NFL Playoff Scenarios: With NFC Teams All but Set, Who's Primed for the Big Run?
This is a breakdown of the NFC playoff picture, for a look at the AFC and which teams are in the best shape to grab the two Wild Card berths, see here.
With one strip sack, DeMarcus Ware finally laid bare what has been a startlingly obvious truth over the past month: the Saints aren't going to just blow everyone out en route to the Super Bowl.
Despite the upheaval the Cowboys' victory will cause to our perception of New Orleans, there is little chance that the NFC playoff picture will change much in the final two weeks.
Four teams have already clinched playoff berths, with all but the NFC East title decided as Dallas and Philadelphia still have one final Week 17 showdown to play.
While that game will have a great deal to do with which team gets the wild card and which wins the division, between Philadelphia, Dallas, and Green Bay in the NFC North, the six playoff teams seem all but decided.
Still, what isn't decided is how the playoff matchups will play out, and how each team will fare as the regular season crescendos into playoff football.
Let's look at each of the possible playoff teams and, going a little bit deeper than simple statistics, investigate how each team matches up with their opposite numbers.
The Eagles are perhaps the hottest team in the NFC right now, winners of five straight since losing at San Diego and Dallas in back to back games at the beginning of November.
The Eagles are the absolute epitome of a "big play" team. Their fortunes often turn on a single play, for good and bad.
That ability is not without its drawbacks, however. Their top corner, Asante Samuel, has eight interceptions on the year, but quite frequently is beaten over the top.
According to Pro Football Focus he's had four touchdowns thrown to men he's covering, allowing a 14-yard average and missing an indefensible 17 tackles, by far the most of any cornerback who plays as much as he does.
I don't mean to just rain on Asante Samuel. He's a good cornerback and this is what his game is. He's got some of the best instincts in the game for sniffing out routes and he's not afraid to gamble. That makes him valuable. Interceptions at crucial moments win football games in a way that an extra pass defensed or made tackle simply won't.
On offense, DeSean Jackson is a revelation, a receiver who seems to only score on pass plays of 50 yards or more. Unfortunately, like Samuel, Jackson's worst trait is also his best: he only seems to score on pass plays of 50 yards or more.
Again, he's by no means a bad receiver, but he struggles in close coverage. When he's able to get behind a defense he's almost uncatchable, but it's telling that Jason Avant and Brent Celek are, far and away, the preferred targets in tight situations (inside the opponent's 10, 20, and on third down).
Obviously, part of this is teams clamping down on Jackson in key areas and it shows Philadelphia's depth, but if Philadelphia comes up against a team like New Orleans who have the safety talent to match Jackson downfield, will they be as successful moving the football?
That's the question they need to ask of themselves and their opponents in the coming weeks.
If you want to do a study of momentum in football, the Dallas Cowboys are certainly a team you'll want to investigate closely in the next two weeks.
The Cowboys are scrutinized perhaps even more closely than the New York teams and now, a few unfortunate December games gone awry has turned into a full-blown trend of winter collapses.
How then do we explain their unseating of the NFC's top team this past weekend, right when they should be prostrating themselves before a conference full of teams not hampered by such obvious curses?
Of course, this narrative has nothing to do with a football team that has finally found its offensive stride and, now healthy, looked to be operating at full-bore against New Orleans, especially on defense.
Their four sacks of the previously unsackable Drew Brees only put an exclamation mark on their remonstration of the belief that for some reason, losing games in Decembers past somehow makes it more difficult to win them in Decembers present.
I'm still holding out judgement on the Cowboys until I see their final week matchup with Philadelphia. Their secondary is an area of concern, especially with half the playoff quarterbacks checking in with QB ratings over 100 this season.
But when you have a guy like DeMarcus Ware on your side and a quarterback with the raw ability of Tony Romo, it's impossible to count you out of any game.
I'm going to say it pretty plainly: I don't see this team winning in the playoffs.
While that may be a bit rash given that this is the same team that got bushwhacked by the Patriots to close out last year and was a toe's length away from winning the Super Bowl, I just don't see them matching up with the other elite NFC playoff teams.
At 9-5 they've cakewalked through a division that presented little challenge. Their only truly quality win came against the Vikings in Week 13.
I'm not saying you should completely overlook the Cardinals. You don't beat the Vikings without playing well, and they did that. But beyond that, they are maddeningly inconsistent, and seem intent on breaking every logical "rule" we have about football.
