|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
If anything was learned Sunday, it's that the NFC heads into the playoffs with a meaning of "Nothing For Certain.''
The No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons looked vulnerable at home in a 22-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Green Bay Packers lost the No. 2 seed and a bye week with a 37-34 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Only the Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins salvaged Sunday feeling as though they gained momentum heading into the playoffs.
The NFC playoffs start Saturday at 8 p.m. ET with the Vikings playing at Green Bay in the continuation of the best game of Week 17. On Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET, the Seahawks visit the Redskins in a battle of the NFC's two great rookie quarterbacks.
It's not only that 50 percent of the NFC playoff field is new, but the new half is the young half. The Seahawks are an exciting young team with a great defense and Russell Wilson. The Redskins have a rookie runner, a rookie quarterback and a seven-game winning streak. The Vikings rode Adrian Peterson to their first playoff trip since 2009, but they have a great young left tackle in Matt Kalil and a promising rookie safety in Harrison Smith.
Here are 10 questions worth asking as the NFC postseason begins:
1. Can the Falcons squander home-field advantage? They can. No team in the playoffs is under more pressure than the Falcons. Since 2008, their 33 home wins is second only to New England (34) in the NFL. Nevertheless, you have to wonder if they can handle the home field successfully in the playoffs. If they can't, you wonder what changes might happen.
Under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, who joined the Falcons together in 2008, they are 0-3 in the playoffs. Thanks in part to the league's easiest schedule, the Falcons clinched home field and the No. 1 seed last week. The Falcons' loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday was their only home loss of the season and only the seventh since 2008.
The Falcons were held to their lowest point total of the season Sunday, and six of their home games were decided by six points or fewer. They are the top seed, but they can't be totally confident.
2. What's the biggest theme? The young guns at quarterback. Four of the six quarterbacks are making their playoff debuts: Seattle's Wilson, Washington's Robert Griffin III, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Minnesota's Christian Ponder. Of those four, Kaepernick's the senior citizen at 25. Wilson and Ponder are 24, and RG III is 22.
What's amazing is that even the older NFC playoff quarterbacks aren't that old. Ryan is 27 and Aaron Rodgers is 29. Rodgers is the only NFC playoff quarterback who has won a playoff game. He's 4-2 and has a Super Bowl ring.
3. Which quarterback has the best advantage? No doubt it's Rodgers. Sure, it doesn't help that the Packers have to win three games to reach the Super Bowl. But they've done it before and could do it again.
As hard as it was to lose to the Vikings on Sunday, it probably helps the Packers that they meet again next week at Lambeau Field. This will be the third time these two teams have met in six weeks. The Packers won the first game at home 23-14, but Peterson burned them for 210 yards. He had 199 in Sunday's 37-34 Vikings win.
With a 7-1 record at home, you'd think the Packers have a good chance of advancing. If they do, they would face a 49ers team with Kaepernick making his first playoff start. That could be the ticket to the NFC title game for the Packers.
Despite the loss Sunday, the Packers have won five of their past six games against the Vikings and 10 of the past 14. Honestly, I can see how the Packers can get to the NFC Championship Game, possibly against the Falcons.
|Washington rookie Alfred Morris is one of four 1,000-yard rushers in the NFC playoff field.|
4. What's the biggest change? What is considered the best conference for passers has become a running conference, too. Entering Week 17, the Redskins, Seahawks, Vikings and 49ers were the four top rushing teams in the NFL.
The three NFC Pro Bowl running backs -- Peterson, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and San Francisco's Frank Gore -- are in the playoffs. Plus, Washington's Alfred Morris closed the season with a 200-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys and finished with 1,613 yards.
This is a conference that features Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and other throwing quarterbacks, but the value of running took a significant rise this season and will play a big part in the opening two rounds of the playoffs.
|NaVorro Bowman is among the six defensive Pro Bowlers who make the 49ers tough to run against.|
5. What defenses are suited to stopping the run? The 49ers and Redskins are the NFC's only top-six rushing defenses to make the playoffs. San Francisco does it with talent. Washington does it with mirrors.
Credit Jim Haslett, the Redskins' defensive coordinator, with doing a great job of patching a defense that lost three key starters for the season -- defensive end Adam Carriker, linebacker Brian Orakpo and safety Brandon Meriweather.
