The NFC playoff picture was painted much differently this year than last. First off, the conference’s two top seeds, Carolina and Arizona, kicked-off the 2014 NFL playoffs against each other in the wildcard round. Now, through a resurged wave of talent, and a revitalization of several player’s careers, both teams boast generous odds of making it to the Super Bowl. A place where few predicted they would be at once this season started.
In hindsight, you could make a case that the 2015 NFC playoffs is a complete 360 turnaround of the one that sent the Seattle Seahawks, then the #1 overall seed back to the Super Bowl for the second straight season. At this moment, however, Seattle is slotted as the NFC’s final wildcard participant, upholding the #6 seed. The case of the annulment of the conference is stated further, with the what seemed to be the lifeless Washington Redskins at the dawn of the season. To now, ultimately, reawakening as NFC East Champions and the #4 seed. These claims can be firmly validated by the shifting of powers in the NFC North. Where the seemingly tireless and robust Green Bay Packers fell victim to a costly injury from its best wide receiver in the preseason. Evidently it shattered their fourth straight division title streak, that became squandered and reclaimed by its bitter-rival the Minnesota Vikings.
In correspondence to the change of roles this year that the NFC offered. It’s still clear that in order to triumph as conference champs, it’s imperative that the back-to-back Super Bowl participant from the NFC becomes dethroned.
We’ll see if the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals can prove themselves on the biggest stage, and that they are the new blood of the NFL. Or that Seattle’s quest for a dynasty will be thrusted into the history books for yet one more season.
Getting to Know the Teams
Carolina Panthers: No team benefitted from a hot of a start more than the Carolina Panthers, who reeled off a franchise-best 14 consecutive wins. The blazing commencement to their season helped mold structure to the team, as they finished the regular season at 15-1. Although the Panthers experienced constant turnover on both sides of the ball, that came from season-ending injuries. Cam Newton has revolutionized his own professional career, while buoying his Panthers to the NFC’s top seed.
Newton’s numbers this year have clearly reflected his outstanding performances, that he’s showcased weekly. The truth of the matter is no other NFL quarterback this season has accounted for more touchdowns from scrimmage than Newton (45). Not only that, but Newton’s reckless playing style helped galvanize Carolina’s offense this year by a wide margin. The ability of Newton extending plays, whether it’s off his legs or arm has rubbed off to receivers such as Ted Ginn. Jr. and Jerico Cotchery. Yes, the same Ginn Jr., and Cotchery who were formerly flirting with “bust” statuses, several years prior. Now, both Cotchery and Ginn Jr. are Carolina’s top two wide receivers in terms of receptions: Ginn Jr. (44 receptions, 739 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Cotchery (39 receptions, 485 yards, 3 touchdowns). Tight end Greg Olsen is also a culprit for the Panther’s efficient offense, catching 77 passes for 1,104 yards and 7 touchdowns.
It’s no surprise that behind Newton, the Panthers’ rushing offense has also flourished. As of now, they’re averaging just less than 143 yards per game. Couple that with the sixth-ranked defense that has forced 35 takeaways, 24 interceptions, and 44 sacks. Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis both have amassed 100+ tackles and are big reasons why they’ve surrendered 322.9 yards per game.
Arizona Cardinals: Out of all the publicity that the Carolina Panthers received this season, the same attention should be handed to the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona, who has looked apart much of this year, has been caused in large part of a rejuvenated Carson Palmer. At 36, Palmer isn’t supposed to be playing his best football on the down-side of his career. But with finally a healthy offensive line and burgeoning play makers on the outside, Palmer’s MVP status is growing steadily.
Not to mention, Palmer’s stat line, that boasts a completion percentage of 64%, 4,671 passing yards, and 35 touchdowns adds to his already peak season. But the damage that Palmer has done can’t go without thanking the efforts of wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, as well as the couplet of running backs David and Chris Johnson. In years’ past a more “one-dimensional” passing team. Both Johnson’s have helped stabilize a ground attack, which in turn has led to a balanced flow on offense. During the regular season, the Johnson’s combined have rushed for 1,395 yards for 13 touchdowns. A two-headed dimension on the ground is something that Arizona hasn’t seen since the Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James days back in 2009.
Moving on, the proportional offense has resulted in the Cardinals to be a much more efficient team scoring wise. Case and point, no other NFL team accounted for more total yards of offense weekly than Arizona did (408.3 per game). That, and a 30.6 points per game output (2nd best in league) in addition to 288 passing yards weekly (3rd best in league). Despite the loss of Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona’s defense is more than capable of matching up with any offensive style the NFC has to offer.
Minnesota Vikings: A late push for the NFC North crown was something Vikings’ fans never visualized back in September, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was making mistakes and disallowing opportunities to win games. in retrospect, a lot of Minnesota’s problems at the start of the year has carried over to January. The Vikings biggest problem this season has been finding consistency on the offensive side of the ball, and that has a lot to do with All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson. When Peterson runs for under 115 yards the Vikings are 4-5, but they are undefeated this season when he runs for more than 115. If the Vikings hope to have success on the offensive side of the football, it is essential that Adrian Peterson has success, which will then allow Teddy Bridgewater to compliment the running game.
