3 reasons why each of the 6 NFC playoff teams can win Super Bowl
The past two Super Bowls have matched the highest-rated seeds in both conferences.
However, let’s not slot Carolina and Denver in Super Bowl 50 just yet.
The 2010 Green Bay Packers, 2011 New York Giants and 2012 Baltimore Ravens weren’t among the top three seeds entering the postseason yet all three captured Lombardi Trophies.
Baltimore and New York were No. 4 seeds. Not only did the Packers fail to win their division. Green Bay also was the second wild-card qualifier as the No. 6 seed, which meant having to win three road playoff games to qualify for the Super Bowl.
Such history should serve as a reminder that anything can happen in the postseason as unlikely as it may seem at the start of the playoffs.
FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez lists three reasons why each NFC playoff team has a chance at a trip to the Bay Area for Super Bowl 50.
These are two words I never thought I’d be typing as a strength for the Redskins. But give credit to Cousins for delivering when given full support by head coach Jay Gruden as Washington’s starter ahead of Robert Griffin III. Cousins hit his stride in the second half of the season, completing at least 67.4 percent of his passes in every game between Weeks 10 and 17 with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Overall, Cousins is the first Redskins quarterback to lead the NFL in completion percentage (69.8) since Sonny Jurgensen in 1970. You like that, indeed.
The supporting offensive cast
The return of wide receiver DeSean Jackson from early-season injury and emergence of tight end Jordan Reed as a difference-making tight end have helped Cousins enjoy one of the most prolific passing seasons in Redskins history. Jackson provided a deep threat the Redskins sorely lacked. He registered three scoring catches of 56-or-more yards between Weeks 10 and 16. Through the first nine games, Cousins’ longest completion was 43 yards. With 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns, Reed became the first Redskins tight end to lead the team in receiving since Jean Fugett in 1977. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon (72-777-6 TDs) and rookie Jamison Crowder (59-604-2) contributed, as well.
A stout front seven
A draft pick like second-round outside linebacker Preston Smith is one of the reasons Scot McCloughan will garner strong consideration for NFL Executive of the Year honors. Smith notched five sacks in the final three games to finish the regular season with eight, which led all NFL rookies. Smith forms a strong tandem with fellow OLB Ryan Kerrigan, who led the Redskins in sacks with 9.5. Defensive end Chris Baker also developed as a pass-rushing threat with a career-high six sacks. As for run-stuffing, nose tackle Terrance Knighton does a nice job clogging the interior of the opposition’s offensive line but the Redskins could be susceptible in this area. Washington surrendered an average of 4.8 yards a carry during the regular season, which tied for second-to-last among all teams behind New Orleans (4.9).
Green Bay (10-6)
His passing statistics weren’t nearly as gaudy as last season. The most notable dip occurred in completion percentage, which dipped from 65.6 to 60.7 for his lowest rate since becoming a full-time starter in 2008. But when it comes to quarterbacks you don’t want to face in the playoffs, Rodgers is right at the top of the list.
Of the 53 players on Green Bay’s roster entering the playoffs, 42 were part of at least one of the Packers squads that reached the playoffs in each of the past six seasons. Such experience could come in handy against an opponent like Washington, which has more players â including quarterback Kirk Cousins — who have never started a postseason contest.
An underrated defense
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is a frequent target for outside criticism, but don’t blame his unit for the Packers fading down the stretch. Green Bay has limited the opposition to 20-or-fewer points in seven of its final eight games. If the same stinginess continues in the postseason and Green Bay’s offense gets its act together, the Packers could be riding high again after losing the NFC North title to Minnesota in Week 17.
After two straight Super Bowl appearances, Wilson took his game to an even higher level in 2015. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards, run for 500 yards and toss over 30 touchdown passes. Wilson was red hot down the stretch with running back Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) sidelined and replacement Thomas Rawls suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Wilson threw for 24 scores with just one interception in the final seven games. The wild part is that Wilson did this without injured tight end Jimmy Graham, who never fit into Seattle’s offensive system despite being a prized offseason acquisition.
"Beast Mode" is returning
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has said he anticipates Lynch will be back at practice this week. His availability in the playoffs is key to Seattle’s Super Bowl hopes. Lynch has averaged 98 rushing yards in his past eight playoff games along with eight touchdowns dating to the 2012 campaign. The Seahawks also should benefit from the fresh legs Lynch will bring since he only rushed 111 times this season because of injury.
A stingy defense
This unit wasn’t as dominating as the past two seasons, but Seattle still led the NFL in scoring defense (17.3-point average) for a fourth consecutive year, which no team has done since the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s. The Seahawks grew stronger as the season unfolded, allowing 20-or-fewer points in five of their final six contests.
