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Ladies and gentlemen, the NFL playoffs have arrived! In our first look at the postseason, we’ll break down the National Football Conference and provide some sort of guidance on just what might happen on the road to South Beach. For you AFC folks out there, don’t fret. The AFC preview will follow later this week.
Many times throughout the ’09 season, I received texts from people slamming the NFL product for its boredom, lack of quality play and teams for that matter. Yet, a rare occurrence looms as the NFC playoffs approach. In my opinion, for the first time in years, you could make a viable case for any of the six teams to make the Super Bowl. Why? Passing is king in the NFL these days and superstar quarterbacks are running wild in the NFC.
Since the infamous 2003 AFC title game, when the Patriots roughed up the Colts to make it to Super Bowl XXXVIII and the league reinforced the illegal contact rules soon after (with prodding from Colts president Bill Polian), the big game winners went from game managers in the earlier part of the 2000s to the league’s biggest stars at quarterback. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger have won four of the last five Super Bowls and only the erroneous David Tyree helmet catch prevented it from being five for five.
Therefore, quarterback play is the order of the day and it will be on display in force during the NFC playoffs…and the impetus for our official theme of the NFC playoffs.
Without further ado, it’s time to examine the NFC field.
#1 Seed – New Orleans Saints
The Skinny: Got to be honest. I never thought the Saints were the best team in the NFL. I did not drink that Kool-Aid and here’s why. While they knocked the daylights out of the Patriots, they were otherwise getting by. These insane comparisons to the ’99 Rams were careless because that team crushed squads. The Saints labored to beat the Rams, Redskins, Chris Redman-led Falcons, and allowed the Bucs to erase a 17-0 deficit in the Superdome. I don’t trust them and that defense in particular to beat two potentially high caliber opponents in the NFC. Having said all of that, they have the home-field advantage hammer.
Strengths: Drew Brees and the passing game. A plethora of running backs. The Sean Payton play-calling zone. When he gets there, his teams are unbeatable. Every play call is the right one. See Saints/Cowboys in 2006, Pats/Saints in ’09 and as offensive coordinator, the 2000 NFC title game between the Giants and Vikings.
Fatal Flaws: An extremely leaky secondary. Questionable offensive tackles to protect Brees.
Team They Want to See: Philadelphia. The Eagles defense can’t hold up with the numerous offensive weapons for New Orleans, especially at receiver. Philly’s linebacking crew struggles covering running backs out of the backfield at times and New Orleans is the right team to expose that flaw.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Dallas. The Saints saw a potential undefeated go by the boards thanks to the Cowboys. Dallas rushed Brees and stymied their offense. Meanwhile, N.O.’s defense is still trying to cover Miles Austin.
Key Number: 25. The Saints D ranks 25th in the league in total yardage and just has not shown the toughness you’d like to see out of a potential Super Bowl participant/winner. With apologies to Darren Sharper, they don’t have the horses to cover Miles Austin, DeSean Jackson, Greg Jennings, Don Driver or the Arizona gang.
#2 Seed – Minnesota Vikings
The Skinny: The last time we saw Brett Favre in the playoffs, he coughed up a chance for the Packers to appear in the Super Bowl during the 2007 NFC title game. Moving forward to 2009, Favre will not have to play in sub-zero weather which could prove pivotal. Questions remain with the Vikings though. While Favre’s play bordered on the sublime in 2009, the team’s play deteriorated late in the season. Minny lost three out of four before blasting the Giants back to the Jersey swamps in Week 17. If Minnesota gets the ship righted, they could be the best outfit in the NFC. Even during Saints fever earlier this year, I thought they were the better team because of line play. Now, injuries and inconsistencies put that into question.
Strengths: The Favre-Rice connection. Percy Harvin. The Williams Wall. Adrian Peterson at full tilt.
Fatal Flaws: Brad Childress’ questionable game-managing skills, Peterson holding onto the ball. The secondary’s ability to slow down good passing attacks.
Team They Want to See: Green Bay. While the Packers are very good, clearly Favre’s knowledge of the team gives Minnesota a leg up over the Packers. Pair that with Green Bay’s inability to block defensive end Jared Allen during a two-game season sweep and that is not a great matchup for the Pack.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Dallas. Favre’s last start versus Dallas in 2007 led to him leaving the game due to injury. Dallas’ pass rush could be one of the deciding factors in the NFC playoff race. If Minnesota can’t block DeMarcus Ware & company…oh boy.
Key Number: 0. That number explains the number of audibles Childress allows his quarterbacks to call. Begrudingly, he claims Favre will be allowed to have that freedom. He may need to exercise it during the playoffs.
#3 Seed – Dallas Cowboys
The Skinny: Ok, can we end the Cowboys aren’t clutch in December storyline? They split four games during the month, losing to the Giants on the road (when they still cared) and to the hottest team in the NFL (Chargers). Their two wins came against the 13-0 Saints and Washington on the road, a place where Dallas had a rough time time as of late. They topped off their late season run by crushing the Eagles to win the NFC East.
Strengths: Romo’s current hot streak; stealth defensive play; and running backs being productive.
Fatal Flaws: Shawn Suisham making a big kick. The team’s coaching staff, which could go south at a moment’s notice. Honorable mention goes to any ball directed towards Roy Williams.
Team They Want to See: Minnesota. They are a slower version of the Saints, whom they already beat. Favre trying to get out of the way DeMarcus Ware could be scary to watch.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Green Bay. If Dallas happens to meet up with the Packers in the NFC title game, it would be a rematch of a 17-7 drubbing in Lambeau from earlier this season. The Cowboys put together one of their worst offensive performances of the season, gaining just 278 yards and turning it over three times.
