. They do not have very good yards per game statistics—they are 15 in passing yards and 27 in running—but they are still third in the league in points. A big reason for this is because they have a lot of offensive superstars who can explode for a big plays like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. They are also very good in the red zone—scoring a touchdown over two thirds of the time, second only to the Broncos.
Dallas has one of the worst defenses in the league. They rank 31 against the pass and 27 against the run. They give up more passing and rushing yards per game then they get on offense. However, they do create a lot of turnovers– a big reason why they are a playoff contender.
The Cowboys have no big wins on the season. They are 4-0 against their weak divisional opponents, but their only other wins of the season came against teams with a combined record of 12-25-1. They haven’t beat any current playoffs teams, but they did go toe-to-toe with the Broncos in a 51-48 loss in week five and also lost to the Chiefs by just one in week two. They do still have the ability to pull an upset because the team is filled with playmakers, but they may not have enough depth on their roster to make it to the Super Bowl.
Detroit Lions (7-5)
Points Per Game: 27.2 (4)
Opponents Points Per Game: 23.9 (18)
Points Per Game Differential: +3.3
Turnover Differential: -8
The Lions are very similar to the Cowboys, not only do they have the same record (as of week 13), but they are a team filled with playmakers.
They have one of the best offenses, scoring over 27 points per game while averaging 309 yards per game in the air (second in the league in both). Led by Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, their offense is very hard to stop (think Broncos).
They are filled with talent but they struggle with discipline. Their biggest problem is turnovers. They have given the ball away an astonishing 25 times this season, which is a big reason why they lose games they should win.
The Lions have had a very weak schedule this season. They only have played two playoff teams, and are 1-1 in those games. Their biggest win came against Dallas in a one-point nail biter in week eight.
San Francisco 49ers (8-4)
Points Per Game: 24.8 (10)
Opponents Points Per Game: 16.4 (3)
Points Per Game Differential: +8.4
Turnover Differential: +6
Last year when the 49ers went to the Super Bowl, they were anchored by their defense. The same applies this year. The 49ers have one of the best defenses in the league. They are strong in both phases. They have always been known to be a strong team defending the run, but this year, they have emerged as one of the best pass defenders, as they are third in the league in passing yards allowed. Overall, they give up just over 16 points per game. But since week three, their opponents are just averaging a hair under 12 points per game.
Their offense is very one dimensional which could explain some of their losses. They have a strong running game led by Frank Gore, but they struggle to effectively pass the ball. They average just over 180 passing yards per game. Kaepernick has not looked too comfortable in the pocket all season and has completed just 57 percent of his passes. Despite this, they are still 10 in the league in scoring, mostly because they are very strong in the red zone.
The 49ers have had a tough schedule this year and they have not responded well to it. They are 0-4 against projected playoff teams. But, they do not have a loss against a weak opponent, which shows they have strong discipline.
The 49ers would be a tough team to face in the playoffs because they have so much depth and a strong defense. If Kaepernick can play like he did at the end of last season, this team could very well win the Super Bowl. However, if their passing game doesn’t improve, they will not be able to keep up with the elite teams in the NFC.
Carolina Panthers (9-3)
Points Per Game: 23.8 (14)
Opponents Points Per Game: 13.1 (1)
Points Per Game Differential: 10.7
Turnover Differential: +10
The Carolina Panthers are easily the hottest team in the NFL. They are currently on an eight game winning streak—largely because of their defense.
Their defense ranks first in the league in opponents points per game, second in rushing yards per game, and sixths against the pass. They also have 26 total take aways. They are elite all around, which is a big reason why they are holding teams to under two touchdowns a game.
The offense does not have as much depth as the defense. Their best receivers are aging Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olson. They do not have any elite backs, but they do the best with what they have. A big reason for this is because of quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is one of the best in football at making plays when his team needs it, either through the air or on the ground. Because of that, the team has the third best third down percentage and the best time of possession in the league. They do a great job chipping away at the defense and keeping them on the field, which not only has allowed them to score almost 24 points per game despite a lack of playmakers, but also helps their defense out.
The Panthers have only three games against playoff contenders, but they are 2-1 in those games. They had big victories against the 49ers and Patriots in back-to-back weeks, showing they are among the NFLs top teams. Their only three losses came during the first four weeks of the season– no losses since. This team definitely should be one to look out for come playoff time.
New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Points Per Game: 26.0 (7)
Opponents Points Per Game: 19.2 (6)
Points Per Game Differential: +6.8
Turnover Differential: +3
The Saints may have had a really tough season without Sean Payton last year, but this season, they proved once again they deserve to be among the NFL elites.
Drew Brees is once again having himself an MVP-caliber season, collecting over 29 touchdowns passes as the team has the third best passing attack in the league. They struggle running the ball (they are 23 in the league in rushing yards), but because their passing game is so strong, they do not have to rely on running too much.
Last season, the defense set the record for most yards given up from the line of scrimmage at 7,042 yards. This year, they have completely turned it around. Under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, they are only giving up the fourth most passing yards out of any team in the league—a big reason why they giving up the sixth least points.
Despite their elite offense and strong defense, they are just 2-2 against playoff opponents. They managed to punish Dallas and beat San Francisco, but they came up short against the Patriots and Seahawks. Seattle was supposed to be a statement game for them, but they got demolished in the Monday night match-up 31-7.
On paper, this Saints team is very strong. However, they lost miserably to the Seahawks, who they will most likely have to play in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl.
Seattle Seahawks (11-1)
Points Per Game: 28.3 (2)
Opponents Points Per Game: 15.5 (2)
Points Per Game Differential: 12.8
Turnover Differential: +12
Seattle and Denver have easily been the NFL’s two strongest teams this season. Currently, ESPN has Seattle ranked number one, and they have the best record. A big reason for this is their completeness.
They are solid offensively. Their running attack, led by Marshawn Lynch, is ranked third in the league. They have a good quarterback in Russell Wilson, who is completing almost 65 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 108.5, good enough for third in the NFL. This team does not throw the ball a lot because of their strong running attack, but that doesn’t mean they do not have have the ability to beat a team through the air.
The defense is the big reason why they are so good. They are giving up the second least amount of points per game. A big reason for that is their pass defense led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. This unit is only giving up 177 passing yards per game for an average of 5.8 yards per catch. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and have an average quarterback rating of under 70.
The biggest test for the defense came against Saints last week, who has the third best passing attack in the league. The defense held the Saints to just seven points and 188 total yards. At the same time, they scored 31 points against a very good Saints defense.
There is no question this team has enough talent and depth to make it to the Super Bowl this year.
Patriots in comparison to NFC opponents:
Here are some graphs to see how the Patriots match up against the top NFC team in offensive and defensive statistics.
The Patriots do not stack up as well to the NFC as they did against the AFC. They are either fourth or fifth in every category listed.
The Patriots are 1-1 against potential playoff opponents in the NFC. They had a big win earlier in the season against the Saints in the final seconds, but they also lost to Carolina.
It should be very interesting to see how the Patriots do against the NFC if they make it to the Super Bowl.
Note: statistics from week 13
For more information on key players from each of these potential playoff teams, view this interview I had with Ryan Jackson from the blog, A RyJack Prospective.