When the Minnesota Vikings traded for Sam Bradford , jettisoning a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder to do so, they did more than just acquire a new starting quarterback, they sent a clear signal to the rest of the NFC that they still believe they’re a deep playoff team, even without Teddy Bridgewater helming the offense.
At surface level, that’s not a far-fetched idea. Adrian Peterson still exists and so does a young, vaunted defense — the two dominant factors of the team’s NFC North title run a year ago. Before Bridgewater’s knee gave out, I actually had the Vikings winning the North, again, and journeying all the way to the conference championship game this time around.
Bridgewater’s injury changed that projection. The trade to land Bradford failed to restore my expectations for a team that I now suspect will fall short of the postseason. And so, a window for an NFC bubble team has opened up on the eve of the season.
We’ll get to those teams in a moment, but it’s important to start with why I believe a Bradford-led Vikings won’t journey into January.
At face value Bradford isn’t necessarily a worse option than Bridgewater for the upcoming season. A year ago, Bridgewater and Bradford weren’t all that different when using traditional statistics.
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But Bradford is not nearly as accurate in the short-passing game. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Bridgewater has completed 73.2 percent of his career passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Bradford’s completion percentage on those passes is 66.5 percent, which falls below the league average of 69.1 percent. That matters for an offense that might rely on short passes.
So does Bradford’s injury history. As Barnwell wrote, Bradford’s missed 33 of 96 possible starts in his career. If Bradford goes down behind an unreliable offensive line then his replacement would be Shaun Hill — the 36-year-old quarterback the Vikings felt so uncomfortable with, they decided to trade away two high draft picks for a middling, rental quarterback.
Age matters too. When I originally picked the Vikings to win the NFC North, I was counting on Bridgewater, a third-year quarterback, to turn the corner and elevate his level of play. We won’t know for another year if Bridgewater can do that, but we already know Bradford can’t. He’s been around since 2010. In his career, he’s thrown a touchdown on 3.4 percent of his passes and an interception on 2.3 percent of his passes, he’s averaged 6.5 yards per attempt, and he’s pieced together an 81.0 passer rating. In other words, bleh.
Sam Bradford is still Sam Bradford — an injury prone, veteran quarterback, who’s now onto his third team since last spring. Bridgwater at least had the potential to turn into a top quarterback.
The Vikings do still have Peterson, a running back who dragged his team into the postseason with a 2,000-yard campaign in 2012. But, today, Peterson is on the wrong side of 30. Expecting him to put up historic numbers is expecting him to do the impossible. Peterson will likely remain one of the league’s best backs this season, but he won’t make history again.
Still, the Vikings will be able to lean on Peterson and a dominant defense, right? Perhaps we’re giving that defense a bit too much credit. It ranked as the 14th-best unit using Football Outsiders’ metrics. It didn’t fare that much better using traditional statistics, finishing 13th in yards allowed.
Though they surrendered the fifth-least points last year, that’s a misleading statistic, as Football Outsiders’ 2016 Almanac covered. According to Football Outsiders, if you measure points allowed per drive, the Vikings’ defense ranks 12th:
In reality, the Vikings were nothing special when it came to stopping opponents from moving the ball. They were 13th in total yards allowed, 14th in yards allowed per play, and 20th in yards allowed per drive. It’s true that the Vikings were excellent in the red zone, fourth in the league in DVOA, but that’s the kind of split that tends to swing wildly from year to year, so there’s no guarantee they can enjoy similar bend-but-don’t-break success in 2016.
And speaking of stats that are unlikely to repeat themselves, Minnesota’s fumble defense recovered eight of 11 opponent fumbles in 2015. Those balls aren’t likely to bounce their way again this year.
There’s reason to believe this defense may get worse before it gets better. The Vikings were seventh in adjusted games lost on defense last season, and we can expect them to have more injuries in 2016.
