By CASEY MABBOTT
LA Rams 8-3
Remaining schedule: At Arizona, vs Philadelphia, at Seattle, at Tennessee, vs San Francisco
Projection: 12-4 record, NFC west champion, NFC #2
The Rams are guaranteed at least a .500 record, and could challenge for home field advantage if the Eagles give up a game or two down the stretch. What a turnaround this year has been for Sean McVay and Jared Goff, and we could be experiencing déjà vu from the 1999 season. The Jaguars were the Rams’ offensive equals that year (if there was such a thing), but this year it would have to be the Eagles, and we all get treated to a late season showdown before the playoffs with the hope that these two juggernauts face each other again in the conference championship. How great would it be to see the Rams or Eagles take on the Patriots or Steelers in the Super Bowl? You really couldn’t miss with any of those potential matchups. Games against the Eagles and Seahawks could be losses, but the Rams should coast to an 11 win season, and have the chance to do better than that if they can go 4-1 or better the rest of the way. Goff and RB Todd Gurley are looking like superstars, and while Robert Woods’ injury hurts, they can fill the gaps with Sammy Watkins the way they originally intended to use him. What they really need is for their defense to play at a 2015 Denver Broncos level, and they would be virtually unstoppable. If their defense continues to give up big plays, they could be forced to win shootouts, which they are definitely capable of in the SoCal sunshine. If they have to travel to the east coast with a Super Bowl on the line, the potentially bad weather, running game, and strong defense could play to their favor as well. Against so many odds, they are in the drivers’ seat and just need to stay healthy and continue to play smart and they should have a great shot at their first deep playoff run since 2001.
Seattle Seahawks 7-4
Remaining schedule: vs Philadelphia, at Jacksonville, vs LA Rams, at Dallas, vs Arizona
Projection: 11-5, NFC #6
Looking at their remaining five games, Seattle has a real shot to make the playoffs, but they will need some help even if they go 4-1 over a potentially brutal finish. It’s equally possible they could go 3-2 or 2-3 and not have a shot at all. Other than shooting themselves in the foot, the one team that could ruin the Seahawks’ chances at a playoff berth just by matching their record is the same team that knocked them out last year – Atlanta. With identical records and a head to head win, Atlanta could do something no one has done while Russell Wilson has been under center in Seattle – keep them out of the postseason. Wilson has led the Seahawks to a division crown or wild card berth in each of his five seasons, but this year could be the outlier if things don’t go their way down the stretch. Minus Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, a serviceable running game, and a banged up team pretty much across the board, it will be impressive to see them make the playoffs, but given the amount of times they have been bitten by the injury bug, I’m not sure how much damage they can do if they make it. They are good enough to knock around with the league’s elite, but they just haven’t been the same since 2014 and their track record going on the road in the postseason is ok but not strong (2-3). They almost need a losing season to reload in the draft with some high picks, but as it stands they may be doomed to NFL purgatory while their once proud running game and defense continues to age and fizzle to the point of being unrecognizable.
Arizona Cardinals 5-6
Remaining schedule: vs LA Rams, vs Tennessee, at Washington, vs NY Giants, at Seattle
To be blunt, Arizona has been a in a slow-motion season-long nose-dive since they lost David Johnson in week one. They tried to survive without DJ, and thought their season was looking up after trading for Adrian Peterson. One week later, Carson Palmer broke his arm and they are now starting Blaine Gabbert after Drew Stanton hurt his knee. Ouch town – population YOU, bro. Their remaining slate appears to have one winnable game on it (Giants), but the rest are most likely going to help them get a better draft pick next year. It might be in the best interest of the team to let Palmer and Peterson retire after yet another lost season. It’s never a good time to jump start a rebuild, but aging veterans who can’t stay healthy are not a long-term solution and AP was going to be expendable next year with DJ coming back. They might as well see Palmer, AP, and Larry Fitzgerald ride off in to the sunset, while the front office pulls the trigger on the era of players TBD.
San Francisco 49ers 1-10
Remaining schedule: at Chicago, at Houston, vs Tennessee, vs Jacksonville, at LA Rams
Projection: 1-15, potential top draft pick
Even if the 49ers wanted to win one of their remaining games, I’m not sure it’s in their best interest or that they are capable of beating any of their opponents. Their lone win is against a 2-9 team (Giants) who this week unceremoniously benched their long time QB in favor of Geno Smith (not a mis-print), and their end of the season slate has just one winnable game (Bears). With one win they could still be vying for the top pick with the Browns with a potential franchise QB (Jimmy Garoppolo) already in their pocket, which means they can be just as creative with their draft as they were in 2017, whereas the Browns are desperate for a QB. The 49ers don’t need wholesale changes, but they do need to improve at receiver, offensive line, tight end, linebacker, cornerback, and safety before they can even think about a winning season. It would benefit the team and the franchise if they just played their inexperienced players the rest of the way, but no one likes to see obvious tanking, so we will most likely see their first string players out on the field until games get out of hand, and then a lot of guys you’ve never heard of handling mop-up duty. This being year three of the post-Harbaugh rebuild, and just year one of the new Lynch-Shanahan regime, we’re likely to see at least one more year of bad football before they turn the corner.