Panthers, Eagles lead list of dangerous, under-the-radar contenders
Going into their Dec. 2, 2012 game against the Chicago Bears, the Seattle Seahawks were 6-5 and trying to get a foothold in a playoff race that seemed to be running away from them. They beat the Bears 23-17 in overtime, led by two long drives from Russell Wilson in the rookie's national coming-out party. Inspired by this performance, Seattle won its last four games of the season, finished the campaign 11-5, and has lost exactly one regular-season game in the last calendar year.
Every season has those teams that become completely dangerous at exactly the right time, and take that factor into a different realm of success. In 2013, we see these teams as having the potential to do just that. None are division leaders, some have little chance to grab that designation, and a couple will do no more this season than spoil it for teams with better records, but all have entered that mythical "Nobody wants to face these guys right now" status.
Carolina Panthers (9-3, 2nd in NFC South): Thought the Saints had the NFC South on lock? Well, they did back in early October, when the Panthers were 1-3 and talk was that Ron Rivera wouldn't have a job by Thanksgiving. Now, the division race will effectively be tied if New Orleans loses to Seattle on Monday night. Even if the Saints pull back ahead to a full game over Carolina, the Saints and Panthers face off twice in the next three games, and Carolina -- buttressed by Cam Newton and one of the game's best front sevens -- has won eight straight games.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-5, 2nd in NFC East): Nick Foles is coming off one of the the single best months for any NFL quarterback ... well, ever with his 152.8 passer rating in November. And his 19-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio is singularly impressive. But the thing that has Eagles fans excited about their team's playoff hopes is a defense that has turned things around after a very rough start. Under defensive coordinator Billy Davis, Philly hasn't given up more than 21 points in a game since Sept. 29.
"Our defensive line stepped up and got all kinds of pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush," Davis said after Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals. "Now, we pressured a few times and we maxed dropped some and got pressure with a three-man rush. It was a nice day for the defensive line. The coverage was also tight. They made plays like you knew they would. At the end of the day, the scoreboard said we had three more points than them, so that’s good.”
San Francisco 49ers (8-4, 2nd in NFC West): The 49ers stumbled through a rough start to the 2013 season as a series of injuries to Colin Kaepernick's targets greatly affected the passing game, and Aldon Smith's ongoing drama scuttled a formerly great pass rush. But things are starting to come together now. Receiver Michael Crabtree made his 2013 debut against the Rams on Sunday, some unheralded players are stepping up on the other side of the ball and the last four games feature key divisional matchups (Seattle, Arizona) with games that should be relatively easy gets (Tampa Bay, Atlanta). This is another team that bears serious watching as the regular season comes to a close.
Arizona Cardinals (7-5, 3rd in NFC West): Bruce Arians' team is always a tough out. The Cardinals have perhaps the best overall defense in the NFL on any given Sunday -- it's just a matter of which version of Carson Palmer shows up. The version that threw two picks on Sunday? That's not the one who will get Arizona any closer to the postseason, but the guy who threw four touchdowns and no picks in the prior two weeks against the Colts and Jaguars could help this team to an improbable postseason berth if everything swings the right way. One thing's for sure -- Arians and his charges will be hoping for better officiating than they got against the Eagles.
Miami Dolphins (6-6, 2nd in AFC East): Other teams would have packed up shop and left town after a distraction like the Richie Incognito bullying scandal, but to their credit, the Dolphins have done anything but. They've gone 2-2 since that soap opera went viral, and their two losses were by a total of seven points. The Dolphins are in the running for the final wild-card spot, and if quarterback Ryan Tannehill can find a bit more consistency (a better run game would help, to be sure), this team that has been both functional and dysfunctional could actually make some noise (hopefully, the right kind of noise) in the postseason.
Baltimore Ravens (6-6, 2nd in AFC South): It hasn't been impressive so far -- Joe Flacco has been on-and-off, the formerly imposing defense has shown a few leaks and everybody is still wondering where Ray Rice went ... but with their Thursday night win over the Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champs got back to .500 for the first time since late September. They won't likely catch the Bengals at the top of the division, but a good run over the last month, added to their current two-game winning streak, would provide a bit of momentum for a team that has been in short supply at times.
Tennessee Titans (5-7, 2nd in AFC South): This is the team that has to wonder what might have been. What if Jake Locker had been healthy all season? What if they hadn't dropped two games in three weeks to the Colts, or avoided their status as the Jacksonville Jaguars' first win of the season? This is a very talented team that can't seem to get out of its own way, which makes playing the Titans over the last month of the season a somewhat scary proposition.San Diego Chargers (5-7, 3rd in AFC West): It could be argued that right now, if the 5-7 Chargers and 9-3 Chiefs faced off 10 times in a row, the Chargers would win four or five of these games. One could argue that Philip Rivers has played as well as any quarterback in the NFL this season, but a horrible defense and a penchant for losing games in heartbreaking fashion has all but eliminated San Diego as a postseason contender. Still, the Giants, Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs will be on notice throughout December -- if you hit this team on the wrong day, you could be easily embarrassed.