The NFC is extremely difficult to predict. Can the Packers and Falcons offence be stopped? Can the Cowboys win with two rookies at their most important skill positions? Can the Seahawks find some consistency when it matters most? Read on to find out who will face the Patriots in Superbowl 51.
- Cowboys (13-3, No. 1 Seed)
When starting quarterback Tony Romo went down with a serious back injury in Week 2 of the pre-season, it’s pretty safe to say nobody could have predicted that the Cowboys would be in this position at the end of the regular season. Then along came Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Thanks to the help of the best offensive line in football, these two rookies have set the NFL alight. Fourth rounder Prescott finished the season with a 67.8% completion rate for 3,667 yards, and 23 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions. Perhaps more impressive, however, is Elliott. In his first ever season, he finished top of the league with 1,631 rushing yards at over 5 yards per carry, as well as 15 touchdowns, in a season that not only makes him almost a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, but also has him in the talks for MVP. Prescott and Elliott have lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and against the odds hold the top seed in the NFC, with the help of their number one ranked run defence, allowing just 83.5 yards per game. Their biggest question mark will be their secondary which will most likely be tested against MVP candidates in Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. The Cowboys’ chances will come down to whether the defence can limit the big plays that the likes of Ryan and Rodgers can produce and if the rookies can handle the extra pressure of the playoffs.
Prediction: As good as Prescott and Elliott have been this season, the playoffs are a whole different ball game. The experience of the Packers will be too much for the Cowboys in the Divisional Round as they go one and done.
- Falcons (11-5, No. 2 Seed)
After missing the playoffs the last three seasons, the Falcons are back and looking as threatening as ever on the back of an MVP-calibre season from quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan put up career numbers this year, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, good enough for a passer rating of 117.1, the 5th highest in NFL history. His combination with Julio Jones is as strong as ever, with Jones recording a 300 yard game earlier this season. The Falcons have perhaps the most exciting offence in the league, ranking in the top 5 in both passing and rushing, and 2nd overall. On top of this, the vastly improved play of pass rusher Vic Beasley has led to a much better defence for the Falcons than a season ago. Atlanta has lacked a good pass rusher for a number of years now, but Beasley has filled that hole, finishing the season with 15.5 sacks, the most in the league. The major factor working against the Falcons is Matt Ryan’s playoff record. Ryan is 1-4 in his 5 starts, throwing 9 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. If they want to be there in Houston for Superbowl 51, then Ryan must carry his regular season form right through the playoffs. If he can do that, then we might just be watching this team battle for the Lombardi Trophy come February.
Prediction: Matt Ryan and the Falcons offence will take them past Seattle in the Divisional Round but in a shootout against the Packers, Rodgers and co. will be too strong in the Conference Championship.
- Seahawks (10-5-1, No. 3 Seed)
The Seattle Seahawks have been the hardest team to pick all year. At times, they have looked like the championship team we have been accustomed to seeing for the past 4 years, and at other times they haven’t even looked like a playoff team. The Seahawks have missed Marshawn Lynch tremendously. They had been successful on the back of a strong running game and one of the best defences in the league. Thomas Rawls was superb when Lynch was injured last year, recording 830 yards. However, their rushing numbers have dropped enormously from last season, from 2268 total yards in 2015 at an average of 141.75 per game to just 1591 in 2016, averaging 99.44 per game. Rawls, thrust into the starting role, has only recorded 349 yards at an average of 3.2 per carry. This has meant that Russell Wilson has had to do it all himself, and whilst he is an elite quarterback, without help from the running game and his offensive line, he has struggled. On the other side of the ball, the defence hasn’t been what it once was, but is still a top 5 unit. However, the injury to Earl Thomas has had a devastating impact on the unit. Prior to Thomas breaking his leg in Week 13, the Seahawks were giving up just 15.7 points a game. Since the injury, they have given up 25 points per game, and that includes the 3 points they gave up to the abysmal Rams offence in Week 15. This team is nowhere near as strong as the side that won the Superbowl just two years ago, however it’s tough to write them off. They still have a premier defence and Wilson, who already has 10 playoff games under his belt in just his 5th year in the NFL. They are going to need both to be at their absolute best.
Prediction: They will be good enough to get past the Lions this weekend but a matchup with the Falcons will be too much for the secondary to handle as they are defeated in the Divisional Round.
- Packers (10-6, No. 4 Seed)
“I feel like we can run the table”. Those were the words spoken by Aaron Rodgers after the Packers fell to 4-6. Most people laughed at him, yet here they are, sitting at 10-6 heading into the playoffs. Their first 10 games were not the Packers we were used to seeing. Star quarterback Rodgers was not his normal self, and people were calling for coach Mike McCarthy’s head. How things have changed. During the last six games of the season Rodgers has regained his form, throwing 18 touchdowns to zero interceptions. If Rodgers keeps up this form, the Packers will be very hard to stop. The Packers are the team that no one wants to face in the playoffs, and their toughest matchup starts this week against the extremely strong secondary of the Giants. If they can get past the Wild Card Weekend, then a trip to the Superbowl will be right within their grasp.
Prediction: Rodgers and the incredibly dangerous Packers offence will sneak past the Giants in the Wild Card and then go all the way to the Superbowl.
- Giants (11-5, No. 5 Seed)
This team feels a lot like the Superbowl winning teams in 2007 and 2011, doesn’t it? Those years it was their defence who carried them through the playoffs toward a Superbowl victory, and this year it’s the same. Usually when talking about the New York Giants, it’s all about their electric passing game, more specifically, the combination of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham, again, had a spectacular year, posting 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, this season, the talking point for the Giants has been the immense improvement of their defence. Ranking last in the league just a season ago, they are now a top 10 defence, giving up just 17.8 points per game. The off season acquisitions of Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins have proved worthy, and the development of Landon Collins into one of the best safeties in the game has meant that the Giants have one of the more feared defences in the playoffs. Their major test comes this weekend against the Packers. The last two times the Giants have played at Lambeau in the playoffs, they have come out victorious. To do that again, they will need to limit Rodgers. If they can hold the Packers offense to their season average of just under 18 points, then they just might win. Needless to say, who doesn’t want to see another Patriots vs. Giants Superbowl matchup?
Prediction: It will be an extremely tight battle against the Packers this weekend, but Green Bay will be just too good. We won’t be seeing Brady vs. Manning III this year.
- Lions (9-7, No. 6 Seed)
The Detroit Lions’ season has been nothing short of unbelievable. They have completed an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comebacks. In their first 13 games, they trailed going into the fourth quarter in 12 of those, successfully completing a comeback in eight. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions defence constantly came up with clutch plays to give them a victory when it seemed so unlikely. The major worry for the Lions is their record against playoff teams. When coming up against teams in the playoffs this season, the Lions have a poor 0-5 record, the most important of these losses coming against Green Bay in Week 17 in the battle for the NFC North. They will need that to change immediately, but it won’t come easy as they play at Seattle this weekend, where the Seahawks are incredibly difficult to defeat. Since 2012, the Seahawks are 38-6 at CenturyLink Field, including playoffs. Stafford will need to play out of his skin if the Lions are to first get past Seattle, and then continue on through the playoffs.
Prediction: The Lions have done well to still be playing in January but a matchup at Seattle will be too much to handle in the first week of playoffs.
All six teams at their best have the ability to be there in Houston in February. It will come down to an offensive battle between the Packers and Falcons in the Conference Championship and the experience of Rodgers will sneak them through.