Predicting the NFL Playoffs Early: NFC Edition

Bob Cunningham@BCunningham215Senior Analyst IDecember 16, 2008

The NFL season, unfortunately, is winding down.

We're into the last two weeks, and it's shaping up to have a photo finish.

I can't remember another year where the playing field was more level than what it is this season, which is evident by all the teams still holding on to playoff hopes.

Most years, the playoff picture with the exception of a few teams has cleared itself up by this point. However, this year both divisions are so clustered it will take right up until the last game of Week 17 to decide who plays into early 2009.

Here's how I see the NFC playoff race shaking out.

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. New York Giants
  3. Minnesota Vikings
  4. Arizona Cardinals
  5. Atlanta Falcons
  6. Philadelphia Eagles

The Carolina Panthers, at this point, are the best team in football. I think that is unquestioned. Most would argue and say the New York Giants, but I find it difficult to anoint a team as the best in the league when it has lost back-to-back games against division opponents.

Also, I believe the Panthers will take NFC supremacy this Sunday by beating the Giants. Meaning the "best team in football" would have lost three straight.

The Minnesota Vikings are playing good football and really exposed a weak Arizona secondary. Tarvaris Jackson is not known for his passing prowess, yet he threw for four touchdowns last Sunday against a team that has already clinched its division. The Cardinals will not go far into the postseason with defensive play like that.

The Atlanta Falcons are an odd story. A good story, but an odd one.

They ended the 2007 campaign at an embarrassing 4-12, but have made a 180-degree turnaround in 2008.

Behind the leadership of rookie coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, the city of Atlanta is starting to believe in a way they haven't experienced since this team's failed NFC championship bid in 2004.

With their win against Tampa Bay, they have really muddied up an already-clustered NFC South. I see them beating Minnesota next week, while Tampa goes on to lose to a hot San Diego team and gets knocked out entirely by a resurgent team in Philadelphia.

The Eagles are another interesting story.

After being selected by some to go as far as the Super Bowl, the Eagles looked mediocre at best through the first 11 weeks.

The mediocrity turned into catastrophe when the Eagles found a way to tie the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, and then got blown out by the Baltimore Ravens in a game where the face of the franchise, Donovan McNabb, was benched.

Since then McNabb has seven touchdowns compared to one interception and Brian Westbrook is getting more touches than he has in his entire career.

The Eagles are hot at the right time and have a great shot of winning out and getting into the playoffs. They end the year at Washington and home against Dallas, two teams they should beat.

Now to the games.

Assuming the playoffs wind up coming out this way, the matchups on Wild Card weekend would be as follows:

Philadelphia Eagles @ Minnesota Vikings

Atlanta Falcons @ Arizona Cardinals

In the first game, I'm taking the Eagles over the Vikings.

The game would feature two coaches who know and admire each other, and it would be a great matchup to see. These are two very good defenses that would scrap it out and make this a low-scoring event.

That being said, I believe the Eagles have the superior offense here and would score more points than the Vikings could produce. While the Vikings offense has been productive this season, they are not built to play from behind, which is what they would have to do.

Final Wild Card Prediction: Philadelphia 20, Minnesota 10

In game two of Wild Card weekend, I'm taking the Atlanta Falcons over the Arizona Cardinals.

While the Cardinals tote two of the best receivers in the game in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and a quarterback who has revived his career in Kurt Warner, they unfortunately have little else.

Tim Hightower looks like he could be a good player in the NFL, but he has not produced enough in the running game to carry this offense or even just to stop them from becoming one-dimensional.

The Falcons defense may be the most underrated in the entire league and could cause  Warner to throw some picks, ultimately derailing the Cardinals.

The Atlanta offense has proven it can ride Michael Turner to wins and use Ryan to drive in the dagger. The sub-par Arizona defense would have a difficult time stopping the run and play-action pass of the Falcons offense.

I think this game could turn out to be a bit more lopsided than people think, as the Cardinals are not much more than a product of a terrible division.

Final Wild Card Prediction: Atlanta 27, Arizona 13

With two division winners packing their bags and heading home, the divisional rounds would become very interesting.

The Eagles would have to travel south to Carolina to play the No. 1 seed Panthers, while the Falcons would be forced to travel north to play the defending world champion Giants.

The round would come down to two cross-divisional games between the NFC East and NFC South, just the way it should be.

In the first game, Philadelphia at Carolina, I'm leaning toward Carolina.

I have a feeling Carolina's rushing offense may prove to be too much for the Eagles, even with a stellar defense.

Call them "Smash 'N' Dash" or "Identity in Theft" (thank you, LenDale White), they're just plain good. Possibly the best tandem in football, but certainly the best in the NFC.

DeAngelo Williams is being compared quite often to the man who would be on the opposing sideline, Westbrook.

Both are extremely versatile and shifty, but Williams will need to do a little more to find himself on the same level as the All-Pro Westbrook.

The Carolina defense is underrated, keeping even the most explosive offenses in check. While it would struggle with Philadelphia's high-powered offense, I believe it would do just enough to help the Panthers offense pull this one out. I think this game is a tight one, and much better than the similar matchup in the 2003 NFC championship game.

Final Divisional Prediction: Carolina 26, Philadelphia 24

In the second game of the divisional round, I think the Giants will beat the Atlanta Falcons and possibly rather handily.

Turner, while having a great year, has proven not as effective away from the Georgia Dome. He has only three 100-plus-yard games away from home, coming against such lowly defenses as the Packers, Raiders, and Chargers.

Also adding insult to injury is the Giants' third-ranked defense against the run.

The Giants should have all three running backs healthy at that point and will be very difficult for the Falcons to defend. I see this as being a very entertaining game and one that will be close the whole way.

Final Divisional Prediction: New York 23, Atlanta 17

Last, but certainly not least, there's the NFC championship game.

In this showdown of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds (an oddity in the NFL today), I'm taking the Panthers at home. It's not a hard selection, considering that NFC South teams do not lose at home.

Jake Delhomme has shown he can still make plays when he's called on to do so, and with that being necessary less and less thanks to their great backfield, he becomes even more dangerous.

The play-action will be a huge factor for both offenses, as these teams  appear to be mirror images of each other. One major difference is that Carolina will have its No. 1 wide receiver in Steve Smith, the most dangerous wideout in the game today.

This will be a quick game, considering all the work that will be done on the ground. Unfortunately for the Giants, their shot at a repeat will end in Carolina as the Panthers run away with this one, literally.

Final NFC Championship Prediction: Carolina 30, New York 17

It's been five years, Panthers' fans, but you're finally back.

The Super Bowl.

The Panthers were one of three teams to suffer Super Bowl losses to the New England Patriots dynasty. The Panthers had the pleasure of their experience during the 2003 season when, just like the other two teams who fell to the Pats, they saw their championship hopes fall just three points short.

The Panthers will get another chance when they represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII against AFC representative _____________.

Check my AFC predictions for the answer!

Be on the lookout for my Super Bowl breakdown coming soon.


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