The 49ers are loaded with run-stopping talent. They have six Pro Bowlers on defense. There are three 4-3 defensive schemes that are decent against the run, the Seahawks and the Vikings. The Falcons have to worry the most. It will help that they are at home.
6. What about the Young Wheels? For all the talk about the Young Guns, five of the six quarterbacks can run. That will create nightmares for defensive coordinators trying to prepare on short notice.
Three read-option quarterbacks made it: RG III, Kaepernick and Wilson. Ponder isn't afraid to run, and Rodgers will use his feet to get a first down if he spots a defense in man coverage. The only pure pocket passer is Ryan. Ryan has run 32 times this year, so he will use his feet only if necessary.
The one concern has to be the knee injury to RG III. He wore a bulky brace the past two games, and it clearly slowed him down. He had only two runs in Week 16 against Philadelphia. It's hard to keep quarterbacks healthy when they run the spread option, but these are one-game playoffs.
|The Packers split two regular-season games against the Vikings but couldn't stop Adrian Peterson.|
7. How have the teams matched up this year? The Vikings and the Packers split their two NFC North games, while the 49ers and Seahawks split their NFC West games.
The 49ers opened the season with a 30-22 victory over the Packers at Lambeau. They would meet again if the Packers beat the Vikings. The Seahawks have beaten the Packers and Vikings.
If the Redskins beat the Seahawks, they would visit the Falcons, who beat Washington 24-17 in October. RG III suffered a concussion in that game. It was Atlanta's only game against an NFC playoff team.
If the Vikings and Redskins reach the NFC Championship Game, it would be a rematch of a Week 6 game won 38-26 by Washington.
8. What's the injury situation? The bye weeks should help the Falcons and the 49ers, who have two weeks to repair their injury lists.
The Falcons suffered injuries to defensive end John Abraham (ankle) and cornerback Dunta Robinson (concussion) in Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay. "Dunta, I think, will be fine. We have two weeks," Mike Smith said after the game. Smith said Abraham's injury did not appear to be serious. Safety William Moore (hamstring) missed Week 17 and should be back for Atlanta's divisional playoff.
The 49ers hope the extra week will give defensive end Justin Smith a chance to be ready for the playoffs. He has a partially torn triceps. Smith is delaying surgery to see if he can play. Tight end Vernon Davis has some concussion concerns.
Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield is playing with a sore knee and a bad hand, but he says it's a pain tolerance issue and will play.
For the Packers, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, just back from a hamstring injury, hurt his knee, but the injury isn't considered serious. Wide receiver Randall Cobb should be able to play despite an ankle injury, and the secondary could have the return of safety Charles Woodson (collarbone).
The Redskins' biggest concern is safety. Starting free safety Madieu Williams suffered a shoulder injury, and backup strong safety DeJon Gomes has a knee injury that kept him out Sunday night. Guard Kory Lichtensteiger suffered an ankle injury, and his status will be monitored all week. RG III took a beating Sunday night, but he'll play in the wild-card game.
|San Francisco's David Akers has missed four of his last 10 field goal attempts.|
9. Are there any personnel moves on the horizon? Perhaps the big question is whether the 49ers will look to replace kicker David Akers. Akers missed two more field goals in Sunday's win over Arizona. He made only 69 percent of his field goals this year.
Even 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stated that Akers is "not to his standards." Asked if he's going to make a change, Harbaugh said, "I don't know that we have to. We'll evaluate the position. It's his job to make the field goals.''
You get the idea Harbaugh might stick by Akers, just like Mike McCarthy of the Packers has stuck by Mason Crosby. Crosby was a horrible 21-of-33 on field goal attempts in 2012, but he did connect on his final four.
10.Who will make it to the NFC Championship Game? Clearly it's wide open, but I can foresee a championship game between the Falcons and Packers in the Georgia Dome.
Only six quarterbacks have won Super Bowls in the past nine seasons, and Rodgers is one of them. Plus, he's the only quarterback in the NFC playoffs who has won a playoff game. Though it won't be easy, I give the nod to the Packers. Pressed for an opponent, I'd say it will be the Denver Broncos.