Thanksgiving 2016: An update on the birds of the NFL

Five of the 32 NFL teams have names based on the study of ornithology. And all are still in postseason contention as we approach Turkey Day.

It won’t be long before we are sitting around with family and/or friends and enjoying a big meal…and some football. Thanksgiving has become synonymous with turkey and the NFL.

With six weeks remaining on the NFL schedule, we figured it was much more worthwhile to focus on the five birds in the league (listed in alphabetical order) that will still be alive past Thursday. All are still very much in playoff contention and three of the clubs are either in or tied for first place in their division.

We don’t have something as clever as Turducken when it comes to a mixture of these five fowl. But it’s been an interesting season to date for all these NFL squads.

Nov 20, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison (96) during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 30-24. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Cardinals (4-5-1)

A year ago, the Cardinals set a franchise record with 13 regular-season victories. They came within one game of the Super Bowl. While they are still in the mix in the NFC West as well as the playoff chase, but Bruce Arians’ team has some work to do.

Yes, there has been the disappointing play of quarterback Carson Palmer. And the Cards’ kicking game and coverage units are a disaster. But Arizona boasts the top-ranked defense in the NFL in both total yards and passing yards allowed per game. Led by outside linebackers Chandler Jones (8.0) and Markus Golden (6.0), the Cards have come up with 26 sacks. They have 17 takeaways and allowed just 17 offensive touchdowns. Arians’ squad is allowing only 19.0 points per game.

After setting a franchise record and a personal high with 35 touchdown passes a year ago, Palmer has only 13 aerial scores in nine outings. He’s already been sacked 30 times and has 13 turnovers, equaling his 16-game total of a year ago. Running back David Johnson has been terrific but this is a club that has turned over the ball 18 times in 10 contests. Improving ball security is a start. Combine that with this defense and the club is capable of closing strong.

Nov 3, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley (44) reacts to a recovered fumble during the first quarter of a football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons (6-4)

Many keep waiting for the bottom to fall out for this club based solely on last season’s disappointing finish. You will recall that in Dan Quinn’s first season as head coach, the Falcons opened 5-0 and 6-1. But the team lost seven of its final nine outings to wrap up an 8-8 campaign.

This year’s 4-1 start has been tempered a bit by three losses in the last five games. But what is obvious is that no other team in the division has done much to think they can catch this club. The 5-5 Buccaneers are just one game behind Atlanta in the NFC South and coming off an impressive upset of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. But they’ve struggled in their own building. Both the Saints and Panthers are two game below .500 with 4-6 record.

Let’s be honest. There’s not a lot of defense being played by any of the four teams in this division. But Quinn’s group has plenty of balance on offense and has been explosive throughout the season. Atlanta leads the NFL in regards to points per game (32.0).

They are getting quite a performance from quarterback Matt Ryan, who has 24 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. He’s obliterating his disappointing numbers (21 TD passes, 16 interceptions) from a season ago. The ninth-year pro has thrown scoring passes to 11 different players this season. Led by Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, as well as the 1-2 running back punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

The Falcons are giving up 28.3 points per contest. But there have been some bright spots in the form of second-year outside linebacker Vic Beasley. He has 9.5 of the club’s 22 sacks and the pass rush has made some strides. Atlanta has four of its final six games at home and have put themselves to make a playoff return for the first time since 2012.

Oct 2, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr. (89) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens (5-5)

Despite dropping five of their last seven games, the Baltimore Ravens remain tied atop of the disappointing AFC North. Keep in mind that this is a division that sent multiple teams to the NFL playoffs in seven of the previous eight seasons. With six weeks left to play, none of the four clubs boasts a winning record.

As far as John Harbaugh’s club goes, it is a savvy group with some older birds such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and ageless wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. Veteran wideout Mike Wallace was a nice offseason pickup and the defense is an effective unit for the most part. Quarterback Joe Flacco has more turnovers (11) than touchdown passes (10) but his penchant for playing his best football late in the season and in the playoffs is something that can’t be ignored.

But the biggest factor in Baltimore’s favor at the moment is the fact that this team is a perfect 3-0 within the division. It’s a team that has a home win over the Steelers and a sweep of the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens play three of their final four games on the road, traveling to New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati over that stretch.

It will be interesting to see if this experienced team can develop a running game down the stretch. Harbaugh’s squad is averaging just 87.4 yards per game on the ground and will have to do better if the offense is to progress. Due to their postseason exploits dating back to 2008, this is a team that should not be taken lightly.

Nov 20, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson watches pregame warmups against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)

The early darlings of the 2016 season have come back to earth as of late. Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles are four games behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. And Doug Pederson’s club has yet to defeat any of its divisional foes (0-3) in 2016.

However, it should also be pointed out that this intriguing team has yet to face the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins in the City of Brotherly Love. These Eagles are a perfect 4-0 in their own building this season. They will host all three of their divisional rivals in three of the final four weeks of 2016.

In other words, stranger things have happened when it comes to reaching the playoffs. These Birds have wins over the division-leading Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has fallen back a bit to earth after a terrific start. And while the defense is improving under coordinator Jim Schwartz, it’s not a unit without some shortcomings.

The running game has been solid thanks to Ryan Mathews, ageless and versatile Darren Sproles and 2016 fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood. But too many miscues by the receiving corps and the passing attack rank just 25th in the league.

Pederson’s club has four of its final six games at home. On Monday night, they play host to the struggling Green Bay Packers. They also have those aforementioned three games within the NFC East. Philadelphia has dropped five of its last seven outings after a 3-0 start which saw them outscore their opponents by a combined 92-27 count. But there’s still something intriguing about a team that has been competitive in all 10 contests this season.

Nov 20, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) rushes against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Philadelphia, 26-15. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks (7-2-1)

Don’t look now, but that team that stumbled out of the gate offensively this season is getting its act together on that side of the football.

The Seattle Seahawks have only two losses this season and are currently riding a three-game winning streak. After averaging a dismal 18.5 points per game in their first six games, Pete Carroll’s squad has upped that total to 27 points per outing the last four contests. And they’ve managed to do it with numerous running backs and a ground attack that has averaged a disappointing 85.1 rushing yards per game.

Quarterback Russell Wilson’s numbers are getting better on a weekly basis. He’s thrown six touchdown passes without an interception in his last three games, and also caught a scoring pass as well. Before that, he had gone three consecutive contests without throwing for a score. Wideout Doug Baldwin is picking up where he left off with Wilson a year ago, the return to Pro Bowl form by tight end Jimmy Graham has been huge as well.

No team in the NFL has allowed fewer points per game than Pete Carroll’s squad (17.3 average). That is no surprise. The Seahawks have been the stingiest team in the league in this regard in each of the past four seasons. If this team turns the trick again, they would tie the NFL record held by the 1953-57 Cleveland Browns many moons ago.

You get the feeling that those early-season scores of 12-10, 9-3 and 6-6 are in the rear view mirror. Wilson and his team will be a tough out and are more than capable of making it three Super Bowl appearances in four years.

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