At the halfway point of another NFL season, it's time to take stock of the divisional races. Some are tight and some have a good bit of separation between the haves and the have-nots, but no one should despair -- as you'll see below, every team still has a pathway to the division crown. Maybe not a LIKELY pathway, but a pathway nonetheless.
Let's break it down.
How the Cowboys Will Win It: Once the Annual Miles Austin Hamstring Pull heals up, Dallas rolls out a devastating 3-WR base set with Austin in the slot flanked by Dez Bryant and rookie Terrance Williams. The loss of Brian Waters dooms the Cowboy ground game for yet another season, but Romo wins some shootouts. The return of DeMarcus Ware and the fantatical efforts of Rod Marinelli coax just enough from the defensive line.
How the Redskins Could Win It: RGIII shakes off the ferocious beating he endured against Denver and immediately elevates his play to 2012 levels. The offense mixes Alfred Morris hammer time with Roy Helu-fueled uptempo and becomes one of the NFC's most dangerous units. Opponents keep forgetting to run double moves at DeAngelo Hall while Von Clausewitz' famed Orakpo/Kerrigan Pincer Movement destroys QBs before they can exploit whichever Walking Dead extras the Redskins trot out at safety each week. Washington sweeps its four division games down the stretch while knocking off the Chargers, Vikes and Falcons to reach the magic eight wins that this sorry division will require.
How the Giants Could Win It: Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt get into Eli's dream world and counteract the Interception Inception that was nefariously placed there in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks finds his legs, Rueben Randle reads the playbook and Andre Brown provides a runner who doesn't have to be shocked to life like Frankenstein's Monster before each game. Prince Amukamara becomes a lockdown corner, the pass rush heats up, and Coughlin takes out a third mortgage on his soul for yet another late-season revival. A divisional sweep combined with wins over the Raiders, Chargers and Lions means the delicious taste of a .500 season.
How the Eagles Could Win It: The Eagles stash Matt Barkley in an equipment box, and Nick Foles shakes off whatever dyspepsia afflicted him against Dallas. He actually hits wide-open receivers to get past Oakland. Chip Kelly gets back to the blackboard and designs a run/pass tandem with Foles and Vick down the stretch to re-invigorate his lagging offense. The Eagles' D builds on strong work from guys like Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox to do just enough against opponents who finally have to play from behind as originally intended. Kelly's Heroes win their remaining division games while also edging the Cards and Vikings and, BINGO! 8-8, baby.
The Crucial Stat: 3-0
The NFC East race down the stretch will probably resemble Marsellus Wallace chasing Butch after the car crash, but a 3-0 division record should hold up for Dallas as no one else in the East has an easy enough schedule to go on a major closing run. Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, whoever doesn't win the NFC West will be waiting to play the role of Zed and Manyard in the Wild Card round. No word on whether Jerry Jones will sell ball gags at the stadium for that one, but if he does you can bet they'll be $49.99 apiece.
Projected Finish: Cowboys 8-8 (Division Winner), Redskins 6-10, Eagles 6-10, Giants 5-11
How the Packers Will Win It: Hilariously unable to protect Aaron Rodgers on 3rd and 8, the Packers' OL continues their Sun Tzu approach of avoiding 3rd and 8 altogether by continuing to grade the road for punishing rookie Eddie Lacy. A put-upon secondary finally gets some help from up front once Clay Matthews and Nick Perry return, and Mike Daniels continues his strong under-the-radar season. James Jones and, eventually, Randall Cobb, return to give the game's deadliest QB a reasonably-full complement of weapons. They drop a close one in Detroit, but win the rest of their easy second-half slate to finish 13-3.
How the Lions Could Win It: With Calvin Johnson God Mode engaged, the Lions' offense becomes an unstoppable force. Nate Burleson and Reggie Bush frolic in wide-open spaces as opponents attempt everything from a Box-and-One to the Chewbacca Defense to slow down Megatron. Suh and company combine maximum legal violence with minimal groin kicks. A victory over Green Bay in which Johnson jumps over seven men to haul in a Hail Mary knocks out the only second-half opponent who can truly exploit a shaky secondary.
How the Bears Could Win It: The fat guy from the Discount Double Check commercials snaps and takes Aaron Rodgers hostage, and Rodgers is so scarred by the ordeal that his play goes in the tank down the stretch. The Days of Future Past versions of Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Devin Hester appear to avert Chicago's dystopian 2013 on defense and special teams, and all the McCown brothers take turns sneaking into the game and running their own special set of plays until Jay Cutler returns. The Bears edge Detroit in the rematch and catch fire down the stretch to take the division at 11-5.
How the Vikings Could Win It: The Discount Double Check guy still kidnaps Rodgers, and also holds Matthew Stafford at gunpoint so that for once he won't have the fattest face in the entire room. Adrian Peterson once again becomes Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson, and the scraggly dude who blows the horn on the sideline suits up to provide a ferocious interior pass rush. The Vikings' second half surge captures the division at 9-7 and, as prophesied, Ragnarok ensues.
