All things considered, Week 17 plays out this way in the NFC.
The Packers have the No. 1 seed, and the 49ers head to St. Louis with motivation intact and enough offensive firepower to go along with the tough defense to win their 13th game of the season, earning them the conference’s No. 2 slot.
It doesn’t matter what happens in New Orleans at the same time. The Panthers will most likely lose to the Saints, but the Niners’ better conference record gives them the edge over the 13-3 Saints, who earn the third seed.
That leaves the wild-card entries of Detroit (10-5) and Atlanta (9-6). The Falcons get the easiest of the two games, as they play the free-falling Buccaneers. A win seems secure, but this is where it gets interesting.
With the 14-1 Packers already having secured the No. 1 seed in the playoff picture, their game against Detroit seems meaningless. A win keeps Detroit out of New Orleans, where they got their doors blown off earlier this year. This is a game that Detroit needs more than the Packers.
It will be interesting to see if the Lions can put together a good effort outdoors and win.
A loss and a Falcons win drops the Lions to No. 6. If Atlanta and Detroit finish with the same record, Detroit gets the fifth seed. It’s a huge difference in that it enables them to avoid travel to the Black Hole of the NFL, otherwise known as the Superdome in New Orleans.
As projected, here’s how the NFC playoffs will set up:
Wild Card Weekend
- Atlanta at New Orleans
- Detroit at New York/Dallas winner
Winner: Giants or Detroit over Dallas
NFC Divisional Games
- Detroit at Green Bay
- New Orleans at San Francisco
That’s not to say upsets cannot happen. They do. Consider that only twice since the 1993 playoffs have both No. 1 seeds from the AFC and NFC met in the Super Bowl.
With that scenario in mind, here’s how the 49ers rate against all possible NFC playoff teams.
The Falcons currently rank 11th in points scored and 16th in points allowed, which breaks down to about 24 on offense and 22 on defense. They are the seventh-best passing team in the NFL. They convert on 36 percent of their third downs and they have more than 54 plays of 20 yards or more.
In light of the 49ers' anemic offensive numbers (except for points), the Falcons advantage seems obvious.
Except that they have not played the 49er defense, the leader in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed, first in rushing TDs and first in turnover differential.
That right there brings up an interesting point. The Falcons have been blessed in that their schedule included games against the Vikings, Jaguars and Colts, and they finish with the Buccaneers, who are playing as bad as any team right now.
To get to San Francisco, the Falcons would most likely have to beat New Orleans in the Superdome, which right now seems dang near impossible. If so, they then have to travel to SF and play outdoors on grass against a fast, disciplined defense.
This is one of those games where Atlanta can’t score as often as before and the Niner offense gets enough points to win.
The Lions are the league’s fifth-best passing team and at nearly 29 points a game, they are fourth in points. They give up 23 a game, but have a strong plus-13 turnover differential.
And for those who like a little zing on top of the natural competitiveness, there’s no doubt that this game would be called Handshake Bowl II. But before we give them an edge over anyone in the NFC, consider that Detroit has been especially blessed by the schedule maker.
The two divisional games against the Vikings were gimmes, and they got to play the Chiefs early and at home when Kansas City was a mess. Same with the Broncos and they destroyed the always-bad-on-the-road Chargers in Detroit. And they beat the Raiders in Oakland, a team that cannot stop the pass, the run or itself from making critical mistakes.
At the same time, Detroit has lost at home to SF and Green Bay and got its doors blown off in New Orleans. This is a team whose numbers are impressive, but against the elite, their shine fades more than a little.
The Lions would have to beat either the Giants or the Cowboys on the road and then trek again to SF. This is another game where the Niners opponent will have to play outdoors on grass against a fast, disciplined defense.
In other words, they can’t score as much and the Niner offense gets enough points to win.
The only way either of these teams gets to San Francisco is in the NFC Championship game. That means either team has to go through Green Bay. Doesn’t seem possible. But again, the Giants have won in Green Bay in January before, and Eli Manning can get as hot as any QB in the game.
They’re fourth in the league in points, Manning has thrown only 16 interceptions and the Giants convert on 36 percent of their third downs. And Niner fans remember two fourth-quarter drives in which Manning continually picked apart a competent secondary.
That said, a win in Green Bay is not impossible for the Giants. Among all playoff teams, the NFC East teams had the toughest schedule. They’re only easy games were against the Rams, and they popped Buffalo’s bubble to start that team’s long losing streak.
Other than that, every week has been a war. The same goes for Dallas, but right now Dallas is too beat up, which is why I don’t see them winning this week, much less lasting two more weeks into the playoffs.
The hot topic in the NFL now is which team is better—the Saints or the Packers. Put them on a neutral field right now and, in light of the Packer injuries on the offensive line and their defensive liabilities, I’m going with Brees and Co.
The numbers are alarming—329 yards a game for a new NFL passing record, 70.7 completion percentage, 45 TDs to 13 picks, 64 (more than four a game!) gains of 20 yards or more. They throw 42 times a game and have given up only 24 sacks.
But here’s another thing to consider: The Saints played AFC South teams that included the Colts and the Jaguars. They also traveled to St. Louis and lost (which is kicking them hard in the butt right now). And they lost early in the year at Tampa Bay, which also looks suspicious.
These are factors that suggest that the Saints aren’t as good as their numbers. Or not.
If this game is in New Orleans, the Niners lose 30-13. If it’s in San Francisco, they remain underdogs, but at least they have a chance. This is where the NFL playoff system helps the best teams.
The Saints would have to fend off Atlanta at home and then travel to San Francisco. And we get that same scenario as if playing Detroit and Atlanta.
Yet another team faces the potential matchup of playing outdoors on grass against a fast, disciplined defense. In other words, they can’t score as much and the Niner offense gets enough points to win.
The question of the Niners getting enough offense to outscore the Saints is the biggest issue. But at least they have a chance at home against the Saints.
The Packers have thrown for 483 yards less than the Saints and yet they have a higher efficiency rating than New Orleans: 120.9 to 106.1. That means the Packers get more out of each throw.
But then, that’s what you get when Aaron Rodgers throws for 45 TDs and only seven picks. That alone blows away the stat geeks.
This is the league’s No. 1 scoring offense and the third-best passing offense. In fact, the NFC playoff teams include the league’s first-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and seventh-best passing teams.
As great as Drew Brees has been, Rodgers has been better.
Considering that Green Bay gets to play at home—a very frosty experience for all involved—seems to be a big advantage. But right now the Packers have offensive line problems. Also, Rodgers has been sacked 38 times.
Couple that with a leaky run defense and a susceptible pass defense, and the Packers are vulnerable.
More to the point, the 49ers are better suited than New Orleans to beat Green Bay in Lambeau Field. They have the defense that can pressure Rodgers and the offense that, if playing in character, won’t make mistakes with stupid interceptions.
As for that trip to Green Bay, the Niners respond with Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Seattle. They have already proven themselves capable of beating good teams on the road.
It has to be said that the Niners would again enter this game as an underdog. This game has the chance to be one of the best in the playoffs in recent memory. In fact, both the Saints-49ers and 49ers-Packers games have the makings of developing into classics.