They're just 3-3 at home and 3-2 in their division, hardly the best mark when you play in the NFC West.
Passing on third down, they're middle of the road in conversion rate and are absolutely the worst in the league in running for first down on 3rd-and-short.
On defense, they began the year very brightly, especially regarding their run defense. They didn't allow a strong rushing performance from anybody until DeAngelo Williams went and had himself a day in Week 10, going for 158 yards. Since then they've allowed an opposing player at least 115 yards in five of their last seven games.
Their passing game in the red zone is good, and they have a number of quality weapons in that regard. However, beyond Fitzgerald's solid performance and Beanie Wells looking to have a future if he can learn how to pass block, they're unremarkable in so many ways on offense and defense right now that it's tough for me to see a way for this team to make it through the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers
Like the Cowboys, the Packers look to be a sure bet to take one of the two Wild Card positions in the NFC.
Despite losing to the Steelers after taking a fourth-quarter lead, the Packers are not dissimilar from the other NFC playoff teams. Like Minnesota, Dallas, and Philadelphia, they have an high-octane passing offense capable of the big play paired with a solid rushing attack, decent pass rush, and somewhat limited defensive secondary.
The book on the Packers has been their supposed inability to keep Aaron Rodgers on his feet.
Yet watching the TV feed on Rodgers, its clear that the major issue—him holding the ball too long—has largely been remedied.
In the first 10 games this year the Packers surrendered 41 sacks, including 14 in two games against the Vikings.
In their past five games they've given up a grand total of eight sacks, an obvious marked improvement.
Rodgers was good in those first ten games but he's been spectacular since then, excepting only a tough matchup against Chicago on the road two weeks ago in which the Packers leaned heavily on Ryan Grant to get the job done.
In my opinion the Packers are the absolute dark horse in these playoffs. They've won seven of their last 10 after starting 2-2, including a tough loss to Pittsburgh this weekend.
They've proven they can win in just about any condition and their ability to move the ball on the ground.
On third down and in the red zone they are at their best, with Aaron Rodgers actually having the second-best percentage of third-down rushes resulting in first downs (11 for 15 on the season) and Grant scoring from inside the three at a higher rate than anyone else (five out of six attempts were touchdowns).
The ascendancy of young tight end Jermichael Finley, a physical beast, gives them another weapon to use in tight.
The only drawback to this Packers team is that they seem built to win outdoors—in a year that half the playoff teams play in domed stadiums.
The Vikings are a very interesting team to watch. Quite simply, I don't remember ever seeing Brett Favre play this well this decade.
He's effective on short down, he's effective on long ones. He's absolutely phenomenal inside the red zone and he simply doesn't let his mistakes get to him.
As such, he's put together a season that, while not as spectacular as Drew Brees', is still very good.
Combine that with the talents of Adrian Peterson, who I'm pretty sure is capable of just about anything and is a real wildcard in the NFC playoffs, and the Vikings are a plain old tough team to beat.
Where they really have to shine if they're going to get through a thick crowd of talented NFC teams is on defense, however.
We all know of their dominant defensive line, but in the secondary they need to improve to match the imposing passing offenses of Green Bay, New Orleans, Dallas, and Arizona.
The NFL is a passing league, more than anything else, and the ability to play your playoff games inside a dome is a double-edged sword. As much as the Vikings will benefit from letting Brett Favre play in a climate-controlled dome, their opponents will also be able to run their offense with a greater efficiency.
The Vikings' defensive line is extraordinarily dominant, sacking the passer more than any other team in the league (43 times this season). Despite this, they've given up 44 passing plays of 20 yards or more, nine of over 40 yards, and are allowing opposing quarterbacks an average rating of 92.6.
These aren't the worst marks in the league, but they're not exceptional by any stretch. The real key for the Vikings may be the return of cornerback Antoine Winfield.
I don't want to place too much burden on one name, but Winfield has already made a half-dozen huge plays since returning from injury and his ability to match up physically with the toughest pass-catchers in the league will give Minnesota more bite in the secondary.
If that gives their great pass rush another half a beat to get to the quarterback, that might be enough defensively to keep the Vikings ahead of their opponents.
New Orleans Saints
The "Big Daddy" of the NFC right now, the New Orleans Saints, have, wire-to-wire, looked to be the premier team in the NFC as they've put together a stunning 13-1 turnaround campaign that has lifted the city that needed it most.