In truth, the Vikings just aren’t a reliable playoff pick without the possibility of Bridgewater making the leap. Only one of our NFL writers, Pete Prisco, kept the Vikings as a playoff team in our expert predictions for the 2016 season. That’s not to say the following teams are a lock — they’re not — but they at least have a shot to sniff the postseason now that the Vikings’ quarterback position won’t be an asset for them in 2016.
I picked the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals to earn playoff bids with the Green Bay Packers winning the North, the Carolina Panthers to win the South, and the New York Giants to capture the East, so that leaves one final wild-card spot for the Chicago Bears , Detroit Lions , Washington Redskins , and Dallas Cowboys — all of whom I like as potential nine-win teams. Those four teams were also picked by at least one CBS Sports NFL writer to make the playoffs.
So, let’s run through the arguments for and against those four NFC teams, starting with the Bears. To be clear, I’m not predicting 10- or 11-win seasons for any of these teams. These are the teams that can sneak into the playoffs with a nine-win season.
Why the Bears will make the playoffs
When the Bears cut their all-time leading scorer, kicker Robbie Gould — the lone surviving member of the 2006 Super Bowl squad — to sign Pro Bowl, 30-year-old guard Josh Sitton , they also sent a clear signal to the rest of the league. They’re not rebuilding, they’re planning on winning this year.
This might surprise a few folks, but the Bears are actually built to win now. They have a quarterback in Jay Cutler , who is coming off the best season of his career. And Cutler’s proven throughout his career that he can win so long as the team around him can hold its own — Cutler guided the Bears to a 27-13 record from 2010-2012, when the Bears featured a top defense. That’s exactly what general manager Ryan Pace has built in his short time in Chicago.
Cutler will be throwing to top-10 receiver Alshon Jeffery and redshirt rookie Kevin White this season. He’ll be throwing to those receivers behind an offensive line that suddenly looks solid due to the signing of Sitton. That offensive line should also pound defensive lines in the running game, which should also take the pressure off Cutler.
Defensively, Pace completely revamped a unit led by wizard Vic Fangio, the architect of all of those dominant 49ers defenses. A year ago, the Bears started below replacement-level middle linebackers. This year, they’ll start Danny Trevathan , who led the Denver Broncos in tackles last year, and Jerrell Freeman , who emerged as Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked run linebacker. The defensive line is nasty, even with Pernell McPhee on the PUP list to begin the season. Eddie Goldman , Akiem Hicks , Jonathan Bullard will turn the line into a formidable force. The pass rush — led by McPhee (PFF’s most most productive 3-4 linebacker pass-rusher) when he’s healthy, Lamarr Houston (eight sacks), and Willie Young (6.5 sacks) — will bother opposing quarterbacks.
A year ago, the Bears went 6-10, but they also lost to the Broncos by two, hung with the Cardinals for a half before Cutler left with an injury, beat the Packers in Green Bay, defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, lost to the Vikings by a field goal, and missed out on a chance to beat the Redskins because of a failed field goal. Those are all playoff teams, and the Bears were right there with them, despite trotting out receivers like Josh Bellamy and Marquess Wilson on a weekly basis. Heck, they finished as a top-10 offense in DVOA.
With a significantly improved defense and receiving core, the Bears will win more of those close games. They also boast the third-easiest schedule in the league.
Why the Bears won’t make the playoffs
They’re still a year away. Though the front-seven is improved, the secondary is not. Tracy Porter was re-signed due to a so-called career revival, yet according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 107.2 passer rating when quarterbacks went after him. Former first-round pick Kyle Fuller has yet to show any signs of developing into a consistent corner and he’s been dealing with knee issues all summer.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cutler is being asked to work with yet another new offensive coordinator, Dowell Loggains, who’s best known for being texting buddies with Johnny Manziel . Matt Forte is gone. So is Martellus Bennett . Those aren’t players that the Bears can simply replace with the unproven Jeremy Langford , who averaged a league-worst 2.7 yards per carry against base defenses (according to Pro Football Focus), and Zach Miller , who’s started just 19 games since entering the league in 2009.
