The NFL playoffs begin in a few short days, with six teams apiece from the AFC and NFC vying to represent their respective conferences in February’s Super Bowl. Of the six teams to do so for the NFC, five have at least 10 wins, which means the next few weeks in the conference should prove to be extremely interesting, if not highly competitive.
But this doesn’t mean all six teams have everything they need for a deep playoff run that ends with a Super Bowl appearance or victory. There are pros and cons to each. Here are the reasons why the NFC playoff contenders both are and are not primed to make it all the way to Houston next month.
[You can read the pros and cons for the six AFC playoff teams here.]
1. Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
The Dallas Cowboys have arguably been the best team in the NFL this season, not just because of their 13-3 record but also the way they have been winning games. Eleven times have they scored 25 or more points this year, thanks not just to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott’s 23 passing touchdowns (compared to four interceptions), but also rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has 1,631 rushing yards on 322 attempts with 15 scores.
This has been aided by an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranks fifth in run-blocking and 13th in pass-protection. But to only credit the line would do a disservice to the two rookie skill position players. Elliott has broken 69 tackles — 57 on run plays — highly suggesting that Dallas’ strong offensive line is but one component to his success. And it’s not just the line that has led to Prescott’s completion percentage of 67.8.
On defense, Dallas has done a good job of keeping opponents out of the end zone, ranking fifth in points allowed. Though it is considered the top-rated rushing defense, those stats need further context. Namely, that Dallas has held so many leads that their opponents have needed to pass to play catch-up. Thus they’ve been run against fewer times than any other team in the league. What has been a true strength on defense is rushing the passer, with the Cowboys totaling 36 sacks in the regular season.
While it is impressive to see a rookie quarterback-running back tandem performing so well in the oft-unkind NFL, Elliott’s and Prescott’s relative lack of experience could prove to be a liability in the postseason. The playoffs certainly favor those teams who have been there before and while Dallas has in the Jason Garrett era — in 2014 — it hasn’t had a lot of experience, which means the young players don’t have a blueprint from their veterans on how to navigate this new world.
Further, with an offense that relies so heavily upon these two players, one ill-timed injury could serve the end of the Cowboys’ impressive season. While Prescott has Tony Romo to back him up, while Elliott has Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, trusting Romo’s health to stand up even through a handful of playoff games or for the Morris-McFadden pair to be an acceptable stand-in for Elliott seems to be a long shot.
Defense is also an issue for the Cowboys. Though backed-up opposing offenses have been forced to pass against Dallas practically more than any other team, the Cowboys have only nine interceptions to show for it and have given up 25 passing touchdowns. If Dallas’ offense, for whatever reason, cannot maintain the scoring pace of the regular season, the defense may not be able to hold up their end of the deal for all four quarters.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Atlanta Falcons are eerily similar, at least on paper, to the Cowboys. Their offense is strong, both in the passing and running games, and it certainly knows how to score points — 33.8 per game, on average, the highest average in the league. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is having a low-key MVP season, with a 69.9 percent completion rate, 4,944 passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns and only seven interceptions thrown. Meanwhile, running back duo Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have 19 rushing touchdowns between them and are each averaging over four yards per carry. They also each posted over 400 receiving yards.
The passing game has also proven to be more than just Julio Jones, or the Jones-Mohamed Sanu tandem. Receiver Taylor Gabriel has emerged as a versatile weapon for Ryan and in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Though he has but 579 receiving yards, his six receiving scores are tied with Jones for the Falcons’ most.
Also, like Dallas, the Falcons have discovered their pass-rush this year, with 34 sacks on the season. Second-year linebacker Vic Beasley has had a breakout year, with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, along with a fumble recovery for a touchdown. And don’t forget about the usefulness of kicker Matt Bryant, who has missed just one extra point and three field goals all season long.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 1, 2017
There are other similarities the Falcons have to the Cowboys that could lead to struggles in the postseason. The most notable is their lack of interceptions. If the Cowboys’ nine is an issue then the Falcons’ seven is a downright problem, given that teams are throwing against them even more than Dallas’ opponents. Atlanta’s offense has also given up 31 passing touchdowns.
Atlanta’s defense takes things a step further than Dallas’ unit, however. While opposing offenses are not running against them all that often (for the same reasons they aren’t against the Cowboys), they have managed 15 rushing touchdowns against the Falcons. The red zone is not Atlanta’s friend; opponents are earning touchdowns a league-best 72.73 percent of the time when reaching the red zone — and they are doing that 3.4 times per game.
What is obvious is that the Falcons have an offense that can outscore opponents and mitigate for its defensive lapses. That may have been a formula for regular-season success, but against the best the NFC has to offer (and perhaps the AFC, should the Falcons reach the Super Bowl) that may not work as well, as often.
3. New York Giants (11-5)
The New York Giants spent their offseason spending money, most of it aimed at free agents on the defense such as defensive linemen Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. And the spending spree has paid off, with the Giants boasting the No. 2 defense in points allowed and the No. 10 defense in yards allowed. This should make them an intriguing opponent in this Sunday’s Wild Card meeting with the Green Bay Packers, as well as one of the few NFC teams that can take down the numerous explosive offenses in the playoff field.