Key Number: 2. Dallas’ scoring defense ranks second in the NFL, allowing just 15 points per game. That rank is right in the wheelhouse of previous Super Bowl winners. Since the merger in 1970, only five champions have finished lower than 10 in scoring defense (’76, ’80, ’83 Raiders, ’06 Colts, ’07 Giants). Just as a point of reference, here is a look at the defensive ranks of the other NFC playoff teams:
7. Green Bay 18.6
10. Minnesota 19.5
14 (tie). Arizona 20.3
19. Philadelphia 21.1
20. New Orleans 23.3
Hmmm…if the Cowboys beat the Eagles, look out.
#4 Seed – Arizona Cardinals
The Skinny: Remember them? The Cardinals are the defending NFC champions but aren’t exactly entering the playoffs on a roll. Thus far, they appear to be a better team defensively and harder nosed on defense. They also can run the ball a bit as well when they want to. One difference this year is that they enter in a far different mental capacity. In theory, they are the team to beat since they are defending NFC champs. That’s far cry from last year when some were calling them the worst team ever to make the playoffs (hyperbole anyone?).
Strengths: Kurt Warner and the passing game. The defensive line led by Darnell Dockett.
Fatal Flaws: Not being able to make big plays on offense which was a staple in the postseason last year. Injuries to Anquan Boldin and defensive lineman Calais Campbell could be their undoing. Arizona is one bad Kurt Warner hit away from Matt Leinart.
Team They Want to See: Minnesota. The Cardinals put Minny in a late season tailspin. Arizona’s offensive and defensive lines thoroughly whipped the Vikes.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Green Bay. Arizona’s first round opponent poses a severe threat to the Cardinals and their secondary hasn’t had any success versus the Packers this season. They “laid down” but they didn’t look good against them last week. While the case could be made that Arizona did not care last week, they haven’t played well since beating Minnesota
Key Number: 365. No team ran the ball fewer times than the Arizona Cardinals.
#5 Seed – Green Bay Packers
The Skinny: This was my preseason favorite to win the NFC so I’m a bit partial to this gang. Green Bay has the potential to get to the Super Bowl. They score with the best of them (only New Orleans and Minnesota scored more points than they did) and they can stop opponents too (rank second in total yards and seventh in defensive scoring). Do you really feel horrible about any matchup they would face? Potentially, they’d have to beat Arizona, New Orleans and maybe Dallas, (a team they’ve already beaten) to get to Miami. By the way, a win by Philly on Saturday could setup Favre vs. GB III in the divisional round.
Strengths: Rodgers and his fleet of receivers. Charles Woodson’s secondary play. The recent strong running of Ryan Grant.
Fatal Flaws: Pass protection and Aaron Rodgers holding onto the ball too long (see key number below). Even though their secondary has played very well this season, the Ben 500 yard passing day worries me just a bit.
Team They Want to See: Arizona. Apparently Green Bay really likes Arizona. Including the preseason, the Packers have run up 77 points against the Cardinals in the desert. Also, the Cards have not been nearly as potent on offense as a season ago.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Minnesota. The Packers have played good quarters against Minnesota. Unfortunately for them they trailed by double digits before they got their act together on both occasions against Minnesota. Oh, and one other thing…Jared Allen…Jared Allen…Jared Allen. Might want to block that guy.
Key Number: 50. That robust total represents the number of times Aaron Rodgers was sacked this season which tied for the most sacks taken by a quarterback with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. They better protect Rodgers..or else.
#6 Seed – Philadelphia Eagles
The Skinny: Bill Murray should be the head coach, not Andy Reid. Every season as of late seems to be the same for the Eagles. Good start, bad middle, strong climax, terrible finish. Philly was poised to grab a bye, the two seed and the NFC East title but after Week 17, they stand as the sixth seed.
Strengths: Philly’s ability to hit long plays to DeSean Jackson and the rest of the Philly offense.
Fatal Flaws: Time management. McNabb’s cold spells. Reid’s play calling. Philly’s secondary gets a mention too. They aren’t good tacklers and are susceptible to the big play.
Team They Want to See: Arizona. The Cardinals defense is far from spectacular in the speed category to cover the Philly receivers. Eagles have a nice receipt to give Arizona from last season’s NFC title game.
Team They Don’t Want to See: Dallas. In eight quarters this season, the Eagles have scored a whopping 16 points against the Dallas defense. They can’t protect McNabb and get eaten up by Jason Witten.
Key Number: 0. The goose egg represents the number of playoff wins the Eagles own against the NFL playoff field. Philly is 0-4 versus playoff competition and if you count preseason, its 0-7. That’s right. I just referenced the NFL preseason. So what? Teams make game plans based off of stuff they see in the preseason, thus I’ll pick and choose when to use it in analysis. Unless they get hot on offense, beating three good teams with good quarterbacks is probably asking a bit much.
FINAL PREDICTION: The NFC is a tough call here. The Saints haven’t played a good game in over a month. Minnesota has Brad Childress, who has the potential to blow the team sky high. Dallas still has Wade Phillips. Arizona can’t possibly make it to the Super Bowl two years in a row right? Philly would need to survive its fourth straight road game to get to the Super Bowl. Green Bay’s offense and defense are solid but they have brutal special teams and pass protection issues. I’m going to give the Cowboys the nod to make it to Miami. Should they falter look for Minnesota to get the Bowl.