With the NFC Playoffs kicking off in Green Bay next week, I decided to put together my NFC Playoff preview. I look at the six playoff teams strengths and weaknesses and pick a NFC representative for the Super Bowl. Let us start by looking at the top seed, the Atlanta Falcons.
1) Atlanta Falcons
Points Scored: 26.2 points per game
Points Allowed: 18.7 points per game
Point Differential: 7.5 points per game
Yards Gained: 369.1 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 365.6 yards per game
Strengths: The strength of this team is their passing offense. QB Matt Ryan set a franchise record with 32 touchdown passes and passed for 4,719 yards. He has two elite weapons on the outside, WR Roddy White and WR Julio Jones. Those two combined for 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns. They also have an elite tight end in future Hall of Famer, Tony Gonzalez. He posted 93 receptions for 930 yards and nine touchdowns. No team in the NFL has that much talent at their top three skill position receiving targets. When their passing game is clicking, they can put up 30 points with ease and they do not make a ton of mistakes. Ryan had only 14 interceptions this year, but five of them came against the Arizona Cardinals. He had nine interceptions in his other 15 starts and was very strong when it came to valuing the ball.
Weaknesses: The Falcons had a very suspect run defense this year. The Falcons were the 21st ranked rushing defense (123.2 rushing yards allowed per game) and gave up 14 rushing touchdowns to running backs. They also did not run the ball well, finishing with just 87.3 rushing yards per game. Only three other teams had fewer rushing yards than the Falcons. If the Falcons meet up with a team that can contain their passing attack and run the ball effectively, it could create problems for them winning their first playoff game under Ryan and head coach Mike Smith.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: No NFL team has an answer to the Falcons’ skill position players. Furthermore, the Falcons were (7-1) at home this year with their only loss being a meaningless loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17. Ryan has lost only five regular season games at home since 2008. If they play as well at home in the postseason as they did in the regular season, they have an excellent chance to advance.
Why they will not win a playoff game: They have not been able to do so in their last three postseasons (2008, 2010, 2011). One interesting note on that stat is the teams they lost to are a combined (11-1) in the playoffs. All three advanced to the Super Bowl with the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants winning the Super Bowl. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals lost a thrilling game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Had the draw been different, they may have won a playoff game or two. However, until they beat someone in the playoffs and make a substantial postseason run, doubts will continue to follow this team. They had the easiest schedule in the NFL, but had a point differential of just 7.5 points per game. Had it not been for a strong 34-0 victory over the New York Giants at the end of the season, there would be a lot more clamoring about what is wrong in Atlanta. This is a team that should be scoring and winning by more, but has not been able to do so consistently. Their offense was at its best at the end of the season, hopefully that is a good sign for the NFL playoffs.
Chances of Winning Conference: The Falcons have to be considered a threat. They are tough at home and they had the best record. I only give them a 25% chance to advance to the Super Bowl. The tough NFC and their lack of playoff success does not make them a huge favorite, even though they were my preseason pick to represent the NFC and earned the top seed.
2) San Francisco 49ers
Points Scored: 24.8 points per game
Points Allowed: 17.1 points per game
Point Differential: 7.7 points per game
Yards Gained: 362.7 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 294.4 yards per game
Strengths: The 49ers have the best defense in the entire NFL. They rank fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (94.2) and gave up the fifth fewest passing yards per game (200.2). They were second in the NFL in points allowed, thanks to bad games at the end of the season at New England and at Seattle. Their defense should serve them well in the playoffs, because the NFC is loaded with potent offenses and the 49ers have the talent to stop those explosive offenses. The 49ers are the only team in the NFL to send three linebackers to the Pro Bowl, led by MLBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They also have NFC sack leader OLB Aldon Smith, who finished the season with 19.5 sacks.
Weaknesses: The 49ers have talent at quarterback, but they lack experience. The 49ers started the season with QB Alex Smith. While he did not put up flashy numbers, he took care of the ball and posted a 104.1 QB rating. When he suffered a concussion and had to turn to QB Colin Kaepernick, they never went back to Smith. Kaepernick is a much better runner and has a cannon arm, something Smith lacked. He also has only seven career starts. His talent allowed him to throw four touchdown passes in New England and torch the Chicago Bears Defense for 243 yards passing and two passing touchdowns. He also lost a game in St. Louis and was blown out in Seattle. He has the ability to carry the 49ers to a Super Bowl or cost them a big game. Time will tell if the 49ers made the right call going with physical talent over experience. I think it was the right decision, but if they lose in their first playoff game with Kaepernick playing poorly, there will be a lot of questions in San Francisco.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: This is a team that scored 32 points against the Bears and 41 points against the New England Patriots. Their defense figures to play well and if their offense can move the ball, they could be a real Super Bowl threat. They have a very good running back in RB Frank Gore and a strong group of targets, led by WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. If WR Randy Moss can give them a vertical threat and the offense clicks at the right time, this could be a Super Bowl contender.
