Commentary

NFC playoffs Q&A: It gets better

After uninspired 'mild-card' games, the divisional round matchups are intriguing

Originally Published: January 6, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Except for the favored Seattle Seahawks beating the Washington Redskins 24-14 at FedEx Field, home field reigned in the first weekend of the playoffs.

Except for Seattle-Washington, the games weren't very good. Mistakes seemed to outnumber points in some games. Call it the "mild-card" round.

What this sets up -- hopefully -- is a more interesting divisional round in the NFC playoffs. The Green Bay Packers get a chance to avenge their season-opening 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday.

The biggest disappointment in the wild-card round was how one-sided Saturday night's game was. With Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder out with elbow bursitis, Joe Webb looked lost and hopeless in a 24-10 loss to the Packers.

The Redskins scored touchdowns on their first two drives, but the Seahawks took control of Sunday's late game. The combination of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch was too much for the Redskins to handle, but at least the game was interesting until Robert Griffin III's knee kept getting worse.

Still, the NFC should look ahead to compelling matchups. The San Francisco-Green Bay game should be a classic. The Seattle-Atlanta game Sunday should be a good one because the Falcons play only close games at home.

The big NFC winner is the NFC West, which has two of the four remaining teams in the conference: Seattle and San Francisco.

Here are 10 questions worth asking about the NFC divisional round matchups:

1. What team is under the most pressure? When you are 0-3 in playoff games like Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, you worry. Ryan spent the offseason trying to get better in road games in order to have home-field advantage. The strategy worked. The Falcons were 6-2 on the road and won 13 games to clinch home-field advantage. Now it's up to Smith to convert this opportunity into a playoff win. Over the past five years, the Falcons are second only to New England in regular-season home victories with 33. Yet this year, the Falcons average 24.5 points a game at home compared with 27.9 on the road. Strange. Ryan completed 71.9 percent of his passes on the road but only 65.1 percent in the Georgia Dome. He had 21 touchdown passes on the road compared with 11 at home. Because of that, the Falcons have had six home games decided by six points or fewer. They won five of those games. During his first four years, Ryan completed 64.8 percent of his passes in home games and 58 percent on the road. While this year's home stats may be alarming, Ryan's history is to do well at home. But the pressure is on to win this home game.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Falcons' easy schedule could be a good omen for Matt Ryan & Co.

2. What trend do the Falcons fall into as a No. 1 seed playing the league's easiest schedule? Schedule is everything in the NFL, and the Falcons benefited by playing the league's easiest schedule. They won 13 games against a schedule with a .422 opponent winning percentage, a schedule that featured teams with combined records of 108-148. The good news for the Falcons is that of the past five times a team was the No. 1 seed after facing the league's easiest schedule, four made it to the Super Bowl. The St. Louis Rams parlayed a schedule with a .375 opponent winning percentage in 1999 to a Super Bowl victory over Tennessee. That was the third-easiest schedule in NFL history. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks, 2006 Chicago Bears and 2009 New Orleans Saints had the easiest schedule and made it to the Super Bowl. Only the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers failed to convert. That Steelers team lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. All five of those teams went 13-3 during the regular season, like this year's Falcons. For what it's worth, the Falcons were 3-0 against teams with winning records in 2012.

3. What is the biggest challenge for Atlanta? Stopping the Seahawks' complicated running offense. Wilson is an early master of the zone-read plays. He can gain yards with his feet or get the ball to running backs Lynch and Robert Turbin. Stopping the run isn't one of the Falcons' specialties. They give up 123.2 rushing yards a game and staggering 4.8 yards a carry. It helps that the Falcons' defense had the bye week to get healthy. Its efforts this week will be concentrated on stopping the Seahawks' run game. The Falcons have had two games against the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton and one against RG III of the Redskins, so they are experienced to some degree in stopping read-options and pistol offenses. Figure this to be a close game. The Seahawks put up 224 rushing yards on the Redskins.

Alex SmithMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesAlex Smith was under center when the 49ers beat Green Bay in the season opener.

4. What's different about the San Francisco-Green Bay rematch? The 49ers opened the 2012 season with a 30-22 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Saturday's game is in San Francisco, but the advantage might shift to Green Bay. In the first game, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was trying to break six rookies into the defensive packages. Nick Perry was starting at linebacker. Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels combined for 52 plays at defensive end. Cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Jerron McMillian made brief appearances in different pass-coverage packages. Perry and Worthy were lost for the season because of injuries, but the Packers' youth movement improved a defense that gave up 411.6 yards a game last year, worst in the NFL. The youth movement led to a 74.8-yard improvement. The return of safety Charles Woodson also helped the Packers in Saturday's victory over the Vikings. The 49ers have been down two Smiths since the opener. Quarterback Alex Smith has been benched in favor of Colin Kaepernick. Defensive end Justin Smith has been out with a partially torn triceps. The switch to Kaepernick has taken tight end Vernon Davis out of the mix -- Davis has only six catches for 61 yards over the past six games, and no more than two passes in any of those games. In the opener against the Packers, Davis had three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown as Alex Smith went 20-for-26 for 211 yards and two TDs.