The Crucial Stat: 26% vs 16%
Those are the net FootballOutsiders.com DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) passing stats for the Packers and Lions, respectively. Passer Rating Differential is the most important concept for predicting high-level success in the NFL, and DVOA is a much better tool than Passer Rating for measuring the true effectiveness of passing offenses and defenses. Combine those concepts by subtracting each team's Defensive Passing DVOA number (because negative is good and positive is bad in defensive DVOA) from its Offensive DVOA number, and you get to the conclusion that the Packers edge out a strong Lions squad where it counts most.
Projected Finish: Packers 13-3 (Division Winner), Lions 12-4 (Wild Card), Bears 8-8, Vikings 1-15
How the Saints Will Win It: On offense, the Saints keep partying like it's 2009 as Sean Payton and Drew Brees spread the ball to a wildly diverse set of playmakers. On Defense, the Saints keep partying like it's 1992 with their strongest front seven since Pat Swilling, Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson were rooming together at the Pro Bowl. They keep playing like Supermen in the Superdome, and a split with the Panthers is enough to claim the division crown.
How the Panthers Could Win It: Mike Shula lets Cam Newton do what he does best, and a combination of read option runs, rollouts and crisp play-action passing keeps the Panthers' offense humming. Newton and Mike
n' Ike Toblerone Tolbert help Carolina lead the league in red zone touchdown percentage, and Carolina's vicious front seven creates enough havoc to discombobulate Brees and company in both second-half meetings.
How the Falcons Could Win It: After lingering dormant for months, the Buccaneers' team staph infection suddenly erupts in every team that they've played and spreads like wildfire throughout the league. Thanks to their proximity to the Center for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, the Falcons receive swift emergency treatment and then win nine consecutive forfeits as the rest of the league is quarantined. Unfortunately, even the CDC proves no match for the Old Testament plagues called down by the Almighty for the Falcons' refusal to let Tony Gonzalez go to an actual contender.
How the Buccaneers Could Win It: Taking a page out of the West Canaan Coyotes' playbook, the Buccaneers pull a Bud Kilmer on Greg Schiano by refusing to follow him out of the locker room. Then, they baffle the Seahawks with the Oopty-Oop to record the season's biggest upset. The following week Tampa players pull a full-on mutiny, hoist the Black Flag, and unleash a season's worth of pent-up rage and blood-curdling piratical tactics that are more than their opponents can endure. Their dark deeds carry them to a 9-7 record and a shocking divisional crown before they are all put in irons by the Admiralty.
The Crucial Stat: 14.6 vs 9.8
That's the disparity in Vertical Yards per Attempt between Drew Brees and Cam Newton this season. Newton's got a whip, but he lacks the multitude of weapons at Brees' disposal. The Saints' ability to get yards in bunches will be the difference in a tight division race.
Projected Finish: Saints 12-4 (Division Winner), Panthers 11-5 (tragically screwed out of a Wild Card while cursing the inclusion of 8-8 Dallas), Falcons 5-11, Buccaneers 1-15
How the Seahawks Will Win It: Seattle hot-swaps the injured Sidney Rice for gamebreaker Percy Harvin, and opposing defenses are stretched to the breaking point trying to account for Harvin screens, Golden Tate deep balls and read option looks as Russell Wilson flawlessly executes packaged run-pass plays on every possession. Russell Okung returns to put out the fire at left tackle while opponents get burned by the league's deepest pass rush rotation.
How the 49ers Could Win It: The Niners ground game keeps progressing to become the league's deadliest rushing attack, generating long and efficient drives that give opponents too few chances to score on their punishing defense. The return of Aldon Smith and continued growth from Eric Reid and Tramaine Brock put the D in the league's top tier, and it punches hard enough to help the 49ers go 2-0 in heavyweight bouts with Seattle and New Orleans down the stretch and repeat as division champs.
How the Cardinals Could Win It: If Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick's Eyebrow Bet devolves into an escalating series of dares, culminating in both men being arrested while attempting a wingsuit break-in of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va. The Arizona O-line's approach of offering zero resistance to opposing rushers turns out to be a variant of the "fake retreat, then envelop and destroy" tactics pioneered by Genghis Khan's horse archers, and 15 screen passes a game to Andre Ellington power the Cards to victory.
The Crucial Stat: 175 to 144
That's the number of total pressure plays (sacks, hits and hurries) created by the front sevens of Seattle and San Francisco, respectively. San Francisco has a stout defensive front that will be bolstered even further at some point by the return of Aldon Smtih, but Seattle has been even fiercer with Bruce Irvin suspended for the first four games and Chris Clemons working his way back into shape after ACL surgery.
It's one of several areas -- defensive back coverage, downfield passing and QB performance under pressure -- where Seattle has a small, but significant edge, and all those edges tally up to outweigh San Francisco's undeniable advantage on the OL. Either of these teams would likely take any other division in the NFC, but this season, it's Seattle's turn to grab the top spot in the wild West.
Projected Finish: Seahawks 14-2 (Division Winner), 49ers 13-3 (Wild Card), Cardinals 5-11, Rams 1-15