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NFC Playoff Preview 2017–18

Each NFC team could win against the others, but each boasts notable flaws

It’s NFL Playoff time! The seeds are set and the stage is prepped. The NFC had one of the most surprising runs in recent memories with teams suddenly leaping to grace, others falling into shameful mediocrity, and two former backups now sitting as the quarterbacks for the top two seeds. Let’s dive right in: how does your favorite (or bandwagon) team fair on the road to the NFC Championship?

Why the Philadelphia Eagles will win Super Bowl LII

The Eagles offense operates at a deadly level. Even after losing Carson Wentz, the Eagles have ended the season with more passing touchdowns than anybody in the league. This is due in part to having a solid group of receivers as opposed to needing to rely on one superstar and the other good-player-that usually-doesn’t-get-covered due to the aforementioned superstar. No, while the Eagles have not had a receiver who managed to get into the thousand yard territory, they do have three receivers who all went for over 750 yards and combined for a total of 25 touchdowns. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Do you cover Agholor? Jeffery? What about the tight end, Ertz? Foles has a bevy of weapons and as he showcased in the game against the Giants, he knows how to use them. Speaking of Nick Foles: while he is the backup quarterback taking over the top-seeded team in the conference, it’d be very foolish to dismiss him right away.

Remember, in the low-scoring Dallas affair, Foles wasn’t working with his starters and the Eagles were playing very safe since they already had their playoff spot on lockdown going into the game. (What you should really be noting is that the Eagles defense, in a meaningless game, held the Cowboys to 6 points. More on that later.) But Foles has some gas. Granted, the one team he smoked was a lousy Giants squad, but when you look at the game against the Raiders, you start to see that Foles can actually manage a team pretty well and not end up costing them the game. With the weapons he has available to him, the Eagles could possibly coast into the NFC Championship and possibly even the Super Bowl relying on a dynamic pass game and a defense ranked fourth in the league as a unit. At long last, the Eagles could be prime shape to bring back the Lombardi for the first time in Philadelphia history.

Why the Philadelphia Eagles will not win Super Bowl LII

There is a very bizarre weak spot lurking in the tight defense of the Eagles: they allow way too many passing touchdowns. The Eagles have allowed a whopping 24 passing touchdowns and in nine of their 16 games have allowed over 20 points to be scored against them. For you math whizzes out there, that’s over half their games where opponents rack up the score against them. Bonus fun fact: two of those nine were games the Eagles lost. Once to the Chiefs, a possible Super Bowl threat themselves, and one to the Seahawks – who at the time were looking like they could be playoff bound. Those aren’t fluke losses; those are good teams flat out beating a good team. And once you hit the playoff, you’re facing nothing but good teams. Especially in this conference.

Let’s look at this from a potential opponent standpoint: the Eagles do a great job defending the run (they’ve only allowed seven rushing TDs, so we’ll go ahead and say that teams that are run-heavy will have an issue against Philly). The Eagles get a first-round bye and the only team they would be guaranteed not to face in the divisional round would be the Rams, should they win. That leaves the prospective pool of opponents for the Eagles as such: the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons, assuming any of those three teams win. The Saints have Drew Brees at quarterback (who has admittedly had a down year by usual Brees standards, in part because he’s had the two-headed running back beast of Ingram-Kamara to lean on) but Brees ended the season has the most accurate quarterback in the league. Now, Brees is also outside of the top 10 for touchdowns thrown and the Eagles defense does do a great job at intercepting the ball, so perhaps the Saints aren’t their biggest obstacle.

The Panthers and Falcons, however, do tend to rely more on their passing game than their running games. Cam is dangerous now that pass-catching running back Christian McCaffrey has been turned loose and the Falcons, of course, have a certain Julio Jones that Philly has to worry about. Jones is second in the league in receiving yards but he’s also a magnet for opposing secondaries in the red zone. Jones only has three touchdown receptions this year, but that has blown the door wide open for the likes of Mohammed Sanu and Austin Hooper as targets of opportunity. Julio gets you there and the corps does the rest. The Eagles are going to need to hope their secondary is in the business of hauling in interceptions instead of watching the ball fly into their own end zone.