That defense has currently totaled 35 sacks and 16 interceptions, along with 15 forced fumbles. Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul are the Giants’ sack leaders with 8.5 and seven, respectively, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins lead the team in interceptions, with six for DRC and five for Collins.
But that doesn’t mean New York’s offense isn’t strong in its own right. While not as explosive as its defensive counterparts, quarterback Eli Manning has a pair of weapons in receivers Odell Beckham Jr., and Sterling Shepard that should make secondaries in Dallas and Atlanta nervous. Of Manning’s 26 touchdowns thrown, 18 have been to the duo of receivers. Though Shepard is averaging only half the yardage per game as Beckham, his scoring ability is what makes him such a threat.
Keep in mind that the last time the Giants reached the playoffs, following the 2011 season, they were Super Bowl champions, even though they entered the postseason with just a 9-7 record. This year, they are 11-5, ranking second in a much more difficult NFC East division. This is a team that knows how to get and stay hot at the exact right time. An under-the-radar Giants team is a dangerous one.
Here is another block that Ereck Flowers (74) fails to make on Christian Kirksey (58). Rashad Jennings (23) ends up getting chased down. pic.twitter.com/dJihFV1Pc5
— Justin Witmondt (@JustinWitmondt) November 29, 2016
New York had better hope, however, that its brutal defense can do enough to carry it all the way to Houston, as its offense is not as strong as it could be. Yes, the Giants boast Manning, Beckham and Shepard, but there’s not much else to speak of on that side of the ball.
The Giants rank only 22nd in rush attempts, but are last in the league in rushing scores with six. Manning has thrown more passes than just eight other quarterbacks, but his 26 touchdown passes rank 13th. Meanwhile, he’s also thrown 16 interceptions, ranking him 22nd. The team’s leading rusher is Rashad Jennings, and he has but 593 yards and three scores on his 181 rushing attempts, an average of 3.3 yards per rush.
The Giants have done a good job of tempering their offensive lapses with strong defensive play, both up front and in the secondary. But that raises the question: Will New York’s defense do as well against the offenses of Dallas, Atlanta or Green Bay? If so, the Giants can certainly find themselves directly in contention to win another Lombardi Trophy. But if not, it could be one-and-done against the Packers on Sunday. The offense is not built for playing from significantly behind. But the Giants have beaten the Cowboys twice already this year, so counting them out completely would be unwise.
4. Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Three years ago, the Seattle Seahawks were Super Bowl champions, putting forth one of the greatest defensive performances to defeat the Denver Broncos. A year later, they were perhaps one play from back-to-back championships, until a Malcolm Butler interception sealed the win for the New England Patriots. Last season, they were unceremoniously eliminated in the Divisional round. And on Sunday, they resume the trek to yet another Super Bowl win, playing host to the visiting Detroit Lions.
It’s hard to pin down the identity of the 2016 Seahawks. With only 1,591 rushing yards, they are no longer the run-forward team of three seasons ago. With 11 interceptions, their secondary isn’t quite the Legion of Boom it once was. The power up front is still there, with the defense totaling 42 sacks, but quarterback Russell Wilson has also been taken down 41 times. And since Week 11, the Seahawks have traded wins and losses on a weekly basis. Yet at 10-5-1, they are tops in the NFC West, albeit an NFC West that’s less of a powerhouse than it has been recently.
The secret has lied in Wilson’s passing more than anything. The quarterback, who had dealt with both ankle and knee issues this year, has still done a good job of getting his offense in scoring position, throwing for 4,219 yards, and 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. While his legs haven’t carried the team — he has only 259 rushing yards and one rushing score this year — the good news is that he has the receiving talent around him to help push Seattle to wins.
Doug Baldwin currently has 1,128 yards on 94 receptions and has accounted for seven receiving scores. Tight end Jimmy Graham, now more comfortable in a Seattle offense that better suits his talents, has 923 yards and six scores on his 65 receptions. Though the run game’s 13 touchdowns are nothing to scoff at, it’s this newfound reliance on passing that will have to carry the Seahawks on offense.
Defense, meanwhile, has excelled at limiting its opponents’ scoring. Seattle ranks third in points allowed (and fifth in yards), but it should be noted most of that is due to the passing defense, particularly the pass-rush. Defensive end Frank Clark has 10 sacks, while fellow end Cliff Avril has 11.5. Three other Seattle defenders have at least four sacks. This is the primary reason Seattle has limited its opponents to 10 or fewer points five times in 2016.
Beyond not knowing exactly what Seahawks team will show up on any given week, there are other concerns that could limit the damage they do in the postseason. While the defense, as noted, has done a great job of affecting opposing quarterbacks up front, the low number of interceptions (11) and high number of rushing touchdowns allowed (16) certainly speak to the inconsistency that has been on display throughout the season.
Another issue is the offensive line. As mentioned above, Wilson has been sacked 41 times this year. There is no doubt that any would-be defensive coordinators to face Wilson in the coming weeks are ready to dial up the pressure in order to limit Seattle’s most important player.
