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UPDATED PLAYOFF PICTURE: Saints Suddenly Find Themselves Near the Very Top

The New Orleans Saints have now won 6 straight games in a row, and as a result: they now suddenly find themselves near the very top of the National Football Conference with regard to the current NFC Playoff seeding, as the team has reached its midway point of their 2017 regular season schedule.

The Saints are now the #2 seed in the NFC; after their dominant 30-10 win over their NFC South Division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, yesterday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome

New Orleans — who was the #3 seed last week — moved past the Minnesota Vikings, who fell down a spot from the #2 seed to the #3 seed; even though they never played yesterday since they were off last week on a Bye.

The Saints are now just slightly ahead of Minnesota and #4 seed the Los Angeles Rams; both of whom also have identical (6-2) records just like New Orleans — but the Saints are the #2 seed as of right now because they'd beat out the Vikings and the Rams because of a better conference record within the NFC.

The Saints have a (5-1) conference record so far at the halfway point of the season, a game behind the #1 seed Philadelphia Eagles; who are (8-1) overall but are undefeated (6-0) in the NFC.

If the season were to end today: both the Eagles and the Saints, would have 1st Round byes.

With that in mind, here's the VERY LATEST update and breakdown of the current NFC Playoff picture as things stand right now going into Week #10 of the NFL 2017 regular season schedule:

 

NFC

No. 1 seed — Eagles (8-1): 1st place, NFC East

Photo courtesy of The Denver Post

The "cream of the crop" at the moment, the Eagles have won 7 straight games (1 more than the Saints' current streak) and appear to be the best team in the conference.

Yesterday they put an absolute beat-down on the Denver Broncos as young superstar 2nd year QB Carson Wentz added to his MVP resume with 4 more TD's against one of the NFL’s better passing defenses, giving him an NFL-best 23 TD passes on the season already.

However if there is a weakness that they have, then it may be their defensive secondary according to Bleacher Report writer / NFL analyst Harry Lyles, Jr.

Lyles notes that now through 8 games, the Eagles have given up nearly 250 yards per game though the air, which ranks them 24th overall in the NFL in pass defense. They’ve also given up 13 passing touchdowns this season, which is among the bottom third of teams. The weakness just hasn’t been a glaring issue, because they’re winning games.

Lyles adds that the Eagles have also been leaning heavily on their defensive line and the best run defense in the NFL. They’re giving up an average of just 66 yards in nine games this season, and they’ve allowed just four rushing touchdowns, good for second best in the NFL. The defense has done enough with Wentz’s MVP play to keep them alive, with the defensive line carrying the load.

 

No. 2 seed — Saints (6-2): 1st place, NFC South

Photo courtesy of Bill Feig, The Associated Press

Six wins in a row. The #2 seed in the NFC Playoffs, if the season ended today. Leaders of the NFC South Division for the past 3 weeks.

Those are just some of the accolades that the New Orleans Saints have managed to achieve in the past 7 weeks, since beginning their 2017 regular season with two embarrassing and very forgettable losses to open the season, against the Vikings and Patriots.

But yet for all of their accomplishments that they've managed to put together thus far as they now have reached the halfway mark of their regular season schedule, there's still something that they have yet to achieve that they are hoping to do as soon as possible: play the "perfect game", and be outstanding in all 3 phases (offense, defense, special teams) of one collective team performance, for an entire 60 minutes.

Yesterday, the Saints appeared to hit mostly on all cylinders offensively in their dominant win over NFC South division rival Tampa Bay (30 points, which could have been 34 had it not been for some kicking issues) and defensively (only 10 points and 200 total yards allowed); but it was their sub-par special teams performance that left much to be desired.

Bottom line: this Saints team actually HASN'T had a complete game to date yet, and may not have played their very best football that they appear capable of doing — meaning that when and if they do get to that point, the rest of the League could potentially be in a whole lot of trouble.

 

No. 3 seed — Vikings (6-2): 1st place, NFC North

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The Vikings were on a Bye Week yesterday, so they remain where they are as leaders of the NFC North, though as we noted they actually dropped a spot down to the #3 seed since the Saints have surpassed them with a better overall record in conference games.

Despite yesterday's absence, the Vikings nevertheless have very quietly (and almost methodically) become one of the best teams in the conference right now, despite the fact that their offense is currently being run by journeyman QB Case Keenum.

The Vikings are obviously bolstered by what is the NFL's #1 defense, but in recent weeks it's been players such as RB Jerrick McKinnon and WR Adam Thielen (Saints fans certainly remember his name) that has helped them take control of the NFC North Division.

When they return from their Bye this coming Sunday against Washington, the Vikings will be looking to extend their own winning streak (4 straight); as they and their top-ranked defensive unit travel to Fed Ex Field to face Redskins QB Kirk Cousins.

The one thing that potentially could loom large later on at the end of the season is that their win over the Saints back in Week #1, could be what ultimately ends being the difference maker in any tie-breaking procedures between the 2 teams.