The Bears are improving, but they’re one more productive offseason away from fixing some holes and acquiring some much-needed depth.
Why the Cowboys will make the playoffs
After Tony Romo went down with a broken back, Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said the following to the Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King:
“It’s a different feel around here this time. We like what we’ve got behind Tony now. This is still a gut punch. It hurts bad. But I can tell you this time we’re not going to be sitting around worrying when Tony gets back. We can’t say, ‘We need to go 3-3,’ or whatever, with Tony gone. The hell with that. We gotta have a game plan to beat the Giants, and to win every game without him.”
He’s right. Offensively, the Cowboys should survive without Romo. They boast the league’s best offensive line and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott .
The line looks like this:
And Elliott looks like this:
At quarterback, they have a complete unknown in fourth-round pick Dak Prescott , but he can’t be any worse than the combination the team trotted out last year in Romo’s absence ( Kellen Moore , Matt Cassel , and Brandon Weeden ). And, in the opportunities that have been given to him thus far, Prescott’s hardly looked like a fourth-round rookie. In the preseason, Prescott went 39 of 50, averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, threw five touchdowns and no picks — good enough for a passer rating of 137.8. He also added two touchdowns on the ground.
*Insert a necessary disclaimer about the preseason*
The Cowboys’ face the easiest slate of games in terms of strength of schedule. They also might get Romo back sometime this season.
Why the Cowboys won’t make the playoffs
Prescott is a fourth-round rookie and the preseason is the preseason — still meaningless. The Elliott hype is warranted, but he’s also an unproven rookie.
And then there’s the defense, which is proven in bad ways. A year ago, the defense finished near the middle of the table in yards, points, and DVOA. It did not get any better in the offseason, losing Demarcus Lawrence , Randy Gregory , and Rolando McClain to suspensions. Greg Hardy is gone (thankfully), but so is his pass-rushing ability.
As calculated by Sports on Earth’s Kenneth Arthur, the Cowboys are 78-49 when Romo starts and 10-23 without him in the past decade.
Why the Redskins will make the playoffs
When free agency opened up, the Redskins sat there idly, watching as the Giants outspent everybody to re-tool an awful defense. They didn’t sign Kirk Cousins to a long-term contract, hitting him with the franchise tag instead — a rational move for a team with a history of behaving irrationally. In March, the team spent just $7.4 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN. The Giants spent $106.3 million in guaranteed money.
A month later, things changed. Josh Norman became available and the Redskins pounced by giving him $50 million guaranteed.
That decision was also rational, especially for a team that goes up against both Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant twice a season. It’s not often one of the league’s best cornerbacks becomes available in April and the Redskins took advantage of the rare situation.
A season ago, the Redskins won the NFC East with nine wins. Factor in the addition of Norman, and rookies Josh Doctson (another talented target for Cousins) and Su’a Cravens (a solid addition to the defense) and it’s tough to argue against the Redskins getting to nine wins again.
Why the Redskins won’t make the playoffs
Cousins is not the Redskins’ quarterback solution, which is why general manager Scot McCloughan didn’t seem all-too-eager to hand him a long-term deal. His statistics look great — a 69.8 completion percentage and a 101.6 passer rating — but they were boosted substantially due to games against the New Orleans Saints , Cowboys, and Giants.
Keep in mind: Through the first eight games, Cousins posted a 10-9 TD-INT ratio. It was only in the second half of the season that Cousins began putting up monster numbers.
Football Outsiders’ Cian Fahey wrote about Cousins’ misleading statistics at great length. Here’s a sample:
The simplest summation is that Cousins improved after Week 9. It’s an easy narrative to sell: he needed that time to get comfortable in the offense after taking over without a full training camp and preseason as the full-time starter. It follows a natural plot line and is inarguably logical. The problem is, Cousins was average and was still good.
