It was expected at the beginning of the season by many, that the NFC would be a wide open conference. And after 17 weeks of the regular season, the forecast reigned true. The six-team playoff field is littered with each team having a legitimate shot to advance deep in the playoffs. It starts with the Wild Card: pertaining to Detroit, who despite losing the regular season finale to Green Bay, managed to make them back themselves into the playoffs; special thanks to Washington laying an egg in Week 17 against the Giants. Speaking of the Giants, they head to Green Bay in what appears to be the best wild card matchup of the weekend. The Packers enter the postseason red-hot as winners of six straight. The Seahawks took advantage of the weak NFC West to secure a first round home game, while the Cowboys and Falcons get an extra bye week to prepare.
What to know about each of the playoff teams?
Dallas Cowboys: Dallas finished the regular season with a 13-3 record an NFC East title – two things that were thought as implausible by many in August. With that said, the Cowboys might have been this season’s biggest surprise, but that doesn’t mean they will be playoff flukes. The Cowboys’ running attack, led by rookie Ezekiel Elliot, finished second in the NFL at 149.8 yards per game. This led to a surprisingly potent offense – 26.3 points/game, fifth in the NFL. As a whole, Dallas’ offensive firepower wouldn’t be possible without the services of Elliot (of course), fellow rookie QB Dak Prescott, who completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 TD’s this season.
Although Dallas received sizable performances from its two prolific rookies on offense, the team’s biggest surprise might have been found on defense. All together, LB Sean Lee and SS Byron Jones carried Dallas to a 19.1 PPG allowed average, fourth best in the league. Heading into the postseason, if there is any cause for concern for Dallas it can be traced back to its unheralded rookies. Can they continue to play at a high level, even when the stakes are high? And can the defensive line (the weakest unit) withstand injuries to the starting defensive ends? Smart money says yes on both fronts.
Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta enters the postseason with one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan, the Falcons finished first in points/game (33.8), third in passing yards (295.3 per game) and fifth in rushing yards (120.5 per game). The Falcons were able to move the ball effectively on 1st down often, which allowed for short yardage on 3rd downs. However, the Falcons did finish middle of the pack on third down conversations (42 percent), so there is some concern there. Atlanta offers a defense that’s typically hanging on most weeks, as they’re surrendering 25.4 points/game. If Atlanta finds itself in 3rd and longs, and/or playing from behind, its magical season could end sooner than most anticipated.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle rode the strength of its defense in their past playoff runs, relying on a stingy secondary and linebacking core to land them into two of the last three Super Bowls. But this time around, their path to the promised land might not be so feasible. The Seahawks are heading into the postseason reeling, losing three of its last six. To make matters worse, that same “impenetrable” defense is currently banged up after their five-time CB Earl Thomas was sidelined for the season. All year the Seahawks have experienced shortcomings in replacing franchise-leading rusher Marshawn Lynch’s production on the ground, issuing the 25th best rushing yards/game average (99.4). Fortunately, Seattle still has Russell Wilson, who is seeming to start to gain chemistry with former All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham in the second half of the season. The Seahawks will no doubt be a tough out for anyone because of its championship pedigree, but they are going to need a lot to go right in order to make a serious run.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers promised that all the Packers had to do was to win one game and they could run the table. With the season deemed a disaster and head coach Mike McCarthy’s job on the line, Rodgers and company delivered and won the final six games to capture the NFC North crown and a first round home game. Much will be made about how well Rodgers played down the stretch and it would be unjust to not recognize his magical feats. Yet, it was the defense that was perhaps more important. During the Packers’ four-game losing streak preceding its recent win streak, the defense gave up an average of 38.2 points and 390.4 yards per game. Since that horrific loss to the Redskins in Week 11, that same defense is giving up only 18.6 points/game. That type of turnaround is unheard of in the NFL. That said, if Green Bay’s defense can keep up with Rodgers’ recent play, then the Packers have a definite shot to make a run at the Super Bowl.
New York Giants: The Giants travel to Green Bay and may have something to say about momentum. After their 2-3 start, the Giants won nine of 11 and beat some pretty darn good teams in the process. New York have benefitted off of huge free agent pickups on defense, such as DT Damon Harrison and OLB Keenan Robinson. NYG currently ranks 10th in the league in total defense, third against the run and second in points against (17.8). The issue for the Giants this year though has been the offense. Can Eli Manning utilize someone not named Odell Beckham in the passing game? Better yet, can he receive help on the ground?
Detroit Lions: The Lions lost three straight games but still managed to make the playoffs for the second time in three years. Led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, Detroit was able to withstand numerous injuries and hold on for a 9-7 season. Stafford himself has been playing with an injured finger and his throwing had, which has forced him to play with a glove the past three games. This has had an impact on his accuracy; with five of his ten interceptions have come in the last four games. This bodes particularly troublesome considering Detroit’s defense hasn’t forced a turnover in over a month. But if the Lions can ride off the cannon arm that is Stafford, then Detroit can create some playoff magic.
Wild Card Predictions:
- Green Bay over New York Giants
- Detroit over Seattle
Division Round Predictions:
- Dallas over Detroit
- Green Bay over Atlanta
- Green Bay over Dallas