Last week, Teddy Covers broke the AFC playoff teams into Contenders vs. Pretenders. This week, he turns his focus towards the playoff teams from the NFC, in an effort to separate the Super Bowl contenders from their One and Done brethren.
Atlanta Falcons: Contender
The Falcons are the least sexy top seed in recent NFL history. They lost at home in their only Monday Night TV game, playing as poorly as they did all year. Few can remember their quiet head coach’s name (Mike Smith). Atlanta has no superstars with their own reality TV shows – other than fantasy footballers, the names of quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White are not well known.
The Falcons also have a uniquely bad statistical profile. Atlanta allowed more yards per rush than they gained for the season. They allowed more yards per pass than they gained for the season. A positive turnover margin was, obviously, a huge factor in attaining their 13-3 record. So was their home field, notching tight wins in competitive games at home against the likes of Green Bay and Baltimore. Again, these are not factors which tend to impress the betting markets.
But Atlanta is every bit a legitimate contender to reach the Super Bowl. They are amazingly efficient on the offense, using an effective ball control strategy. The Falcons run ten more offensive snaps per game than their opponents, consistently in positive ‘down and distance’ situations, leading to the second best third down conversion rate in the NFL. That wears down opposing defenses, leading to Atlanta’s success in tight games (7-1 SU In their last 8 games decided by a TD or less). When the Falcons need a score to win a game in the fourth quarter, they get it. And with Ryan 19-2 SU at the Georgia Dome in his three years as the starter, there’s no question that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC runs through Atlanta.
Chicago Bears: Contender
The Bears are a classic case of a team that made a mid-season morph, leaving the betting markets lagging behind. In September and October, Chicago was most assuredly a mediocre ballclub. They went into their bye with a 4-3 record, off back-to-back home losses to the Seahawks and Redskins. But the bye helped this team as much or more than any team in the NFL, giving them extra time to learn the intricacies of the Mike Martz offensive scheme and the Rod Marinelli defensive scheme; a pair of first year coordinators.
Since the start of November, however, everything has come together for the Bears, with seven wins in their last nine games; including impressive victories over the likes of the Jets and Eagles. Both losses can be explained away, the first against the mighty Patriots in truly miserable weather conditions; the second in a meaningless finale after they had already clinched the division.
Chicago has a Super Bowl caliber quarterback in Jay Cutler. They have offensive balance, thanks to the explosive running ability of Matt Forte. The defense played their best in tight, pressure packed ballgames. And the last time Lovie Smith’s squad had a bye week followed by a home playoff game, they went all the way to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay Packers: Pretender
There are some very positive indicators for the Packers; an 11-5 team that didn’t lose a single game by more than four points all year. This is a mature, veteran squad that played extremely well in hostile environments, including solid road wins at Philly and the Jets, along with a near upset with their backup quarterback behind center in Foxboro against the Patriots.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was nothing short of special this season, with a 28-to-11 TD-to-INT ratio and a whopping 8.3 yards per pass attempt (2nd best in the league). And we certainly can’t forget Rodgers’ postseason performance last year, when he rallied the Packers from a three-touchdown deficit in the second half at Arizona to send the game into overtime.
Meanwhile, Dom Capers defense has been exceptional for extended stretches, loaded with playmakers: Clay Matthews and his 14 sacks, AJ Hawk and his 111 tackles, Charles Woodson, Nick Collins and Tramon Williams with a dozen interceptions between them, Ryan Pickett and BJ Raji stuffing the run.
But there is one key factor that makes me leave the Packers in the ‘pretenders’ category; the same factor that almost killed their season in Week 17 against the Bears – Green Bay simply cannot run the football effectively, making the offense one-dimensional and the defense vulnerable to late game comebacks because the offense can’t run out the clock.
Green Bay’s three headed running back monster – Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks – doesn’t scare any defense in the league. In fact, Rodgers led the team in rushing with 21 yards on the ground against Chicago, the fourth time this season that he’s been the team’s leading rusher. That doesn’t bode well for a team that needs to win three consecutive road games to reach the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Saints: Contender
In 2010, the Saints haven’t been blowing every opponent off the field, as they did a season ago. The Saints biggest difference isn’t their hard numbers – they run, pass, stop the run and the pass with relatively comparable stats to what they put up last year. But the Saints scored 510 points last year compared to only 384 this year, a huge differential. What gives?
Two factors, both quite simple. Last year, the Saints were one of four teams in the NFL with a positive double digit turnover differential. They scored non-offensive touchdowns in bunches on defense and special teams, and all the turnovers set up the offense with short fields.
This year, the Saints had a negative turnover differential, in large part because Greg Williams defense didn’t force as many takeaways. Turnover differential is not a stat that carries forward from the regular season into the playoffs.
Secondly, the Saints offense didn’t open the year clicking on all cylinders. They scored 30+ only once before November in 2010, before putting together five 30+ point games down the stretch. Last year, they hung 45+ four times in their first six games.
So this year’s offense wasn’t quite as prolific and their defense didn’t force as many takeaways. Big deal! This team still has Drew Brees behind center, off another pro bowl season. They know what it takes to go on a postseason run in January, and they went 6-2 SU on the road this year, giving them hope to reel off a couple of playoff road wins in an NFC without a clear favorite.
Philadelphia Eagles: Pretender
As we saw again in Philly’s Week 17 home loss to the Cowboys, the Eagles essentially are a one combination team. When Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson don’t create big plays in bunches, the Eagles don’t win. Both players are banged up heading into the postseason; Vick with a bruised quad, Jackson with a sprained foot. An offense that committed only nine turnovers in the first nine games of the season has committed 16 turnovers in the last seven. Worst of all, Vick struggled to read complex blitz packages in his last few starts, bad news against the elite defenses he’ll be facing in the playoffs.
But the biggest issue for Philadelphia is their young, suspect defense. Coordinator Sean McDermott has a rookie seventh rounder at middle linebacker (Jamar Chaney) and another rookie seventh rounder at free safety (Kurt Coleman). Pro bowl cornerback Asante Samuel has a bum knee and his counterpart on the other side, Dimitri Patterson, has five interceptions in his five years in the league.
Philly has the worst red zone defense in the NFL, unable to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone. They intercepted a league high 19 passes through the first ten games of the season, but have only four picks in their last six games, while giving up a whopping 26 passing touchdowns in their last dozen outings. This is not a Super Bowl caliber defense, plain and simple, regardless of Michael Vick’s offensive magic.
Seattle Seahawks: Pretender
I’m not going to bore you with details about how the Seattle Seahawks are the single worst playoff team in NFL history – you already know that, by virtue of their 7-9 record, with all nine defeats coming by more than two touchdowns. You know that Seattle’s vaunted home field advantage hasn’t been particularly dominant of late, losing to the Giants, Falcons and Chiefs by a combined 68 points since the beginning of November.
Seattle’s quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, isn’t healthy. They have no consistent running game and their defense has been torched by every quality quarterback they’ve faced this season. There’s a valid reason that Seattle is a double-digit home dog in Round 1 of the playoffs. I’m not saying that if everything breaks right that the Seahawks can’t pull a single upset, but I won’t be betting that this team can pull three straight upsets to reach Dallas in February.