NFC Divisional Preview

Wildcard weekend in the NFC gave us two exciting games with two contrasting outcomes. The first game pitted NFC North champions, Minnesota Vikings, hosting the final wildcard qualifier Seattle Seahawks. Amidst freezing temperatures inside the confines of TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Seahawks operated through heinous conditions despite the absence of starting running back Marshawn Lynch. In a game that was mostly highlighted from Vikings’ kicker Blair Walsh’s missed game-winning field goal. For the most part, credit undeniably should be awarded to the Seahawks’ defense, which held Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson to his lowest rushing average this season (2.0). Seattle escaped with a 10-9 victory.

The second game between the Green Bay Packers and NFC East champion Washington Redskins, ended up being a much higher scoring performance than what was formerly predicted. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers rallied back from an early 11 point deficit in the first half to later blank Washington 35-18. The loss by the Redskins marked the fourth straight home playoff defeat, with their last home win coming in 1998.

Will the wildcard winners continue to prevail this weekend or should the conference’s two most consistent teams all year pair up in the conference championship next Sunday?

Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals

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One would expect Green Bay’s offense to catch fire eventually. And finally during last week’s staggering win over the Redskins, perhaps provided the spark to get the Packers going again. Before last Sunday’s outbreak offensively, Green Bay was averaging slightly over 20 points per game. That, behind a porous offensive line which induced Aaron Rodgers to be sacked 46 times in the regular season (2nd most in the league). These are the biggest areas of concern for Green Bay heading into Saturday. Fortunately, the good news for Green Bay is that Arizona’s pass rush isn’t necessarily a vaunted one and doesn’t possess enough firepower to effect Rodgers. The Cardinals are entering the playoffs with the 25th most sacks in the NFL (24.0). With very little disruption to the Packers’ offensive line should allow Rodgers to feel just as comfortable as he did last week at Washington.

The displeasing news if you’re a Packers’ fan however is the magnificent defense Arizona showcases. Arizona has surrendered the fifth lowest point total in the NFL this year (19.4 per game). They also are one of the best teams in the league when going up against the pass. Only two quarterbacks this season (Drew Brees and Andy Dalton) have passed for over 300 yards when facing this Cardinals’ secondary. It’s not overstating the fact that Aaron Rodgers will have his work cut-out for him. Green Bay may have received late production from running back James Starks and receiver James Jones. But it might not be enough.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has strung together the most undervalued MVP runs this past decade on the back-side of his playing career. One that should instead be declining. Palmer wouldn’t be where he’s at today without the peaking of wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, nor the burgeoning prowess from running back David Johnson. Still, his completion percentage of 64%, 4,671 passing yards, and 35 touchdowns enumerates the breakthrough  season Arizona has received from its offense.

The deciding factor will be how Green Bay’s permeable pass defense holds up adjacent to the blur of an offense that is Arizona. Sure Aaron Rodgers’ playoff experience needs to be accounted for, but how much can it last when it’s countered with a Cardinals team that have pushed past any adversity.

Prediction: Arizona 30-21

Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers

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Thankfully for Seahawks fans, Sunday’s matchup with Carolina won’t deal with any snow, blizzards, or freezing temperatures.

In the end, the more suitable climate in Carolina should very well increase Seattle’s chances of scoring. Last week, when submerged in the cold, Russell Wilson nor any culprit of Seattle’s offense demonstrated anything resembling a pulse.

An interesting takeaway in this matchup is since Week 10, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have combined to post a 45:3 TD-INT mark. Also, Seattle is 5-2 in playoff games under Pete Carroll in which they’ve faced a deficit of 9-or-more points. The Seahawks defense has allowed less than 10 points in four of their last six games. At 15-1, the Panthers are trying to become the first team since the 2003 Patriots to finish with the best regular season record and win the Super Bowl. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was 12-of-15 for 169 yards in the fourth quarter of a 27-23 comeback win over Seattle in October.

The winner of this game might be the favorite to capture a Lombardi Trophy. Ignore the seeding; this is a heavyweight battle between two teams playing like No. 1 overall seeds. After dropping their first three road games of the year, Seattle has won six straight away from home. Running back Marshawn Lynch was out last Sunday, but the protocol this time around lists Lynch as probable. For the case of the Seahawks, the availability of its best runner completely alters the course of the game. Carolina is second in NFL in rushing yards allowed (88.4 per game). Ironically, Seattle is first with only conceding 81.8 yards per game.

From what’s transpired during both teams’ extensive win streaks this year, has been the difference at depth in the backfield. Carolina, who doesn’t feature any explosive runners, the best they offer is Jonathan Stewart, who’s been sidelined repeatedly this year with ankle injuries. Nevertheless have managed from the occasional burst of Mike Tolbert and Cameron Artis-Payne. Seattle on the other hand, haven’t received this such luxury. Lynch’s 2015 season has been mostly hindered by all sorts of lower body lacerations. When Thomas Rawls is fully healthy, he can go unnoticed as one of the more polished backups this league offers. Unfortunately, keeping Rawls completely active has been a great challenge.

If both teams running games can’t perform at their expected levels, then this forces the game plan to be resolved by the quarterback play. We know the improvisations that both play makers offer. But in close game that will be decided by either Cam Newton or Russell Wilson. The edge by the smallest of margins leans towards Newton and the Panthers.

Prediction: Carolina 27-26

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