If we look specifically at that Week 10 game against the Saints, we can see that Cousins averaged 13.0 yards per attempt, but the average depth of his throws was a measly 4.4. Cousins had three screens go for 138 yards, and gained 202 yards with two touchdowns on Simple YAC throws (passes where the ball doesn’t travel further than 2 yards past the line of scrimmage). On that day, Cousins only needed to be average to be good — to be great even.
That is largely how Cousins was productive over the second half of the regular season.
As for Norman, he’s coming off a breakout season, but that season occurred with the Panthers — a team that used a zone-scheme — alongside stars like Luke Kuechly . In Washington, Norman will be forced to cover Beckham and Bryant without the same kind of supporting cast around him. He spent the summer getting burned in practice by DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon , and took an in-season TV gig without telling his coach.
The Redskins first-round pick, Doctson, is already dealing with injury issues. Plus, every other potential wild-card team in this article will play a bottom-five schedule while the Redskins’ schedule ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of last year’s win-loss records.
Why the Lions will make the playoffs
The Jim Bob Cooter hype is real. And so is his name.
When the Lions promoted Cooter to offensive coordinator and playcaller in late-October, they were 1-6 and quarterback Matthew Stafford was completing 65.02 percent of his passes, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt, throwing a touchdown on 4.56 percent of his passes, and getting picked off on 3.42 percent of his passes. His passer rating? 86.8.
In the final nine games of the season in Cooter’s offense, the Lions went 6-3. Stafford completed a very nice 69 percent of his passes, averaged 7.28 yards per attempt, threw a touchdown on 6.08 percent of his passes, and got picked off on 1.22 percent of his passes. His passer rating? 105.1. Again, the Jim Bob Cooter hype is real.
They also boast one of the league’s easiest schedules, facing the fifth-easiest slate of games. In the offseason, they went out and signed Marvin Jones , a severely underrated receiver who’s improved each year.
They also might’ve solved their offensive line issues by drafting Taylor Decker in the first round. Last year. the Lions offensive line surrendered 44 sacks, the 10th-highest total, and 103 quarterback hits, tied for the ninth-highest total.
With Cooter’s playcalling and a revamped line, Stafford might experience a career season.
Why the Lions won’t make the playoffs
Calvin Johnson is gone and there’s no replacing him. This is a 7-9 team that lost its best player.
It’s not rocket science.
The verdict: Bear down
There’s a reason why the Bears’ section is the longest and why they led off the article. I didn’t pick the Bears to earn a playoff spot before the Vikings lost Bridgewater for the season, but they’re best-suited to capitalize on the injury.
The Cowboys’ defensive issues can’t be ignored and neither can Prescott’s inexperience. With Romo, I had the Cowboys winning the East. Without Romo, I think they sink, again. The Lions won’t survive in post-Megatron world and the Redskins need a repeat performance from Cousins, which I don’t think they’ll get.
Meanwhile, the Bears have one of the easiest schedules in the league and a young roster that has the potential to improve significantly. Remember, they’re gaining two first-round rookies in Kevin White and speed pass-rusher Leonard Floyd . Their biggest issue, the offensive line, solved itself with the signing of Sitton. Their secondary now takes up that mantle, but poor secondaries can be overcome with a dominant front-seven. I think the Bears’ front-seven can be dominant.
And, as I wrote in my stats-to-know column for the 2016 season, which features plenty of “Game of Thrones” references if you’re into that sort of thing, John Fox has a history of second-year success.
In 2002, John Fox took over a 1-15 Panthers team. In his first year, he improved them by six wins. In year two, he went 11-5 and won the NFC, losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl on a last-second field goal.
In 2011, Fox inherited a 4-12 Broncos team that Josh McDaniels left in ruins. In his first year, with Tim freakin’ Tebow as his quarterback for most of the season, Fox went 8-8 and won a playoff game — again, with Tebow winding up, closing his eyes, and praying on every dropback. In year two, Fox went 13-3.
Fox’s streak continues in Chicago.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Teddy Bridgewater’s injury opens playoff race for Bears, Cowboys, Redskins, Lions