The Vikings breathed a sigh of relief when Peterson returned to the field late in last Sunday night’s win over Green Bay after missing most of the second half with a back injury. Peterson is key to an offense that is struggling to move the football consistently well in the passing game under second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. After missing almost all of the 2014 season following a child-abuse scandal, Peterson rebounded to regain his status as the NFL’s top running back. Peterson won his third rushing title this season with 1,485 yards along with 11 touchdowns.
Modern-day Purple People Eaters
The Vikings have assembled an impressive collection of defensive talent largely because of general manager Rick Spielman’s drafts. The unit finished the regular season tied with Green Bay for seventh in sacks with 43, five of which came in last Sunday night’s win over the Packers. Veteran defensive end Everson Griffen leads the team with 10.5, but Danielle Hunter has come on strong with six, which ranked second among all NFL rookies. Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks is another 2015 draft pick who has made a quick impact, tallying a team-high 92 tackles. Anthony Barr also has blossomed into a blue-chip outside linebacker during his second NFL season. The secondary is highlighted by ball-hawking safety Harrison Smith, who already has set a franchise record with four career interception returns for touchdowns in just his fourth NFL season. The defense is orchestrated by Mike Zimmer, who was one of the NFL’s most well-respected defensive minds when hired as Vikings head coach in 2014, and coordinator George Edwards.
A winter wonderland
While being the NFC’s No. 3 seed only guarantees one home playoff game, getting to host Seattle on Sunday should provide a home-field advantage that may move the Vikings one step closer to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1976 season. The forecast high is slated to be a frigid 14 degrees, conditions the Vikings are far more comfortable playing in than the Seahawks. The Vikings also have made themselves comfortable at TCF Stadium while their new domed venue is being completed for 2016. The club’s 11-5 record on the University of Minnesota campus is the best in league history for a team forced to play in a temporary facility. If the Vikings win their first two playoff games and top-seeded Carolina and Arizona lose, Minnesota will host the NFC Championship.
Nobody throws deep to a fleet group of wide receivers better than quarterback Carson Palmer, who led the league in average yards per pass attempt (8.7) and registered the most completions of 40-plus yards with 15.
The midseason addition of outside linebacker Dwight Freeney (eight sacks) has made an aggressive Cardinals defense even more dangerous. First-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher has crafted the same types of creative pass-rush schemes as his predecessor Todd Bowles, who is now New York Jets head coach. It also helps to have an elite coverage cornerback in Patrick Peterson and a hybrid linebacker/safety like Deone Bucannon as tools at Bettcher’s disposal.
The NFL Coach of the Year in two of the past three years, Arians has enjoyed his most impressive season to date since joining the Cardinals in 2013. Arians also earned two Super Bowl rings as an assistant during his time with Pittsburgh so he knows what it takes to bring a team through the postseason. While he is beloved by his players, Arians will surely be grinding on his squad before its second-round game to fix the mistakes made in a season-ending 36-6 home loss to Seattle.
The Panthers’ Super Bowl hopes start with the league’s front-runner to win Most Valuable Player honors. Already a prolific runner in his first four NFL seasons, Newton came into his own as a passer this year despite losing his top target from a year ago (wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin) to a season-ending knee injury last August during training camp. Newton posted career highs in quarterback rating (99.4) and touchdowns (35) while reducing his interceptions to a career-low 10. He also matured as a team leader and helped carry the Panthers to an NFL-best 14-0 record before Carolina suffered its first loss.
Nine other Pro Bowl selections
The Panthers are hardly a one-man band with Newton, especially on defense. Cornerback Josh Norman, defensive tackle Kawann Short, and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are among the top players — if not the best — at their positions across the league. The quartet highlights a unit that surrendered an average of 4.9 yards a play during the regular season, which is tied with Seattle for the league’s lowest total behind Denver (4.4).
Home sweet home
Securing the NFC’s No. 1 seed could be what pushes the Panthers into their first Super Bowl since the 2003 season. Carolina has won an NFL-high 11 consecutive games at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
- Aaron Rodgers
- Adrian Peterson
- Anthony Barr
- Arizona Cardinals
- Carson Palmer
- Chris Baker
- Cleveland Browns
- Deone Bucannon
- DeSean Jackson
- Dwight Freeney
- Eric Kendricks
- Everson Griffen
- Green Bay Packers
- Harrison Smith
- Jamison Crowder
- Jimmy Graham
- Josh Norman
- Kawann Short
- Kelvin Benjamin
- Kirk Cousins
- Luke Kuechly
- Marshawn Lynch
- Mike Zimmer
- Minnesota Vikings
- New York Giants
- Pierre Garcon
- Preston Smith
- Robert Griffin III
- Russell Wilson
- Ryan Kerrigan
- Seattle Seahawks
- Super Bowl
- Teddy Bridgewater
- Terrance Knighton
- Thomas Davis Sr.
- Thomas Rawls