Why the Minnesota Vikings will win Super Bowl LII

Assuming they get to the Super Bowl, the Vikings will be the first team in league history to play in their home stadium for the Super Bowl. The Vikings’ record at home? 7–1. And the one loss was against a division rival. That’s a promising stat. What’s even more promising is… seemingly every other Viking stat. Case Keenum has garnered some real MVP rumblings due to his greatest season yet: 22 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 3,500-plus yards. The career back-up has been nothing short of both amazing and steady-handed. The Vikings also finished with the 7th-most rushing yards in the league using backup running backs. 

You’d have been right to worry about Minnesota’s ground game following an offseason where they parted with future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson in free agency and then lost their standout rookie Dalvin Cook to an ACL tear. Instead, the Vikings backfield answered, and accumulated nearly 2,000 rushing yards with Latavious Murray as their lead back. This team also has the one-two punch at receiver of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to harass NFC coverage. Thielen gets the major yardage, going for over 1,200 this season, while Diggs has 8 touchdowns and over 800 yards himself. The Vikings offense can beat you almost anywhere and the key factor has been amazing depth at all positions and brilliant coaching by Mike Zimmer. But that’s just offense, right?

Maybe you can beat the Vikings on defense. Wait, no, you can’t. The Vikings have the #1 defense in the league. Here are a few fun facts for top defenses entering the Super Bowl race: The #1 defense has been the Super Bowl champion 14 times. Furthermore, 49 out of 51 Super Bowl Champions have had more than 30 sacks. The Vikings have 37 going into the playoffs. But hey, maybe Super Bowl-winning metrics aren’t your thing. Maybe you just like raw data, so let’s break down Minnesota’s shutdown defense. A few highlights statistically: the Vikings have allowed 23 total touchdowns: 13 passing, 10 rushing. For those keeping score at home, the Vikings have allowed fewer total touchdowns than the 1-seed Eagles have allowed passing touchdowns. The Vikings are also second in yards allowed, behind only the turnover maniacs in Jacksonville. Oh, and speaking of interceptions, Minnesota has more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. The Purple People Eaters may have been reborn in Minnesota’s imposing defense.

Why the Minnesota Vikings will not win Super Bowl LII

Minnesota looks pretty invincible, so we have to look at the most recent game the Vikings actually lost to see if we can find a common thread to beat the menace in the north. Why the most recent? Well, the first game the Vikings lost was in Week 2 against the Steelers. This was Case Keenum’s first game as the starter going up against the likes of a healthy Pittsburgh Steelers squad. Loss number two came in a close battle with the Detroit Lions in week 4 with, again, a still fresh Case Keenum and a very different Lions squad. No, we have to look at how the Vikings faired against the Carolina Panthers, the only loss they took on their 11-1 streak following their week 4 loss.

The big lesson to take away is that teams have to make Minnesota bend. You may not break them, but settling for field goals absolutely killed a good chunk of Minnesota’s momentum. The Vikings also gave up a handful of large plays, including a 60-yard rushing touchdown from Jonathan Stewart. The usually stalwart rushing defense in Minnesota let loose with three touchdowns against them all by the hands of Jonathan Stewart. The Vikings ruled the skies on offense, hitting Adam Thielen plenty, but with Keenum rattled, he winded up throwing two picks. If he gets one of those interceptions back, Vikings could have had a real shot.

The Panthers gave Minnesota all they could handle, but even with all they could handle, they only lost by a single touchdown. Keenum outthrew Newton. Vikings receivers out-caught any Panther. But the Carolina defense was imposing at the right moments and got more big plays. So how do you beat Minnesota? The stupid-but-all-too-true answer is outplaying them. Be in the right place at the right time. Catch them when they’re off and don’t let them off the hook. Otherwise, Minnesota can run away with the conference. Maybe even the big show itself.

Why the Los Angeles Rams will win Super Bowl LII

Sean McVay and his super crew took the league by storm. The offensive mastermind breathed new life into Jared Goff as he led the former 32nd total offense to the best in the league. That’s no fluke. The Rams young attack is led by Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, neither of whom have had more three years experience in the league. The team has also made superstars out of a young, capable receiving unit. Robert Woods, Connor Kupp, and newly acquired Sammy Watkins have boosted an otherwise-lifeless unit to a touchdown scoring machine. Watkins alone accounted for eight of the team’s receiving touchdowns.

