NFC East

The pick: Dallas Cowboys

Current record: 6-2, first place in the NFC East

The case: As an Eagles fan I’m legally obligated to state my disgust for this pick, but unfortunately, it may very well be the right one. A comparatively easy second-half schedule is practically begging the Cowboys to win 11 games, and DeMarco Murray shows no signs of slowing down. He’s been absolutely remarkable this year, and as long as the vaunted offensive line can keep giving him Texas-sized holes to run through, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t run for 2,000 yards. The only issues here are a middle-of-the-road defense and keeping Tony Romo healthy, which is easier said than done.

NFC North

The pick: Green Bay Packers

Current record: 5-3, second place in the NFC North

The case: There’s no doubt about it – this team looked horrible this past Sunday against the Saints. But, I’m willing to chalk that up to playing a good team on the road, a game in which Aaron Rodgers still threw for over 400 yards and threw his first interceptions since Week One. Rodgers has been an absolute machine this year, and the duo of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson can and does overpower every secondary in the league. It’d be nice to see the defense do its part every now and then, but an easy second half (the three games before the Week 17 Lions showdown: Atlanta, at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay) should be a breeze for this team. The Lions, currently leading the division, have an impressive knack for buckling in the second half, and with Calvin Johnson out for the foreseeable future, Stafford and Co. just doesn’t have the firepower to compete for the divisional title.

NFC South

The pick: New Orleans Saints

Current Record: 3-4, second place in the NFC South

The case: Boy, did they look good this week. In beating the Packers, the Saints showcased exactly what they’ve been for a while: a team that can’t be beat in a shootout. A better expected running game gooses the sometimes one-dimensional (read: Brees to Graham fades to the back corner of the end zone) offense, and (gasp!) the run defense has been top 10 in the league this year. The second half-schedule is no cakewalk, but most of the tougher games will be at home. The Panthers, currently in the divisional lead, have some exciting players, but this is not the 13-3 team from last year.

NFC West

The pick: San Francisco 49ers

Current record: 4-3, third in the NFC West

The case: The Cardinals, currently in first place, are one of the worst running teams in football. Carson Palmer, somehow still playing meaningful snaps in 2014, is serviceable at best, and that’s when he’s not injured. The defense has been one of the worst against the pass in the league, and while they’ve been quite adept at tightening up around the end zone, that’s partly a function of luck. A second-half collapse for them is certainly on the table. Then there’s the Seahawks, always a looming threat. But the Percy Harvin trade, while probably necessary, sapped the team of its last really electric open field threat, leaving a lot more on Russell Wilson’s shoulders than he’s equipped to handle.

Enter the 49ers. A surly defense gets Navorro Bowman back soon, and even at 85%, he’s one of the best linebackers in football. The offense will find its way, due to their wide array of offensive weapons. Colin Kaepernick may very well be the best athlete to ever play the quarterback position, and it’s only a matter of time before Michael Crabtree and the rest of receiving corps catch up with Frank Gore to power this team towards the divisional title.

Wildcards: Philadelphia Eagles (5-2, second in the NFC East), Arizona Cardinals (6-1, first in the NFC West)

AFC East

The pick: New England Patriots

Current record: 6-2, first in the AFC East

The case: This is a far above-average football team in a division of teams playing over their heads (looking at you, Buffalo and Miami) and teams playing their way into oblivion (looking at you, New York.) Tom Brady’s turned another group of no-name wide receivers into a more than competent group, Rob Gronkowski’s three touchdown week signals that he’s back in the swing of things, and the early season woes of the offensive line seem to have subsided. A banged-up defense will provide

some issues, but make no mistake—this division is practically wrapped up.

AFC North

The pick: Baltimore Ravens

Current record: 5-3, second in the AFC North

The case: I’m loathed to bet on a Joe Flacco-led team, but he’s played exceptionally well in a tumultuous year in Baltimore. Justin Forsett has been a godsend for this team, and Steve Smith has played some inspired football. Torrey Smith will pick his game up, and the defense is its predictably great self. While Pittsburgh and Cincinnati aren’t going away, neither of them have the combination of explosive offense and stout defense that Baltimore does, nor have they been blessed with the relative health of their starters that the Ravens have.

AFC South

The pick: Indianapolis Colts

Current record: 5-3, first in the AFC South

The case: This might be the clearest pick in the league. While the Texans are just a game behind, they’re there almost entirely on the efforts of human-grizzly bear hybrid J.J. Watt and Arian Foster. Without Watt, the defense has no claim to any sort of defensive pressure or pass defense; without Foster, everyone would be scratching their heads wondering how Ryan Fitzpatrick is starting for an NFL team. Not that they’re not already doing that anyway, but you get the idea. Andrew Luck is a tremendous quarterback playing in a system that puts his talents on full display every week, and if the defense can soldier on despite the loss of Vontae Davis, this team could go deep in the playoffs.

AFC West

The pick: Denver Broncos

Current record: 6-1, first in the AFC West

The case: There is no world in which Peyton Manning can play like he has the last three weeks (completing 74% of his passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns) without giving his team a good shot at winning the division. His superhuman season notwithstanding, the defense has been spectacular. As long as this team is lining up Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on defense and the Brothers Thomas on offense, no one’s going to stop them.

Wild Cards: San Diego Chargers (5-3, second in the AFC West), Pittsburgh (5-3, third in the AFC North)

Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.



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