Lots to like -- and some things to dislike -- about NFC playoff field
DEC 30, 2013 1:10p ET
Heading into the final regular-season weekend in the NFL, just three of the six NFC playoff teams had been identified, but none of the divisions were decided and not a single seed had been set. The Seahawks, Panthers and 49ers all knew they would be playing beyond Week 17, they just didn't know when and where.
Now, with the 2013 regular season in the books, the field is set. By beating the Rams at home, the Seahawks clinched the NFC West and, in doing so, bumped the 49ers down to the No. 5 seed. The Panthers overcame an early deficit to beat the Falcons and win the NFC South and secure the No. 2 seed. The Eagles beat the Romo-less Cowboys in a win-and-in game on Sunday night and will be the No. 3 seed. In another win-and-in, the Packers, led by the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, scored the go-ahead touchdown against the Bears with just 38 seconds remaining. They will be the No. 4 seed. The Saints, despite having the fourth-best record in the field, will hold the sixth and final seed after blowing out the Bucs at home.
But in the grand scheme of things, just getting into the playoffs is what matters most. Taking a look at the past five Super Bowl winners, only the New Orleans Saints won it all as the No. 1 overall seed. Pittsburgh won as a two seed while both Baltimore and New York won as a four seed, and when Green Bay won three seasons ago, they were the six seed.
Below, I'll make the case for and against each of the NFC team's chances for postseason success:
Record: 13-3. Clinched the NFC West and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Why they will win: The Seahawks are 18-3 in the past 21 games and are tied with the Broncos for the best winning percentage in the NFL during that span. Additionally, and maybe more importantly to these playoffs, Russell Wilson has 15 wins and just one loss in home games in his young career. The win over the Rams on Sunday extended Wilson's record of wins for a quarterback in his first two seaons; his 24 wins are two more than Ben Roethlisberger and three more than Dan Marino and Otto Graham. Roethlisberger went on to win Super Bowl XL in that second season.
Why they won't: The Seahawks are the most complete team in the NFL and one must really poke and prod to find any clear weaknesses, but after starting the season 11-1, the Seahawks are just an even .500 in the final four games of the season. One of those losses came at home against the 10-win Arizona Cardinals in front of the 12th man, snapping a 14-game home winning streak, and the other loss came on the road against the 12-win San Francisco 49ers. So if losing two games to opponents with a combined 22 wins is a reason to be critical, then so be it.
Record: 12-4. Clinched NFC South and secured a first-round bye. This is the first playoff appearance for the Panthers since 2008, when they won the NFC South with an identical 12-4 record.
Why they will win: The Panthers have won 16 of their last 20 dating back to last season and 11 of their last 12 games this season. The Panthers are built to grind out close games and have the old-school make-up to win by running the ball and playing great defense. Although Carolina had just one game in which an individual rushed for greater than 100 yards, they have had at least 100 yards rushing in 14 of 16 games this season. When you look at the speed of DeAngelo Williams and the power of Mike Tolbert, combined with the play-making ability of Cam Newton, there may not be a more diversely effective backfield in all of the NFL. The Panthers are the second-ranked defense in terms of total yards, points and rushing. To be successful, you can't have one without the other, you have to couple your running game with a good defense, and vice versa. The Panthers obviously do both extraordinarily well.
Why they won't: The team lacks an explosive component to the offense, particularly with Steve Smith being hobbled with a knee injury. And even he doesn't have more than 69 receiving yards in a single game this season. Their defense allowed them to win 13 games while averaging only 22.9 points per game, but that may not be good enough in the postseason. The Panthers will need to manufacture some big plays whether it be through Ted Ginn or Cam Newton running for big gains, but if they don't, they will be in jeopardy of bleeding out slowly.
Record: 10-5. Won the NFC East for the first time since 2010.
Why they will win: Entering the year, all we talked about was how fast the Eagles would play, but they actually finished the 2013 season with fewer plays run than they did last year under Andy Reid. They also possessed the ball an average of just 26:24 per game, the worst in the NFL. So why are they so successful? Unlike the Panthers, the Eagles are the most explosive offense in the NFL and they actually do a pretty goond job defensively to stop opponents from generating big plays of their own. I use the differential between big plays earned and big plays given up as part of my Toxic Differential statistic used to determine success. The Eagles are second to just the Seahawks in this statistic, and that tells me they are a very scary team for anyone to want to face in the playoffs. So regardless of how long they possess the ball or how many plays they run, the Eagles are tremendously explosive and will test any defense they face in the postseason.