Why they will not win a playoff game: Inexperienced quarterbacks make mistakes and the 49ers defense surrendered 66 points in back-to-back weeks. The one week their offense stepped up and the other week it did not. The NFC is loaded with explosive offenses. The Seahawks scored 150 of their 412 points in three consecutive weeks. The Packers scored 433 points this season. The Falcons tallied 419 points. None of those teams led the NFC playoff teams in scoring; it was the Redskins and their 436 points. Chances are the 49ers will need to have a big game from their offense and their quarterback only has seven NFL starts. It could pay off with a Super Bowl win if he plays beyond his year or a Divisional Round loss if he is not up to the task.
Chances of Winning Conference: I love the 49ers, but I think the conference is stacked and a lot of teams could come out of the NFC. I give the 49ers a 30% chance of advancing to the Super Bowl, making them my slight favorite over Atlanta. They will have a first round bye and a home playoff game in the Divisional Round. I think their playoff run will serve them well for last year and the only team they do not have any answers for was the New York Giants, who are not in the playoffs.
3) Green Bay Packers
Points Scored: 27.1 points per game
Points Allowed: 21.0 points per game
Point Differential: 6.1 points per game
Yards Gained: 359.5 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 336.8 yards per game
Strengths: You saw why the Packers have a chance to win any game they play in back in Week 6. They were (2-3) and the Houston Texans were undefeated, sporting one of the best defenses in the NFL. QB Aaron Rodgers went into that game and torched the Texans for 338 yards passing and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Rodgers has the best receiving core in the NFL and when he is hot; there is no NFL defense that has an answer for him. He can throw from the pocket and he can throw on the run. He rarely makes mistakes having thrown only two red zone interceptions since 2008. Superb passing numbers with few mistakes is a great recipe for winning NFL playoff games.
Weaknesses: The Packers are too one dimensional on offense. While their running game improved at the end of the season, they still gain only 105.9 yards rushing per game compared to 253.6 yards per game passing. If the Packers play a tough defense or Rodgers is not playing at top form, they have very little chance to win. They also really hurt themselves by losing to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17. Instead of a first round bye and likely home game against San Francisco, they must play the Vikings and if they can survive, travel to San Francisco. If they survive there, they are probably headed to Atlanta. That is going to be a very tough road to the Super Bowl, especially with a mediocre to above average defense and no running game.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: Rodgers is a reigning MVP that played a superb season. This team won three road playoff games on the way to the Super Bowl in 2010 with the most injury-riddled roster in the NFL. This team has the confidence to play through adversity and injuries and they have the mental toughness to overcome a tough Week 17 loss and turn it into a positive.
Why they will not win a playoff game: By losing to the Vikings, they secured a rematch with the Vikings. While that game is in Lambeau Field, RB Adrian Peterson has torched the Packers for 409 yards and three touchdowns in two games. If the weather is bad, the Vikings running offense may be more equipped to win in poor elements than the Packers pass offense. Their reward if they win is a trip to San Francisco, who will be rested and beat the Packers 30-22 in a game that was not really that close. The matchups are not great in the first two round and could make the Packers an early exit for a second straight season.
Chances of Winning Conference: I have thought the Packers have had a nice team all season, but I have not viewed them as a Super Bowl team. They lost to the top two teams in the NFC West, even if the Seahawks loss was controversial. They split with the Minnesota Vikings. Their most impressive win was against the Houston Texans, but they also lost by 28 points to the New York Giants and lost to the Indianapolis Colts. My experience is that teams that rely on the quarterback to play perfect and have a ton of other holes usually disappoint in the playoffs. I give the Packers only a 15% chance to advance to the Super Bowl, simply because with Rodgers anything is possible.