 

No. 4 seed — Rams (6-2): 1st place, NFC West

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Perhaps no team — and that includes the Saints as well — has been a bigger surprise this year than the Los Angeles Rams. NOBODY saw these guys coming on like they have this season, and anyone who says they did are straight-up LYING about it.

The Rams have gone from perhaps the NFL's worst offense in 2016, to the one of the most explosive in 9 months time now in 2017.  That's a direct reflection upon 1st-year head coach Sean McVay, the young offensive "guru" whose offensive scheme is the talk of the League.

McVay brought not one but two former Buffalo Bills WR's into the fold, with former Buffalo free-agent import Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins, who arrived from Buffalo via a trade; and has incorporated them into a scheme that also includes 3rd-round rookie WR Cooper Kupp, along with young veterans WR Tavon Austin and "power" RB Todd Gurley.

But no single one player has had more of an impact than 2nd year QB Jared Goff. Just like Wentz has done for the Eagles in Philadelphia, Goff has given the Rams a new lease on life with his pure athleticism and talent; and it showed in yesterday's THRASHING of the New York Giants.

Goff completed throws of 35, 44, 44, 52 and 67 yards in the 51-17 victory, and had his best game as a pro so far (4 TD's and no picks and a 146.8 rating). These Rams are scary good, and could be one of the most dangerous teams in the entire League come Playoff time.

 

No. 5 seed — Panthers (6-3): 2nd place, NFC South

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

After spotting fellow NFC South division rival Atlanta a 10-point lead in the first quarter yesterday, the Panthers stormed back for a key victory by beating the Falcons 20-17 at Bank of America Stadium on Charlotte, North Carolina

The Panthers (6-3) had entered their 2-week stretch vs. NFC South opponents needing to at least split the 2 games to keep pace with the Saints, but they actually were able to sweep both Tampa Bay and Atlanta to remain a half-game behind.

The Falcons mostly contained Panthers QB Cam Newton through the air; as Newton was "grounded" as a passer in Carolina's first game since they traded away wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo.

Newton only hit on 13-of-24 passes for 137 yards; but he still was able to gain 86 yards in the running game, and that more than anything was what propelled them to victory and didn't lose ground on the NFC South-leading Saints.

The December 3rd game in 4 more weeks from now at the Superdome vs. the Saints is looming large now for both teams; as the outcome of that game could have a direct bearing on whichever team becomes the eventual winner of the NFC South Division title.

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No. 6 seed — Cowboys (5-3): 2nd place, NFC East

Photo courtesy of The Dallas Morning News

Don't look now, but here come the Dallas Cowboys.

By virtue of their win over Kansas City yesterday, Dallas essentially pushed the Seattle Seahawks out of the #6th and final seed spot, in the NFC.

Dallas 2nd-year RB Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension may be enforced starting with next week’s game, but he was on the field this week, and he and QB Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a 3rd consecutive win.

They were at their best in the 2nd half, holding off a Chiefs team that seemed to have stolen the game’s momentum early in the 3rd quarter.

Dallas has yet to play Philadelphia yet, and so they aren't out of the race for the NFC East Division title, despite trailing the Eagles by a full 3 games. The two teams meet in 2 weeks on November 19th in Dallas on NBS Sunday Night Football, and then again in Philadelphia on New Year's Eve (December 31st).

Regardless, if the Cowboys get "hot", it could spell trouble for the teams (Seattle, Atlanta, Green Bay, Detroit, Arizona) trying to beat them out for that 6th and final Playoff spot.

 

Who's right behind: Seahawks (5-3), Packers (4-3), Falcons (4-4), Redskins (4-4), Cardinals (4-4), Lions (3-4), Bears (3-5)

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The Seahawks and the Falcons are teams that stand out from this group of teams just "on the outside looking in"; since Seattle is an annual Playoff team and former Super Bowl champion; and Atlanta of course being just a few months removed from a Super Bowl appearance.

Green Bay and Detroit play later tonight on ESPN's Monday Night Football. The Packers obviously will likely be without star QB Aaron Rodgers for the remainder of the year; while the Lions continue to fade away recently after they had began the season at 3-1. 

Meanwhile, Washington and Arizona will more than likely need the teams ahead of them to falter badly, if they even hope to have a shot at the Playoffs at this point.

 

Who's just about done and finished already: Buccaneers (2-6), Giants (1-7), 49ers (0-9)

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

The Buccaneers are the most disappointing team here, given that they were expected to contend for the NFC South Division title this year. But they've lost 5 straight games in a row after their loss to the Saints yesterday, and their pirate ship appears to be sinking straight down to the bottom at this point.

Both the Giants and the 49ers  — both at one time proud and successful franchises in recent years — are now completely GODAWFUL teams, and are now in a race to see who can be worse than the other, to end up with the #1 overall pick in next year's 2018 NFL Draft..............

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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