When the Vikings played the Seahawks last month, Adrian Peterson was limited to 18 yards on eight carries. A lot of that had to do with the Vikings already being down 28-0 before anyone could blink, so Peterson did not get the carries he would normally get and he was pulled from the game when it was out of hand. However, the Vikings will need to give Peterson the ball as much as they can in order for a win. This will be Peterson’s fifth career postseason game and he has not had less the 20 carries in each of the previous four games. The Vikings have leaned on him all year, which is the reason they won the NFC North for the first time since 2009. They will need to lean on him even more on Sunday.
Minnesota’s best chances of sustaining a victory will be if Teddy Bridgewater can take just enough shots downfield, to keep Seattle’s secondary on their toes. If he does that, this will open underneath routes, where speedsters Stefon Diggs and Cordarrelle Patterson can do work.
Washington Redskins: Regardless of how bad this year’s NFC East was. The Washington Redskins are one of the hottest teams in football at the moment and it’s all reverted back to the play of Kirk Cousins . Cousins will not be mistaken for Cam Newton or Carson Palmer, but he’s suddenly found rhythm with his offense that is peaking at the right time. Finally the Redskins can offer up a go-to receiver in Jordan Reed, who is the team’s big tight end. Reed has caught 87 passes for 952 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Possibly without the assistance of Reed and the rise of wideout Pierre Garcon, it would be interesting to see how the Redskins’ season would’ve turned out. Benefitted from a reliable offense, that’s reached the Top 10 in league as far as passing and total yards, will be up against once they hit the playoffs.
Defense for the most part has been Washington’s Achilles’. As good as Cousins has been, the ability to put up enough points each week somewhat makes their chances largely irrelevant. Coming into the postseason, the Redskins are allowing 23.7 points per game and regularly forced their offense to rally from behind. and the Redskins averaged 32.8 points a game during a four-game winning streak to end the season and secure their first division title since 2012.
Green Bay Packers: All the Packers had to do to secure their fifth consecutive division title was beat the Vikings at Lambeau Field, which they had made a habit of doing over the last several seasons. But every time it looked as if the Packers might be summoning their former magic, they would revert to their hapless ways of the last 10 weeks.
Green Bay’s collapse after a 6-0 start cannot be overstated. It went 4-6 the rest of the way, with three of the victories coming against the underwhelming Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, each of which finished with a losing record. Much of the Packers’ recent mishaps can be traced back to an unstable offensive line, one of which has endured at least one new player at each position the past nine weeks. The drastic unfamiliarity from the line has made life pure hell for Aaron Rodgers. This doesn’t help matters anyway considering all season Rodgers has been out of focus with his receivers. Outside of James Jones, no Packer receiver has come close to being able to mesh and form chemistry with Rodgers. It can’t been stated enough that Green Bay’s offense misses the impact that Jordy Nelson brings them at wide receiver. A vertical threat who can catch every ball sent his way.
Even the Packers’ defense, which seemingly held things together far better than the offense, struggled when facing high-end competition, allowing 37 points to the Carolina Panthers and 38 to the Arizona Cardinals.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks rode to the playoffs have no doubt been a tumultuous one. A 2-4 start to the season, enforced a rapid rush of panic buttons being pushed everywhere, but it then soon erased when the two-time defending NFC champions rallied to finish 8-2. Along the way, the Seahawks picked up the trick of not being nearly as reliant on playing at home.
Over the Seahawks’ last three road games, they have outscored their opponents by 109-19, and have done it without Marshawn Lynch, their bruising tailback. Lynch, who had a lost season as a result of injuries, will not play this game. Although they might not have the luxury of one of the NFL’s most physical runners, the Seahawks can easily manage without him. The bad news hardly seems necessary since Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing game thoroughly destroyed the Vikings in Minnesota five weeks ago without his help. That game, a 38-7 masterpiece, was part of a seven-game streak in which the Seahawks were 6-1 and Wilson threw 24 touchdown passes with just one interception. It seemed every week he and Doug Baldwin were accomplishing feats that had been managed only by players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. The Seattle passing game may have played second fiddle to Lynch’s bone-crushing runs in the past, but those days are over.
The scary thing about Seattle is that all of this offense is superfluous. Its defense, which took some heat earlier this season, is still clearly capable of the high-end play that it became known for over the last several seasons. While the unit faltered a few times this season, it held opposing teams to 13 points or fewer in nine of 16 games and allowed an NFL-low average of 17.3 points a game over all.
Staff Wild Card Predictions
Seattle vs. Minnesota
Jerome Williams: Seattle
Steven Abramo: Seattle
Ryan Patti: Seattle
Cassidy McMahon: Seattle
Greg von Matt: Seattle
Chris Lengua: Seattle
Green Bay vs. Washington
Jerome Williams: Washington
Steven Abramo: Washington
Ryan Patti: Green Bay
Cassidy McMahon: Washington
Greg von Matt: Green Bay
Chris Lengua: Washington
Staff Divisional Round Predictions
Jerome Williams: Carolina over Seattle and Arizona over Washington
Steven Abramo: Carolina over Seattle and Arizona over Washington
Ryan Patti: Carolina over Seattle and Arizona over Green Bay
Cassidy McMahon: Carolina over Seattle and Arizona over Washington
Greg von Matt: Seattle over Carolina and Arizona over Green Bay
Chris Lengua: Seattle over Carolina and Arizona over Washington
Staff NFC Championship Predictions
Jerome Williams: Carolina over Arizona
Steven Abramo: Arizona over Carolina
Ryan Patti: Arizona over Carolina
Cassidy McMahon: Carolina over Arizona
Greg von Matt: Seattle over Arizona
Chris Lengua: Seattle over Arizona