4) Washington Redskins
Points Scored: 27.3 points per game
Points Allowed: 24.3 points per game
Point Differential: 3.0 points per game
Yards Gained: 383.4 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 377.7 yards per game
Strengths: The Redskins are incredibly tough to stop in the running game. Rookie RB Alfred Morris set the Redskins single season record for rushing yards in a season with 1,613 rushing yards and scored 13 rushing touchdowns. Normally they throw a parade for you when you accomplish that, Morris is not even the best rookie on his own offense. QB Robert Griffin III was the more celebrated rookie and he made the Pro Bowl with 3,200 yards passing, 20 passing touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also added 815 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns. The Redskins ability to run the ball with their pistol formations and run option yields big plays down the field. The Redskins won seven straight games to make the playoffs; they will continue that streak if teams cannot figure out their rushing attack.
Weaknesses: The defense played better towards the end of the season, but their season statistics were horrible. The Redskins allowed the third most passing yards in the NFL with 281.9 yards per game. They surrendered 388 points on the season, which is the most of any NFC playoff team by 40 points. There is no doubt this team can score points, but they can also give points up in a hurry. That is a really big problem with the offenses that are left in the NFC. They may need to score 40 points if they want to beat the Packers or the Falcons. Their first round opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, scored 150 points in Week 14-16. The Redskins can go to the Super Bowl if their defense plays like it did to close the season, but you have to wonder if that improved play will hold up in the playoffs against these elite offenses.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: The Redskins run the ball and defenses cannot figure out how to stop it. They are explosive and could easily keep their seven-game winning streak alive. Their rookie quarterback performs well on the big stage and there is no reason to believe the moment is too big for him.
Why they will not win a playoff game: I am not a big fan of rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs and the NFC is loaded this year. If the Redskins had more impact players on defense, I would give them a shot. I think they are too one dimensional and while I love that they do not turn the ball over, I think a good offense will expose them in the playoffs and take them out of their running game. Credit the Skins for making the playoffs this year, but I think their season likely ends against Seattle’s red-hot team that is more balanced or the Atlanta Falcons (assuming Green Bay takes care of business against the Vikings). A trip to face San Francisco’s tough run defense would not be desirable either.
Chances of Winning Conference: I will give them an 8% chance, because RGIII is so impressive and Mike Shanahan has won two Super Bowls and is playoff tested. Other than that, I think they are a year or two away from competing for the Super Bowl, needing to rebuild their defense and add a few more playmakers to the passing game.
5) Seattle Seahawks
Points Scored: 25.6 points per game
Points Allowed: 15.3 points per game
Point Differential: 10.3 points per game
Yards Gained: 353.2 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 305.8 yards per game
Strengths: You have to love their running game and their defense. RB Marshawn Lynch tallied 1,590 yards rushing and scored 11 rushing touchdowns. The defense was the top scoring defense in the NFL, allowing only 245 points. They were one of only five teams to allow less than 300 points and the next best defense (San Francisco 49ers) allowed 273 points on the season. There is no better recipe for road success than defense and running the ball. When you add in rookie QB Russell Wilson throwing for 26 passing touchdowns, you have a team that can win in a lot of different ways.
Weaknesses: Their passing yardage could be much better. The Seahawks only averaged 190 yards passing per game. Wilson is very poised and I would trust him to lead a game tying or winning drive. The question is what will the Hawks do if they fall behind by 14 points early in a game. Can they move the ball through the air and score points in a hurry. They may not have to do that, as their defense and running game will keep them close. Their lack of a dynamic number one receiver limits the yardage they can gain in the passing game.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: The last two years, the hot team has been the team to beat in the playoffs. The Packers were scorching hot in 2010 and they rode their six seed to the Super Bowl. Last year the Giants caught fire at the end of the season and despite winning only nine regular season games, they won the Super Bowl. The Seahawks started the season only (6-5), but won their last five games, including a three week stretch from Week 14 to Week 16 where they outscored their opponents 150-30. If the hot team is the team to beat, no team is hotter than the Seahawks.
Why they will not win a playoff game: Unfortunately, their success was built at home with a strong (8-0) record. They outscored their home opponents 243-95. They will not be able to utilize that advantage in January, as they will be guaranteed to be on the road the first two playoff games. Their only true road wins were at Carolina and at Chicago. They did beat Buffalo, but that game was played in Toronto. If the playoffs were at home, they would be my favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Given their poor road play, they could be one and done having to face a hot Redskins team that has won seven straight games.
