As you scroll through the NFL standings while procrastinating through an assignment that’s due in two hours, your eyes will pass by a couple of teams that sit in second place with 6 wins through ten weeks of football. Sure, these 6-3 teams have talent, but they have too many holes. They’re inconsistent, unproven and don’t have a high-powered offense: there’s a reason they’ve lost three games to this point. They’re not the offensive juggernaut that Denver is, and they don’t give opposing quarterbacks nightmares like the Chiefs do. But it’s not so bad to have a few losses on your resume just across the season’s midpoint. Take a look at the 2009 Steelers, 2011 Packers and 2007 and 2011 Giants: all 6-3 by Week 10, all Superbowl champs. This weekend, we saw a matchup of two teams that now stand in second place at 6-3: The Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers. While many believe the Seahawks or Saints will march through the NFC, I argue that one of these two teams are in prime position and will be playing Championship weekend.
There’s reason to believe both teams can make some noise come playoff time. Carolina, a team with an infinitely-talented quarterback and one proven 34-year-old receiver, has ripped off five wins in a row and has some more integral pieces that have helped lead to their success thus far. Their defense is underrated and loaded. Their stout defense is ranked top five in every major defensive category and Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy round out a fearsome front seven led by one of the league’s top middle linebackers, Luke Kuechly. On offense, Cam Newton is protected by one of the league’s strongest lines and has a couple of deep threats to target in Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr. With a strong D and potentially explosive offense, Carolina can slow teams like Seattle and New Orleans down while putting up points of their own.
We know San Francisco isn’t half bad either. Fresh off a Superbowl appearance, they’re led by one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks. And although Colin Kaepernick is averaging a mere 186 yards per game through the air, he’s only attempted 220 passes to this point (compare to Drew Brees’ 363) and shredded the Packers for 412 yards in Week 1. Kap can get back in a groove if need be. He looks like he’ll be getting help at the right time as well. Receiver Mario Manningham just returned from injury and his number one target, Michael Crabtree, is expected back in December, just in time for a postseason run. They have the best linebacking corps in football and, like Carolina, have no trouble shutting down opposing receivers: their defense is their strong point. They’ve reached the Super Bowl once before, and they can do it again with the squad they have now. They’re ultra-talented.
So, what is it that makes 6-3 teams Super Bowl-bound? Well, they tend to do a little more with their talent than teams that start the season 7-2 or 9-1. 6-3 teams show that they could make adjustments with their talent and they don’t just win running a systematized offense like the Saints that tends to be figured out by opposing defenses by Weeks 15-17. Carolina scored just 6 points against Arizona in Week 5, only to rip off four straight weeks of 30+ points and show their talent knows how to change and execute a new offensive approach. A 6-3 team may also not show their dominance until later in the season because they’ve dealt with injuries to important players up to this point. The 2007 Giants didn’t get their slot receiver, Steve Smith, back until Week 15 and the 49ers just got Manningham back, their number 3 receiver, and will get their number one back in a few weeks. They can potentially roll into the playoffs healthy and loaded come 2014. Carolina won the defensive battle against San Fran 10-9 this weekend and, while they may have not drawn much attention in Week 10, I think one of these teams will be playing against Seattle or New Orleans in late January.