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NFL Panic Index 2018: The Saints can be stopped after all

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Now that the favorites have revealed a weakness, is it open season in the NFC? Are the Giants too good now? What if McCarthy wasn’t the problem in Green Bay? Panic!

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Through the first 12 weeks of the season, the Saints looked like an ideal version of today’s NFL offense in two ways: They were lighting opponents up (averaging 37. 2 points and 416.6 yards per game) and their quarterback couldn’t miss.

Drew Brees was completing nearly 77 percent of his passes, almost five percentage points better than his own record he set last season. His interception percentage was a ridiculously low 0.6 percent. He was spreading the ball around to everyone from a clear-cut No. 1 receiver (Michael Thomas) to an all-purpose back (Alvin Kamara) to a veteran tight end (Ben Watson) to a rookie wideout (Tre’Quan Smith) to undrafted youngsters (Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr) to generically named undrafted tight ends (Dan Arnold, Josh Hill). All of those names are real, btw.

The running game couldn’t be overlooked either, not with the one-two punch of Kamara and Mark Ingram and the wrinkles that the Taysom Hill package was bringing.

Then they scored just 10 points against the Cowboys. They could only muster 176 yards of offense, the lowest ever during the Brees-Sean Payton era in New Orleans. Brees, who looked off target all night, might’ve cost himself frontrunner status in the MVP race.

Even worse for the Saints is that the Cowboys might’ve given every other team the blueprint to stop the Saints’ previously unstoppable offense: Get after Brees and make sure no one’s open downfield. Brees threw for a season-low 4.5 yards per pass in the 13-10 loss.

Suddenly, the Saints went from the hottest team in the NFL to looking vulnerable, right in time for the playoff picture to start coming into focus.

Panic index: The Saints offense just didn’t have “it” last Thursday night in Jerry World. It happens. And you know what? They still almost won a game, despite the penalties and mistakes and inaccurate throws and questionable coaching challenges. Maybe they could have pulled off the comeback if the refs remembered the helmet rule.

Are they beatable? Clearly. Can *ANY* team beat them though? Not necessarily. The Cowboys defense is merciless and only getting better. Most defenses in the league can’t match that kind of intensity.

So the Saints might’ve lost ugly and snapped their 10-game winning streak, but they should be just fine ... except maybe if they meet the Cowboys in the playoffs.

Firing Mike McCarthy might not fix the Packers

McCarthy rode Aaron Rodgers as long as he could, guiding his star quarterback to nine playoff appearances, six NFC North titles, and one Super Bowl win. But his 30-years-too-late playcalling philosophy, combined with a 2018 downturn from the two-time MVP, has left Green Bay languishing at 4-7-1 and in need of a new full-time head coach.

The Packers fired McCarthy Sunday, beginning the quest for a bright young offensive mind who can push Rodgers to the peak of his late-career potential. But even if the club finds the next Sean McVay for 2019, it may not be enough to paper over Green Bay’s myriad problems.

Rodgers has struggled throughout a season where the Packers’ receivers have struggled to bail him out. Davante Adams has been great, but injuries and general ineffectiveness have forced the veteran quarterback to rely on Day 3 draft picks like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equamineous St. Brown far too often. That’s led to career lows in completion and touchdown rates for Rodgers, along with a myriad of plays where the star quarterback and his targets just don’t seem to be on the same page.

While the club’s offensive woes have taken center stage, there are also defensive deficiencies that need to be addressed. A budding young secondary and a re-energized pass rush — no team in the league is getting a better sack average than Green Bay’s 8.9 percentage — have made them a tough team to pass against. But a lack of run stoppers up front have allowed opponents to wear the Packers down; tailbacks are averaging 4.6 yards per carry against the club, attacking this weakness to wear the clock down late in Green Bay losses.

Reviving the Packers doesn’t just mean installing a system that capitalizes on Rodgers’ ability to improvise, scramble, and wing otherworldly passes downfield. It also means revamping the receiving corps, shoring up the offensive line, and adding some run support on the defensive side of the ball, and nurturing the growth of young defensive backs like Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and Kevin King.

That’s no small task. McCarthy wasn’t up for the challenge. His replacement may not be either.

Panic index: On the plus side, the Packers have an all-world quarterback, a solid WR1 (Adams), an electric secondary, and a tailback (Aaron Jones) capable of averaging 5.7 yards per rush, albeit in limited duty. That should be enough to make the Green Bay the top destination for any rising coaching candidates this winter. Firing McCarthy after Week 13 gives the club an extra four weeks to make a decision.

Washington’s playoff hopes are in the hands of Mark Sanchez

There was a strong chance Washington’s 6-3 start to the season was doomed to fizzle even when Alex Smith was still under center.

The team squeaked out wins with good defense, despite having one of the lowest scoring offenses in the league. Then Smith got hurt along with basically the entire offensive line. The difference with Colt McCoy at the helm wasn’t drastic, but now he broke his leg too. That leaves only Mark Sanchez at quarterback.

In his first NFL action since 2016, Sanchez threw no touchdowns and one interception against the Eagles to finish with a 53.7 passer rating. His highlights were recovering a fumble with his butt and handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson for a 90-yard touchdown.

After three straight losses, Washington’s now 6-6 and technically right in the mix in the NFC East behind the 7-5 Cowboys — with whom they split the season series. Washington is tied with the Eagles, but a Week 17 matchup could decide which team finishes higher in the division.

Panic index: Can Washington even score points anymore? Uh ... probably not.

Unless a free agent gets signed, it’s up to Sanchez, who hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Thanksgiving 2015. The team’s only realistic hope is Peterson, a 33-year-old running back who couldn’t top 100 yards Monday, even after getting 90 all at once.

Washington finishes the season with games against the Giants, Jaguars, Titans, and Eagles. That means a few good defenses are still on the docket. Bet the under.

The Giants might be playing themselves out of a top pick

Shockingly, the New York Giants have been playing pretty good football recently. They’ve won three out of their four last games, including a win over the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears. As the current NFL Draft order sits, the Giants are have the seventh pick in the draft.

The Giants have a very winnable game against Washington this week, now that Mark Sanchez has taken the reigns as the starting quarterback. Luckily, the only team ahead of the Giants that might be in the quarterback market is the Raiders, but there are teams below them that could leapfrog them with a trade (or more losses) to land a coveted quarterback prospect.

Panic index: The Giants are still a bad team, so they likely won’t do much better than 5-11 on the season. However, it’s time to start thinking about 2019 and beyond. Winning meaningless games at the end of the season doesn’t do much to help the long-term outlook. Their recent barrage of wins threatens to muddy their future at the games’ most important position.