Chances of Winning Conference: I am intrigued by their chances given how well they closed the season. If they were at home, they would be my favorite. I am not a huge fan of rookie quarterbacks and I am less of a fan of them playing on the road. I will give them a 20% chance, seeing the hot team from the NFC has won the last two years. I think the chances are more likely that their season ends in Atlanta or San Francisco in the second round.
6) Minnesota Vikings
Points Scored: 23.7 points per game
Points Allowed: 21.8 points per game
Point Differential: 1.9 points per game
Yards Gained: 336.6 yards per game
Yards Allowed: 350.1 yards per game
Strengths: RB Adrian Peterson finished one of the historic seasons in NFL history. He had the second most rushing yards in NFL history with 2,097 and single-handedly led the Vikings to the playoffs. If I had a vote for the MVP award, I would give it to him in a heartbeat. His QB Christian Ponder averaged the same amount of yards per attempt (6.08) as Peterson averaged per run (6.03). This team has been able to run the ball despite teams stacking the box to stop Peterson. No team ran the ball better than the Vikings this year and it is the only reason they made the playoffs.
Weaknesses: Everything other than the running game. Their passing game was average at best when they had WR Percy Harvin. It has been anemic since he left, although they did close the season strong against Houston and Green Bay. Their secondary allowed the 24th most passing yards in the NFL and their run defense was ranked 11th. Their only real strength on defense was a pass rush that generated 44 sacks, led by DE Jarred Allen. Otherwise, they are a pedestrian unit that is the only NFC playoff team to allow more yards than they gained.
Why they could win the Super Bowl: If Peterson could average 150 to 200 yards rushing per game and Ponder could use that good running game to make some big plays in play action passing, the Vikings could survive and advance in the playoffs. They beat Green Bay, San Francisco and Houston this season. They have won games against good teams, provided they can keep the game close to allow Peterson to maximize his ability they could do that in the playoffs.
Why they will not win a playoff game: 2012 is about passing offenses and scoring points. The Vikings passed for the second fewest yards in the NFL; only the Kansas City Chiefs threw for fewer yards than the Vikings. We have seen teams try to ground and pound their way to the playoffs, most recently the New York Jets in 2009 and 2010. Those Jets teams had much better defenses, it seems inconceivable the Vikings could win a Super Bowl with an All-World running back and a lot of question marks at their other positions.
Chances of Winning Conference: Unfortunately for the Vikings, this is not the Dead Ball Era. I love Peterson; he is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever play the game. I actually think they have a very good shot to pull an upset in Green Bay, as their running game is more conclusive to winning bad weather games than the Packers passing attack. That is going to be a Saturday Night Game and the weather should be frigid. I do not think a team can win three playoff games on the road with a quarterback that averages as many yards per attempt as his running back. That does not win in today’s NFL. I think their season probably ends in Green Bay, if not it will end in Atlanta. I give them a 2% chance of advancing to the Super Bowl.
NFC Prediction: I think the Vikings are a long shot and even though the Redskins have won seven in a row, they are also a long shot to advance in the NFC. The other four teams are all compelling choices and a reasonable argument can be made for or against any of them. I have jumped off the Falcons bandwagon weeks ago. They should have the Patriots point differential with that schedule; instead, it is a meager 7.5 points per game. I really like the Seahawks, but they have not done enough away from home for my liking to win three straight on the road. I think the Packers really messed up and losing to the Vikings could be a very costly mistake.
That leaves the 49ers. I was really disheartened they lost by so much in Seattle, but they also traveled to New England and beat a Patriots team that never loses at home in November and December. Losing at Seattle is not shameful and I think they ran into a buzz saw that night. Best of all the Rams and the Giants are not in the playoffs, which is a big plus.
I think the Seahawks win in Washington this week and the Packers survive the Vikings in a very close game. That is the one playoff game I am the least sure about, but I am going to trust the Packers do not go one and done in the playoffs at home in back-to-back seasons. I like the Seahawks to upset the Falcons and the 49ers to beat the Packers. That leaves a NFC West rematch in San Francisco that I think the 49ers prevail in at home. I then think they lose in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots.
I will recap all the playoff games next week and preview the Divisional Round. Enjoy the Playoffs; this should be one of the more exciting and wide-open playoffs with several teams able to consider themselves realistic Super Bowl contenders.