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Czar: Re-seeding the NFC playoffs
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In the NFC playoffs, the teams are a lot more balanced and the final four clubs could end up being anyone.
ALSO SEE: Re-seeding the AFC playoff field
6. Arizona Cardinals (actual seed: 4)
They could have another miracle run in them like last year if Kurt Warner can get hot again. He is capable and Larry Fitzgerald is as good as it gets. Plus, the defense is much improved, especially on third downs, and Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson are proven leaders.
It’s almost ridiculous to say, but they might be better off (4-4 record at home) opening on the road.
How they could win: They need receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive end Calais Campbell (broken thumb?) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to get healthy this week and play like they can. The Cardinals don’t have the reserves to lose three starters like this and still put on a good show.
Why they won’t win: Like the Steelers, there’s been this little Super Bowl hangover effect and this team really believes they can turn it off and on whenever they like. But can they really turn it on like they did last month against the Vikings?
5. Philadelphia Eagles (actual seed: 6)
Andy Reid remains one of the game’s finest coaches and maybe he can figure out a way to return to Dallas and win. He’s done it before, plus the Cowboys choked a couple years ago after they swept the Giants during the regular season.
Donovan McNabb has produced in plenty of big games and Brian Westbrook needs to be more of a factor. Reid is smart enough to figure it out and get his team ready for any rematch.
How they could win: They must flip the time of possession battle from Sunday’s loss when the Cowboys held the ball for 40:23. They must do more middle screens to Westbrook and tight end Brent Celek while trying to pound Leonard Weaver again. Big Red can’t forget this Pro Bowl fullback!
Why they won’t win: In the two losses to the Cowboys, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin combined for only 11 catches for 167 yards and no touchdowns. Also, the makeshift offensive line simply will collapse again under the pressure.
4. New Orleans Saints (actual seed: 1)
No Super Bowl team has ever entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. In fact, by the time the Saints -- who were once 13-0 -- play another game it will a month without a win.
Yes, there is plenty to love about Drew Brees and his receiving corps. He has so many weapons, from Marques Colston to Pierre Thomas to the healthy return of tight end Jeremy Shockey. With two weeks to prepare, head coach Sean Payton should come up with a doozy of a game plan.
How they could win: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is getting cornerback Jabari Greer back for the divisional round, which allows him to let Darren Sharper play his hunches in center field. The Saints can whip the best with a perfectly executed defensive scheme, plus a healthy defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis to stop the run.
Why they won’t win: There is no confidence in kicker Garrett Hartley, and that’s never healthy entering the playoffs. The kid is shaky. Also, teams have figured out left tackle Jermon Bushrod and Brees can’t perform if he’s constantly running for his life.
3. Minnesota Vikings (actual seed: 2)
They definitely looked the Vikings of old on Sunday, but it was against the porous New York Giants. Still, if Brad Childress will get out of Brett Favre’s way, the Vikings do have balance on offense with Favre spreading the ball around (six players with at least 40 catches this season). He’s made Sidney Rice a star and Percy Harvin appears to be back in midseason form after struggling with migraines for a couple games in December.
How they could win: They are 8-0 in the Metrodome and know right now if they win that first game, they will never have to play in the cold. That should be tremendous incentive for Favre, who froze up in his last NFC championship game. If Jared Allen comes alive and the Williams Wall shows up like they are capable of, there is just enough defense to beat anybody.
Why they won’t win: Adrian Peterson has gone seven straight games now without 100 rushing yards and we all remember his six lost fumbles. With the game on the line, will he deliver or turn it over? The loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson has killed the run defense and poor Antoine Winfeld is a loss against any quick receiver on the outside.
2. Green Bay Packers (actual seed: 5)
After being humbled twice by Favre and then the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, Mike McCarthy has his offense humming – when’s the last time we’ve talked about Aaron Rodgers getting sacked? – and the defense just set a new team record by allowing only 1,316 rushing yards (82.3 yards per game).
Ryan Grant enters with 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns while Donald Driver doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
How they could win: Rodgers has learned to get rid of the ball quickly, plus there are plenty of youthful playmakers in tight end Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings, plus the rebirth of Brandon Jackson. Plus, they can bring pressure with rookie Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson has a real shot at Defensive Player of the Year. Since coming to the Packers in 2006, he’s had eight defensive touchdowns and finished the year with nine interceptions.
Why they won’t win: The offensive line play can be shaky, plus this is a youthful team without a lot of playoff experience. Can Rodgers really show some magic when the Packers get behind? Plus, it’s tough to win three playoff games on the road.
1. Dallas Cowboys (actual seed: 3)I’m back on the bandwagon. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has devised masterful game plans in big wins over the Saints and Eagles down the stretch and Tony Romo has delivered. The offensive line should get right tackle Marc Columbo back and it’s been dominating in the run game.
But the whole key to this team has been the defensive pass-rush pressure from DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer, something they will need to beat Brees, Favre or Rodgers in the championship game.
Why they may not win: Yes, Wade Phillips has a 33-16 record with the Cowboys, but we can’t forget his 0-4 mark in the playoffs. That’s a real hump to overcome. And tackle Flozell Adams is capable of losing his mind. He’s been fined $80,000 this season and committed 12 penalties while allowing eight sacks. When he’s good, he’s good. When he’s bad, he’s a momentum killer.
Why they will win: The Eagles weren’t able to put consistent pressure on Romo because the quarterback has been performing wonderfully out of the shotgun. Tight end Jason Witten is one of the game’s finest safety-valve receivers while Felix Jones and Miles Austin are gamebreakers. Dallas has the best pass rush in the conference now and rookie Mike Jenkins is playing like a veteran cornerback.
And don't think it's against the odds for the Cowboys to sweep the Eagles, beating them for a third time this season. The Steelers did it last season to Baltimore and since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, there have been 19 chances for a 3-0 sweep and it's happened 12 times.