And speaking of Todd Gurley, he has once again emerged as one of the league’s top rushers, raking in over 1,300 yards. The Rams outscored everybody in the league. There’s no let-up with the Rams offense — it’s all attack, all the time. The Rams scored an absurd 45 touchdowns. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also pulled up an already-imposing Rams defense. The Rams went from the 23rd total offense to the 21st total offense and dominated an NFC West that had the likes of the Seahawks seeming like deadlocks for the division. But after bullying teams that stood in front of them and a complete turn around of Goff, the Rams seem poised to be the NFC West’s new top dogs as they dominate on both sides of the ball: the only team who can appear to do so.

Why the Los Angeles Rams will not win Super Bowl LII

Let’s take a look at the Rams schedule this year: The Rams had an opportunity to take either the one or two seed with games against the Vikings and Eagles. They lost both of them. Not only did they lose, they lost by over seven points each time. The Vikings held the Rams to one measly touchdown while the Eagles completely blew up the Rams defense with 43 points. Furthermore, of the team’s 11 wins, only three of those victories came against opponents with a .500 record or better. Further still, in half of the games that the Rams have played, they have had twenty or greater points scored against them.

The Rams strength also stands as their weakness: their youth. Nearly every Ram and coaching staff member has yet to see a playoff game. For everybody on the team, it’s their first playoff appearance in a Rams uniform. Their first matchup going into the playoffs? The incumbent NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons don’t just have experience in the playoffs, they have recent playoff experience. And they have revenge on the brain. Granted, those aren’t measurable stats, but inexperienced teams going up against the more experienced squad don’t tend to fair well. Let’s also acknowledge that the Rams get to play at home. The Rams have a 4–4 record at home. The Rams are going to need to come with their A+ game to survive the wild card round and it only gets tougher from there. If they win, they’ll be facing the team that held them to one touchdown the last time they met in Minnesota.

Why the New Orleans Saints will win Super Bowl LII

The Saints are back, baby! It’s no secret why. The famously porous pass defense has finally patched itself up and Drew Brees has finally been given a huge relief with two fantastic running backs. The Saints defense jumped from 31st overall to 10th overall in this space of one offseason. The big factor is their newly acquired rookie corner, Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore pulled in a team-leading five interceptions and 43 tackles to go along with them. But Lattimore isn’t the only rookie making a splash in the secondary. Marcus Williams at safety roped in four picks of his own. The rookie duo accounts for half of New Orleans’ interceptions and 100% of their newfound identity.

And the rookie impact doesn’t end there. After briefly flirting with Adrian Peterson, the Saints turned over the reigns to the league’s best running duo: veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Ingram pulled the bulk of the carries, hauling 100 more attempts than his rookie partner, but Kamara kept pace and the two combined for well over 1,800 yards. On top of that, they scored 20 touchdowns together. These two scored more touchdowns together than the Saints did all of last season. The sheer power of Ingram combined with the muscular downhill speed of Kamara has been a nightmare for rushing defenses. Things are looking up again in the Big Easy.

Why the New Orleans Saints will not win Super Bowl LII

In every game the Saints lost, the defense gave up 20 touchdowns. In all but three of the eleven games the Saints won, they gave up under 20 points. This seems like an overly simple metric, but let’s look at why those points were given up. We’ll skip over their 0–2 start against Minnesota and New England since having Peterson on the team handicapped their offensive identity. In their week 12 loss to the Rams, the defense bent to the will of the Rams offense, allowing two touchdowns through the air. It bent far enough that LA could score four field goals. Similarly, the Falcons didn’t have to do much to score against New Orleans. Two touchdowns and two field goals did in New Orleans (as well as a poorly timed interception from Drew Brees).

Finally, against the Buccaneers, in a game they really should have tried hard to win during in order to clinch the division, the Saints once again watched their lead vanish at the end of the game by allowing a massive play from Jameis Winston with nine seconds left. New Orleans is improved on defense to be sure, but against familiar opponents, the Saints allow big plays to do them in at the end. And with a divisional foe on the docket to face first, New Orleans will need to figure out how to avoid the end of game collapse.

