49ers, Washington, Panthers and Falcons fight for playoff spots

George Kittle and the 49ers take on Cincy in a match with huge implications for the playoffs.
Illustration: Getty Images

Most NFL fans will tell you that AFC has been a better conference than the NFC in recent years. Although an NFC team won the Super Bowl last season, they also had a 7-9 team (Washington) who reached the playoffs by winning their own division, along with an 8-8 team (Chicago) as a wild card. Meanwhile, AFC had a 10-6 (Miami) squad that missed the postseason entirely last year.

Well, it looks like we will have a similar postseason situation in 2021. AFC’s top seven seeded teams are all capable of reaching 10 wins this season. In fact, there are four teams sitting at .500 in AFC that are more than one game out of a playoff position. This is not the case with the NFC, where not only two .500 teams (Washington and San Francisco) are able to enter the playoffs currently, but the top two teams outside the playoff picture (Philadelphia and Minnesota) are both under. i .500.

Of course, this created an incredibly close contest in the NFC, with each team vying for the last two places basically playing football to win to stay alive.

San Francisco has the toughest game of any team in the NFC playoff picture. They face the 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals. What makes this race difficult for the 49ers is not the team they are in front of. The 49ers actually match Cincy very well, considering they struggled to stop the race this year, but so did the Chargers and Jets and both teams managed to defeat Cincinnati. In reality it is the unfamiliarity that the 49ers have with the Bengals.

The last time these two teams played was Week 2 of 2019. This was before Burrow became the starting quarterback of the Bengals. This was before Ja’Marr Chase came to town. This was before the Bengals added Trey Hendrickson to their defensive line. Basically, the Bengals are a much better side than the last time these franchises faced each other. Meanwhile, the 49ers have remained essentially the same, if not slightly worse. They no longer have DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman, Akhello Witherspoon, Raheem Mostert (still on the team, just injured), and there’s still a big chance that both Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell could miss Sunday’s game due to injury. The Niners have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL of late, winning three of their last four with an average of 29.5 points per game, but they’re clearly not at their best right now.

The Washington football team has an interesting meeting this weekend as they try to keep the NFC sixth seed. They face the Dallas Cowboys, a team that outclasses them in several positions and is clearly the most talented team in the NFC East overall, but they were blown away by Washington in 2020. Yes, Dak Prescott was not healthy for any of those games, but Washington also pulled Kyle Allen and Alex Smith out to QB for both of those games. Mike McCarthy’s Guarantee even the fact that his Cowboys take a win this weekend doesn’t help the narrative surrounding this game. Hubris has a fun way of always raising his ugly head at the worst times. I should know. I guaranteed it Bryce Harper would not win the NL MVP award. I guaranteed a The ravens win about the Miami Dolphins a few weeks ago. This is how the world works. Make a guarantee and the odds laugh. Dallas is expected to win this game, but has also lost three of their last five, two of them against clearly inferior teams in terms of talent.

Finally, there’s NFC South, a division full of mediocre teams looking to make it into the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually have the opportunity to become the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the NFL this weekend. All they need is for the Saints to lose to the Jets, which isn’t too difficult considering the Saints have lost five consecutive times, and the Falcons beat the Panthers. They also have to win their match with Buffalo, and this is probably the hardest stage of this parlay.

The Panthers have been in a downward phase since their brilliant 3-0 early season. They maintained a solid defense, but their inability to push the ball offensively hindered this team far beyond what many pundits thought before the season. Atlanta doesn’t rely on heavy running game to win. I mean, them the greatest weapon of the backfield he was a wide receiver his entire career before 2021. It will be a close match, but it can go either way. Both teams have struggled to find their balance lately, and it’s a miracle that both teams are still in the playoff hunt for this latter part of the season.

The NFC playoff picture is a confusing mess of mediocrity. There was hope that the Ninerscould become a fearsome football force after winning three straight wins between weeks 10 and 12, but after their embarrassing defeat to Seattle in week 13, it’s clear they aren’t ready to be taken seriously yet. Hopefully, there will be one team I mentioned in this piece that will make a leap forward in the last five weeks of the regular season and give the best teams in the NFC a run for their money.

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