Sunday, January 2, 2011
NFC playoff Q&A: Saints won't repeat
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
OK, fine. The AFC was the stronger conference during the regular season. I'll concede that much.
Just don't underestimate what the NFC has going for it as the playoffs begin.
For one, the defending Super Bowl champions (the New Orleans Saints) didn't suffer the same hangover that has crippled the repeat hopes of past winners. The NFL's most exciting offense (the Philadelphia Eagles) is primed to take a shot at making it to Dallas in February. Throw in another team that has regained its bite (the Chicago Bears) and another that has ranked among the league's elite all season (the Atlanta Falcons), and you've got what should be some compelling matchups.
So while the NFC playoff picture wasn't decided until Sunday night -- when the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks became the final two entries -- it will be just as exciting as whatever happens in the other conference this month.
Here are 10 questions on the NFC playoffs:
1. Will the Saints repeat?
No. The Saints proved they had staying power by winning 11 games this season, but they won't have the luxury of home-field advantage this year. Their offense isn't nearly as dominant without a strong running game to complement Drew Brees' passing, and leading rusher Chris Ivory recently became the latest back to go down with an injury. That doesn't mean New Orleans will wither away in the first round. The Saints are definitely good enough to beat the NFC West champion Seahawks on the road. But they're going into the playoffs with too many dinged-up players to win again at Atlanta, and any games played in chilly inclement weather (see Chicago or Philadelphia) won't bode well for them, either.
2.Will Michael Vick be contained during the playoffs?
After a rest in Week 17, Eagles QB Michael Vick should be ready for a playoff run.
Don't be discouraged by Vick's disappointing effort in a loss to Minnesota in Week 16. He's coming off a rest during Week 17, and his bruised quad should be in better shape by the time the Eagles welcome Green Bay on Jan. 9. What can't be overlooked is Vick's motivation. Now that he has taken his game to a different level, it's time for him to prove that he can lead the Eagles to heights he never found in Atlanta. With weapons like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy surrounding him on offense, Vick has his best shot ever at winning a title.
3. Are the Bears really legitimate?
People can laugh all they want to about how many backup quarterbacks Chicago has faced this season (it has seen four third-stringers in all). All I know is the Bears looked good in a shootout win over the New York Jets a couple weeks back. They played host Green Bay tough on Sunday when they had nothing to gain in that eventual defeat. The Bears also have far more balance now that quarterback Jay Cutler has thrived under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. So while they might not be pretty, they are certainly plenty hungry after missing the past three postseasons. Plus, the no-respect card usually plays well this time of year.
4. Did that late-season home loss to New Orleans create some doubts about Atlanta's postseason chances?
The Falcons still have everything you want in a playoff team. They can hit you with the run (Michael Turner) or the pass (with quarterback Matt Ryan often throwing to star receiver Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez). Their defense is solid and their special teams can break games open with the help of Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems. Being the top seed doesn't hurt, either. Ryan has two losses in the Georgia Dome for his career, and it's likely the loss to the Saints sharpened the focus of a team that's been the NFC's best all season.
5. What chance does Green Bay have after fighting its way into the postseason?
Not much. You have to love the heart in this team, though. The Packers have overcome a slew of injuries, and they've impressed down the stretch while fighting for their postseason lives (they nearly won at New England without quarterback Aaron Rodgers before beating the Giants and Bears in consecutive weeks). That said, you have to wonder what the Packers have left at this point.
Even with an offense and a defense that ranked in the league's top 10 this season, you get the feeling that they've been scratching and clawing for success a little too long. It's too bad. If this team was at full strength going into the postseason, it would be hard to handle.
6. Can the Seahawks make any noise now that they've won the NFC West?
At 7-9, the Seahawks are easily the least impressive division champion in NFL history. They have no running game, a defense that has ranked near the bottom of the league in yards and points allowed all season, and a starting quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) who was unable to play in their division-clinching win over St. Louis on Sunday night. On top of that, the Seahawks haven't had a quality victory since they beat Chicago on Oct. 17. Seattle has had seven losses since that time and all have been blowouts. Don't be surprised if the Seahawks suffer another one when the Saints come to town this weekend.
7. Which offensive player has the best chance of being this year's X factor in the postseason?
McCoy. If Philadelphia didn't already have two superstars on its offense (Vick and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jackson), McCoy would be its most valuable player. All he did this season was rush for 1,080 yards, catch a team-high 78 passes and score nine touchdowns. In other words, he made Eagles fans think there could be life after Brian Westbrook. Now McCoy has to show he can continue that kind of production at a time opposing defenses will be trying to stifle Vick and the Eagles' other weapons. At this point, it's worth betting on McCoy's chances of finding success.
8. Which defensive player has the best chance of being this year's X factor in the postseason?
Rising star Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton is ready for his playoffs closeup.
Curtis Lofton. The offensive stars in Atlanta receive so much attention that a stud such as Falcons middle linebacker Lofton tends to get lost in the shuffle. The fact is he's one of the best young defenders in the game, and he should be playing in the Pro Bowl in the near future. He led the Falcons with 118 stops to go along with two sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception this season. He'll be invaluable when Atlanta faces offenses that can be as dangerous as those found in Philadelphia, Green Bay and New Orleans.
9. Which player needs to improve his production to help his team thrive this postseason?Greg Olsen. The Bears tight end has had far too little impact for a player who's one of the best weapons on the Bears' offense. After catching 114 passes over the previous two seasons, Olsen has grabbed 41 this season. Just as troubling is that he's had seven games this season in which he's caught only one pass or none. Some of this has to be attributed to: (1) the Bears' offensive line problems earlier this season and (2) Martz's inability to ever maximize the talents of any tight end, gifted or otherwise. (He had the same problem with Vernon Davis in San Francisco.) Regardless, the Bears can make life easier on Cutler if Olsen becomes a prominent player again.
10. Who is going to win the NFC?
Philadelphia. The Eagles have been scary since Vick became their starter, and they could be even better once the postseason begins (as long as he stays healthy). Head coach Andy Reid -- who knows a thing or two about coaching at this time of year -- has done his finest job with a squad that nobody saw reaching these heights so quickly. At this point, we'll say Vick leads the Eagles into Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game. When he leaves that town again, he'll have added one more chapter to what already has been a storybook season.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.