They've done it by succeeding in all facets of the game. They've played stunning offensive football both in terms of spreading the ball out and playing a hard-nosed running style.
Defensively, they've built on a foundation that has been around for a few years with keen offseason additions that have given them a roster that is deep and talented and able to matchup well against many different types of offense.
The problem is that defense still frequently gets beaten. It doesn't tend to make much of a difference as the game is usually well in hand when the opposition begins scoring, but the Saints have given up 90 points more than any other team in the NFC.
That's not a minor detail. If they are slow out of the gate on offense in the playoffs, it won't take much for any of the talented offenses around to dig a nice, deep hole for the Saints to try and climb out of.
Like nearly every other team that has managed to amass such an impressive record, it hasn't been done entirely with 40 points blowouts. Like the Colts, New Orleans has had to work for many of its wins.
Their offense sputtered against the Jets and Broncos, their defense struggled to keep up with several of their opponents, and they've looked increasingly beatable in the last three weeks (of course culminating with them actually being beaten by the Cowboys in the Superdome).
Even at their "worst," the Saints are a difficult matchup for any team. Their offense is not reliant on one or two players, but a host of receiving options that challenges any defense to keep up with each on every play.
Their offensive line is extraordinarily successful as well, though they're doing it largely with players you wouldn't associate with protecting the premier quarterback in the league.
Their primary left tackle is Jermon Bushrod, a fourth-round pick from the 2007 draft, who would struggle playing in front of a quarterback who didn't get the ball out quite so fast, but works in New Orleans' system. At right tackle they've got the exceptional Jon Stinchcomb, who has performed as well as any at the position in the league this year.
Where this line really shines is in the interior, however. Their guard combination of Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks has simply dominated the interior of nearly every defensive line they've faced so far, both when running and passing the ball.
With such a strong base on the offensive line, Drew Brees' comfort with the offensive system and quick release, and their ability to spread defenses out to ensure they have at least one free receiver on most plays, it's no wonder the Saints are difficult to stop on offense.
Such a combination means they've allowed only nineteen sacks all year, one of the best marks in the league, with Drew Brees posting dominant numbers in nearly every offensive category.
Back in Week 11, Drew Brees was asked about his team's performance after a 38-7 shellacking of the Buccaneers in Tampa. He said at the time they hadn't "peaked" as a team yet.
Well the following week, they did just that, destroying the New England Patriots in absolutely every way, forcing Bill Belichick to essentially concede the match with plenty of time left on the clock.
Unfortunately, the other side of the peak is inevitably a downslope, as they've played worse and worse each week since then. Their offense was lucky, if effective, against the Redskins and, if not for a stellar performance by the New Orleans offensive line holding Washington to a single sack, they would've lost their first game that week instead of against Dallas this past weekend.
Brees racked up more than 400 yards of passing in that game but was unable to finish off drives or move the ball on third down. They didn't get their second real offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter, having to rely on Robert Meachem turning an interception into a touchdown the other way.
The Cowboys, like the Redskins, pushed the Saints hardest on third down, which seems to be the key to unseating New Orleans this season.
The Saints seem to be the clear favorite heading into the playoffs with their ability to make plays on both sides of the ball coupling with their sheer efficiency in every aspect of the game.
If you're going to beat the Saints it has to be done on third down; they have too many weapons to shut them down in coverage and the offensive line is too good and Brees is too quick to shut off the supply consistently.
If you follow the blueprint that has been most effective the last month, the Redskins and Cowboys were most successful when they brought pressure on third down, especially in the red zone.
Brees, while dominant in many categories, is merely "very good" when his team gets in the red zone or passes on third down. He's ninth in the league in completion percentage inside the opponent's 20, yet first in big plays over 25 yards.
The team that beats the Saints will have to have an elite pass rusher who can bring pressure in those tight situations, contain their passing game by employing effective safety help over the top, and take advantage of the precious few mistakes the Saints will make.
If you can hold the Saints to field goals early, understand that you will get cut by the big play but make sure to keep the Saints playing in front of you, and shut them down when they rush on third down, then this is a beatable team.
Unfortunately they're just less-beatable than every other team in the NFC and, with the monkey of a perfect season off their back, I wouldn't be surprised to see them torch their final two division games and ride high into the playoffs.
From there, all bets may be off. You can definitely score on this Saints team, especially if you're the Cowboys, Packers, or Vikings.
The question is, will that be enough?
I guess we'll find out.
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