Why they won't: When Chip Kelly was hired last offseason, he became the first head coach to be hired into the NFL without having any previous professional football experience since Steve Spurrier in 2002. That means neither the team's quarterback nor their head coach has experience facing the pressures of the NFL's postseason and while they obviously overcame their inexperience to make to the postseason in the first place, the postseason is an entirely new set of challenges. The win-and-in screnario of Sunday's game against the Cowboys was very similar to a playoff atmosphere and it took them 59 minutes to beat a team with the league's worst defense and a quarterback that hadn't started a game in two years.
Record: 8-7-1. Clinched their fifth consecutive AFC North title and are tied with the Patriots for the longest active playoff streak in the NFL.
Why they will win: Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL and he is playing the most important position in the NFL. While he certainly had to shake off some rust early against the Bears on Sunday, the winning throw to Randall Cobb is all you need to see to know he will be ready for the postseason. While he isn't often mentioned among the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, he can make plays with his legs as well as any of the "running quarterbacks" in the league and may actually be the most elusive. His ability to spin out of the pocket and then find Cobb streaking down the field was a play that only Aaron Rodgers could make. With him on my team, I'm feeling extremely confident -- no matter who lines up on the opposite sideline.
Why they won't: With Rodgers back at quarterback, teams will look to keep the ball out of his hands by running the ball and controlling the clock and that shouldn't be all that difficult against the Packers. The Packers are the league's 25th-ranked rushing defense in total, but are actually second-to-last if you look at just the games since Week 9. Additionally, the Packers have given up the second most individual 100-yard rushing performances this season. If the defense can't get off the field, then Rodgers will be stuck on the sidelines, and that isn't where you want your best player. Not to mention, the Packers will draw the 49ers in the wild-card round and they just happen to be league's third-best rushing offense and Colin Kaepernick tends to have his best games against the Packers.
Record: 12-4. Will be the No. 5 seed despite being tied for the second-best record in the conference. Third straight playoff appearance under Jim Harbaugh after missing the postseason in the previous eight seasons.
Why they will win: The 49ers hold the longest active winning streak in the NFL and have won 11 of their last 13 but even their four losses are impressive. Every team they have lost to have had at least 11 wins and a combined record of 47-17. That is pretty impressive. Not to mention they will face the Packers, a team they have had their way with the last two outings. First, in the playoffs last year, Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards, then in the season opener this year, Kaepernick threw for 412 yards. Pick your poison.
Why they won't: While only losing four games to teams that are combined 47-17 is impressive, that is the same reason they should have some heartburn heading into this postseason. They have quality wins against the Seahawks and the Cardinals (twice), but other than that, they haven't beaten another team with more than eight wins and the teams they have beaten are a combined 62-97-1. Of their wins, only two have come against other playoff teams, while all four of their losses have come against teams they may meet again in the playoffs.
Record: 11-5. The Saints have clinched a playoff spot for the fourth time in five seasons -- the most during a five-year span in franchise history.
Why they will win: The Saints are just one year removed from having one of the worst defenses in NFL history, but that one year has made a world of difference. They are allowing nearly 10 points fewer per game this season and a mind-blowing 135 yards fewer per game. The Saints defense actually ranks the same or better in four major statistical categories as their offense does. They are just the 10th-ranked scoring offense, but the fourth-best scoring defense. They both rank fourth in terms of total yards and second in terms of passing yards. The biggest margin comes when comparing rushing statistics. Defensively, the Saints rank 19th while they are just the 25th-ranked rushing offense. I'm not sure I expected to see the day in which the Saints' defense was performing at a higher level than the offense, and a very good offense at that.
Why they won't: The Saints are a perfect 8-0 at home, but their No. 6 seed ensures they will be playing every game on the road this postseason. Drew Brees, while always dangerous, has been far less effective away from New Orleans this season. His completion percentage drops from 73.6 to 64 percent and he averages just 290 yards on the road, with just three more touchdowns than interceptions outside the Superdome.