Why the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl LII

Cam’s crew did exactly what you ought to do midseason. Correct the ship, sail to the playoffs. After a 4–3 start where they were looking like one of the most inconsistent teams in the league, the team decided to ship off borderline deadweight wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo and the team started to pull together. The Panthers went on a 7–2 streak following the slow start and avoided the mistakes they were making to ensure victory week after week.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the offense and defense sit outside of the top 10, but the Panthers defy statistics by just winning — they keep pounding, if you will — and a lot of that has to do with Cam. He’s looking bold like he did in 2015. This Panther team has confidence and is sitting in a respectable league position again. Sometimes the sheer confidence can carry you farther. After all, the only statistic that matters at the end of the season is if you won in February.

Why the Carolina Panthers will not win Super Bowl LII

While the Panthers do find ways to win, we have to talk about the margin of victory they had during the 7-2 run. Five out of seven wins came by a margin of eight points or more. Which isn’t a lot. Of those wins, only one came against a team that finished the year with a winning record, but that team nearly conquered Carolina in the end. The Panthers don’t turn the ball over efficiently either which is why the offense is coming out and having to recover from deep down the field and forcing these narrow margins of victory.

The principal complaint against the Panthers was a lack of consistency and not being able to point at a true strength. Cam has thrown 22 touchdowns, but also 16 interceptions. The defense has forced 15 fumbles, but only 10 interceptions. The Panthers don’t have a clear rushing leader since Newton leads the team in rushing yards. They landed promising rookie Christian McCaffrey but don’t seem certain on how to use him outside of the Green Bay win.

And despite all of that, somehow against all reason, the Panthers could still ride a wave of confidence to the Super Bowl. Remember when Cam heard Clay Matthews point out EXACTLY what play the offense was about to run, called him out and said “You’ve been watching film? Watch this.” and then threw a touchdown? I can’t think of anything that’s more Carolina then that. There are 1,000 weaknesses on the Panthers and they don’t care about any of them. So if you want to knock out Carolina, you better hit them hard early and keep hitting them. If Cam catches you sleeping, he’s going to score on you.

Why the Atlanta Falcons will win Super Bowl LII

Let’s just get it out of the way: the Falcons suffered something of a Super Bowl hangover. After leading the league in offense, they fell to the sixth seed and third place in their division. But what they do have his Julio Jones, the league’s 2nd-leading receiver who still finds ways to be productive when his team is not. And the crazy part is that’s a down year for Jones. Atlanta found ways to score even when Julio wasn’t dancing into the end zone. Mohammed Sanu turned into a red zone threat, Telvin Coleman stepped up as a receiving back, and the Falcons keep teams on their toes by exposing them once they go after Jones.

Matt Ryan also kept up his offensive production with a 4,000-plus-yard season, coupled with his running duo of Freeman-Coleman going for over 1,500. Overall? A slight step down from their record-setting 2016 campaign but an impressive showcase nonetheless. The playoff experience Atlanta has can only serve them well as they go up against a youthful Rams team. Allowing for a win there, they get a Carson Wentz-less Eagles in the divisional round. The stars could line up just right for a Falcon repeat.

Why the Atlanta Falcons will not win Super Bowl LII

Turnovers. Matt Ryan threw 12 picks this year. That’s not the worst it could be, but consider that Ryan threw more interceptions than his defense hauled in. The Falcons on defense have allowed more touchdowns (33) than Ryan has thrown (20) and have caught fewer picks (8). On top of that, the Falcons have only forced 12 fumbles. You need your defense to perform if you’re going to win championships. This seems to be a lesson the Falcons didn’t carry into the next season. Topping it all off is a strangely weak 2017 performance from last year’s defensive phenom Keanu Neal. While he leads the team in picks, fumbles, and tackles, he didn’t pull in the monster stats that the team relied on last season.

Atlanta’s lackluster defense is going up against the best offense in the league and it’s hard to say whether they’ll be able to hang with them or not. The biggest threat the Rams have? Todd Gurley. The Falcons may have the 9th highest run defense but the numbers don’t look great. 1,600 yards allowed, 9 touchdowns, and a whopping 97 first downs allowed against the run. Gurley could eat that front seven alive.

All in all, this is a refreshingly new NFC field. Contenders boast a lot of different strengths, and it’s difficult to deny any team’s case for a Super Bowl berth. A few matchups fall the right way, a few key plays, and anyone could be scrapping against an AFC heavyweight at the end of it all.

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