With one week left in the 2009-2010 NFL season, there are around ten AFC teams with a shot at the playoffs. Attempting to decipher the various scenarios will give nearly anyone a brain cramp.
However, the NFC playoff teams are set. Even though seeding is yet to be determined, the six teams that are playoff bound are the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and the Green Bay Packers.
The team that plays the best in the playoffs isn't necessarily the higher seed. Since the 1999-2000 season, only two Super Bowl Champions were the No. 1 seed in their conference. In that same time frame, two wild card teams have won the Super Bowl.
The hottest teams headed into the NFL playoffs are those that are most likely to have success. Season records and accomplishments can essentially be dismissed.
Every team in the NFC playoff bracket has 10-plus wins, meaning that every team in the playoffs is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. However, which of these contenders will ultimately earn a Super Bowl berth?
Dallas Cowboys (10-5)
Many people jumped on the Cowboy bandwagon after they defeated the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints, 24-17. However, before that win, Dallas had lost two straight games to the New York Giants and the San Diego Chargers, leaving the Cowboys 2-2 in their last four games.
In addition, of the Cowboys' ten wins thus far, only three have been against teams with an above .500 record. Dallas is 21st in the NFL in pass yards allowed per game, giving up around 228.3 yards per game. All of the teams in the NFC playoff bracket are in the top 12 in the NFL in terms of offensive pass yards per game.
A lot weighs on the Cowboys' Week 17 matchup against Philadelphia. If Dallas can shut them down, then the 'Boys could make some playoff noise. They would have momentum headed into the playoffs.
However, a loss to the Eagles puts Dallas at a disadvantage. Losing three out of your last five games isn't a good way to enter the playoffs. I believe that Philadelphia is the better team and will get the victory in Week 17. Dallas fans will be disappointed yet again this season. Their Cowboys won't make it past the Wild Card round.
Green Bay Packers (10-5)
Unlike the Cowboys, the Packers head into the playoffs on a roll, having won six of their last seven games. Green Bay's lone loss came in the final seconds against Pittsburgh on a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace. Momentum is not an issue for the Pack.
However, just like the Cowboys, the Packers' wins have been against the lower tier of teams in the NFL. Green Bay is 2-4 against opponents with an above .500 record. This team is probably better than the Dallas Cowboys. Led by Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Ryan Grant at running back, and Greg Jennings at wide receiver, the Packers have a potent offense.
In addition, Green Bay has a strong defense. They give up the second fewest yards per game in the NFL at just around 291 yards. The Packers are a good team. However, when faced with playoff-level competition, they haven't been able to rise to the occasion. The Packers will make it to the Divisional round, but will then falter.
Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
The theme of a lack of quality wins continues with the Cardinals. Arizona has won just three games over opponents above .500. Two of these teams above .500 are the New York Giants and the Houston Texans. The Giants are out of the playoff hunt and the Texans are fighting for their playoff lives.
In addition, the Cardinals have a poor defense, ranked 20th in the NFL in yards allowed per game. Arizona's pass defense is 22nd in the NFL, allowing 233.5 yards per game. As mentioned earlier, every pass offense in the NFC playoffs is in the top 12 in the NFL.
The Arizona Cardinals have a potent offense. However, last year's NFC Champions don't have the defense to stay in the playoffs very long. Arizona will be out in the Wild Card round.
Minnesota Vikings (11-4)
The Minnesota Vikings have played well for much of the season, going 4-2 against opponents above .500. Led by the ageless Brett Favre and sensational running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings had preseason expectations of reaching the Super Bowl.
Through the first 12 weeks of the season, Minnesota looked like the Super Bowl contender they were expected to be. The Vikings had a 10-1 record and Brett Favre was playing good football at the quarterback position.
However, the Vikings have begun to falter at the end of the season. They have lost three of their last four games, dropping them from a locked No. 2 seed to fighting for a spot as a No. 3 seed. Remember, momentum going into the playoffs often determines who will advance deepest into the bracket. Minnesota definitely doesn't have that momentum.
There are many reasons behind the Vikings' fall. Brett Favre has had a history of fading toward the end of seasons. His quality of play has dropped over the last month. Even though Adrian Peterson has impressive skills, he is a bit fumble-prone. Also, Minnesota's pass defense has played poorly. They are currently ranked 20th in the NFL in pass yards allowed per game.
Once again, I will return to the fact that each NFC team in the playoffs has a top 12 passing offense. Minnesota is still a good football team. However, defense wins championships, and the Vikings just don't have the defense to be a Super Bowl contender. Also, they lack the momentum to advance deep into the playoffs. I look for the Vikings to be knocked out in the Divisional round.
New Orleans Saints (13-2)
Like the Vikings, New Orleans started the season strong. In fact, the Saints were 13-0 and appeared to be on the road to perfection. However, the Dallas Cowboys ended this road by defeating the Saints in Week 15, 24-17. The following week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers knocked of New Orleans in overtime, 20-17.
Seriously? Tampa Bay?
Yes, the high-powered Saints offense fell to the lowly Buccaneers. The New Orleans offense is the best in the NFL. However, in both of their losses, they were held to under 20 points. Those two games are the only two games in which the Saints offense has been held to less than 20 points.
Momentum is not on the Saints' side. Neither is their pass defense. New Orleans' pass defense is ranked 25th in the NFL. So, I return to the same statistic that I have used in four of the previous five sections. Every pass offense in the NFC playoffs is in the top 12 in the NFL.
However, remember that New Orleans has one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. That fact will keep them in the playoffs longer than the other teams with poor pass defenses. I expect the Saints to make it to the NFC Championship game, but ultimately falter in that round.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-4)
The Philadelphia Eagles started the season 5-4. After losing two straight games, the Eagles have since rolled off six wins in a row, leaving them with an 11-4 record and a chance to earn a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
Not only do the Eagles have momentum headed into the playoffs, they have also had some success against quality opponents. Philadelphia has won four of their games against above .500 teams.
In addition, the Eagles have the seventh ranked defense in the NFL. Philadelphia is also a strong passing team, and with weapons like DeSean Jackson, this team has the ability to be explosive.
In my opinion, the Eagles have all the components to go deep into the playoffs. They have had success against good opponents; they have momentum, and have a good defense. All of these factors lead me to believe that the Philadelphia Eagles will be the 2009-2010 NFC Champions and make it to the 2010 Super Bowl.