A pattern emerges when looking at Seattle’s last seven games, and it’s not a pretty one. Essentially, when Wilson is being bludgeoned, the Seahawks can accomplish little, as evidenced by the 14-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 38-10 loss to the Green bay Packers. But the Seahawks can also play well; they allowed only seven points to the Carolina Panthers in Week 13 and three to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15. Defense will either help the Seahawks win another championship or, opposing defenses will become their downfall. There is little in-between with this team.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
The biggest argument for the Green Bay Packers to run the NFC table and make it all the way to the Super Bowl is their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who may easily be the best player at his position. Rodgers has been sharp all year, completing 65.7 percent of his passes, for 4,428 yards and has thrown 40 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Thanks to him — though not only him — the Packers are a 10-win team and are scoring points at an alarming rate.
Though Atlanta boasts the most points per game on average this year, what the Packers have done is still quite impressive. In their last six games — all wins — they have scored no fewer than 21 points. Perhaps even more impressive: They were on a four-game losing streak before Week 12, and yet in those games never had fewer than 24 points.
Unsurprisingly, the Packers lead the league in passing touchdowns and are seventh in passing yards. The biggest beneficiaries of Rodgers’ success have been receivers Jordy Nelson (1,257 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Davante Adams (997 yards, 12 touchdowns, but another eight targets have had at least one passing score this year. The run game hasn’t been as stellar, partly because of Eddie Lacy’s ankle injury that has landed him on injured reserve and cost him 11 games. But the workload has since been spread to a number of players, including former receiver Ty Montgomery, who may have only three rushing scores but who is averaging 5.9 yards per attempt. Even Rodgers is getting into the rushing spirit, with four scores on the ground as well.
On defense, the Packers’ greatest strength is affecting the passing game and generating turnovers. The team’s 17 interceptions rank them fourth in the league, and their 40 sacks has the team tied for sixth in the league. Passing: It’s not just the bread-and-butter for Green Bay, it is also how the defense has been eating opponents’ lunches throughout the year.
When Green Bay’s defense is not generating turnovers or sacking quarterbacks, it is struggling. That four-game losing streak, in which the offense should have scored enough points to lead to more than zero wins? The defense gave up 33, 31, 47 and then 42 points. Though it stiffened in the three weeks that followed, with 13, 13 and 10 points allowed, it has gone back up to the 20s in the past three games. Yes, all three were wins, but with teams like Atlanta and Dallas looming, the Packers defense could be stretched all-too thin.
The offensive line has also served to cause Rodgers some trouble this year, with the quarterback taking 35 sacks. It will be interesting to see how well the Packers can protect him against the Giants’ tough front seven on Sunday. With Green Bay needing a full-strength, confident Rodgers in order to win, New York could take that, and the ability to earn a victory, away.
6. Detroit Lions (9-7)
The 9-7 Detroit Lions are arriving to the playoffs in most interesting fashion, with eight of their nine wins coming off of fourth-quarter comeback, game-winning drives. That either makes the Lions the most thrilling or the most frustrating of the NFC’s playoff field. Either way, it will be tough sledding for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991 (and that being their first since the 1950s). Relying on a flawless performance on the final drives of games is not a sustainable way to get wins.
But wins are wins, no matter how they come, and the one good thing about the Lions’ (and by extension, quarterback Matthew Stafford’s) late-game heroics is that the team knows how to finish games, does not give up and trusts in itself to pull off the unexpected win. That mental toughness is the type of intangible that can turn these underdogs into unlikely Super Bowl champions.
Stafford’s season has been strong. He’s completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and has 24 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, all without the aid of his longtime end-zone safety blanket, Calvin Johnson. In fact, it can be argued that Stafford is better off needing to spread the ball around.
While Golden Tate leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, at 91 and 1,077, respectively, he accounts for just four of Stafford’s touchdowns. The leader is Anquan Boldin, with eight scores despite only 584 yards.
On defense, the Lions are particularly adept at stopping the run, especially in scoring situations. Opposing offenses have just eight rushing touchdowns against them, the second-fewest in the league. And rushing the passer has also been a strength. The defense has 26 total sacks this year, led by breakout end Kerry Hyde’s eight.
Detroit’s offense is likely to be shorthanded, at least on Saturday’s trip to Seattle, which could cause problems. Receiver Marvin Jones is in the league’s concussion protocol; he’s accounted for four receiving scores this year. Leading rusher Theo Riddick (who is also second to Boldin in receiving scores, with five) is now on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
Further, while offenses aren’t choosing to run often against Detroit’s defense, particularly when in scoring position, they haven’t needed to. The Lions rank 31st in passing touchdowns allowed, with 33, while generating only 10 takeaways in the form of interceptions. Looking at all of the high-powered passing offenses the Lions will have to face in order to reach Houston and Super Bowl glory, and it seems like a struggle could be ahead.
Granted, Detroit’s offense has the ability to generate points of its own, but on the year the team has been outscored, 358-346. And the three-game losing streak they mounted to close out the season just only serves to underscore how easily it could have been for Detroit to fail on any of their fourth-quarter drives that happened to end in success. While the Lions are a good team, they may not be a good enough team to make a significant dent in the playoffs this year. History, at least, is not in their corner.