[+] EnlargeJustin/Aldon
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAldon Smith, left, and the 49ers' defense aren't as productive when Justin Smith is out of uniform.

5. What is the biggest single injury to watch this week? Whether Justin Smith returns to the 49ers' defense. Smith has been missing the past 10 quarters. In that span, the 49ers have surrendered 86 points and 915 yards on 173 plays. When Smith is on the field, the 49ers have had 33 of their 38 sacks. When he's not on the field, teams average 5.12 yards a play compared with 4.48 with him. Opposing quarterbacks have a 93 quarterback rating with Smith out compared with 73.5 when he's on the field. Smith is that good. His ability to use his strength against blockers frees up linebacker Aldon Smith to loop around him for sacks. Even if he plays with the torn triceps, Justin Smith may have some difficulty.

6. Will the Packers-49ers game test out a fatigue theory? Packers coach Mike McCarthy spends a lot of time during the regular season and offseason having his coaches do studies. One of his big studies this offseason involved the number of plays defenders are on the field. After a season in which the Packers finished 32nd on defense, McCarthy felt his players were too tired when the playoffs began. The Packers have seven defenders who played more than 880 plays last year. The Packers lost their first playoff game despite being a No. 1 seed with a 15-1 record. The 49ers had an incredible nine defenders on the field for 982 plays, most in recent memory. That doesn't include Justin Smith, who was on pace to be in the 980-plus range before his injury. The 49ers basically use only 13 players on defense in most games. As a comparison, the Falcons had only three defenders with more than 890 plays. The Redskins had six. The Packers had only two.

John AbrahamAP Photo/Paul AbellJohn Abraham was carted off in the Falcons' season finale, but it didn't turn out to be serious.

7. What's the injury status for the four teams? All four teams are mostly in good shape. Packers tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a shoulder injury that McCarthy said shouldn't be a problem. He is expected to play, but McCarthy will have an update Wednesday. The Packers won't have defensive end Worthy, who suffered a serious knee injury in the season finale. Everyone else is healthy. The 49ers hope Justin Smith returns from his triceps injury. The Falcons used the bye week to get healthy. On Friday, cornerback Dunta Robinson was cleared to practice and play after recovering from a concussion. Wide receiver Roddy White has had an extra week to recover from a nagging knee injury. Safety William Moore is good to go after missing some games at the end of the season because of a knee injury. The Falcons had a scare when defensive end John Abraham suffered an ankle injury in the season finale that caused him to be carted off the field. He's fine, according to Mike Smith. The Seahawks were healthy entering the Redskins game, but defensive end Chris Clemons suffered a knee injury and kicker Steven Hauschka hurt his calf. After the wild-card game, Seattle coach Pete Carroll didn't know how bad Hauschka's injury was and said he's concerned about Clemons' knee. Clemons will have an MRI on Monday.

8. Other than Mike Smith, what coach will be watched the most during this round? The answer is simple: Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers. He has won the NFC West in each of his first two years and made it to the NFC title game in his first season as head coach. But after 10 games and a 7-2-1 start, Harbaugh used a concussion to Alex Smith as a reason to go with Kaepernick at quarterback. His thinking was that Kaepernick's ability to run and throw deep offered more explosiveness to an offense that he must have thought was good but not great. Before his concussion, Smith was completing 70 percent of his passes and had completed 25 of his past 27 throws. Kaepernick finished with five wins in his seven starts, but his numbers trended downward down the stretch. He finished with three games in which he completed less than 60 percent of his passes. As a starter, he completed 62.5 percent of his passes with a 77.8 Total QBR.

[+] EnlargeSteven Hauschka
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Steven Hauschka connected on three field goals in the wild-card game, but a calf injury could affect his status for the divisional round.

9. How many teams have problems with their kicker? Three. The only team that doesn't is Atlanta. Matt Bryant is 37 years old but is the only sure thing in the NFC divisional round. He hasn't had a slump and doesn't have an injury. During the season, Bryant was 33-for-38 on field goals, and he'll be kicking in a dome. The rest of the teams have problems. Seahawks kicker Hauschka suffered a calf injury in the first half of Sunday's win. Though he tried to stay loose and handled one extra point after the injury, the Seahawks decided to either punt or go for it on fourth down from potential field goal range. He did handle a third short field goal in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks might have to work out a few kickers Tuesday just in case. The 49ers have to decide this week about their kicker. Harbaugh signed veteran Billy Cundiff because of David Akers' troubles down the stretch. Akers, after making 44 of 52 field goal attempts (84.6 percent) last year, made only 69 percent of his attempts this season. He missed seven out of 18 in his final six games. Of course, the Packers have their own kicking problems. Mason Crosby made only 63.6 percent of his field goal attempts this year. Why are field goals so important? In the "mild-card" round, kickers were 15-for-16, and there were only 12 offensive touchdowns.

10. Who is going to be in the NFC Championship Game? Even though home teams have controlled the opening rounds of the playoffs, I could see the Green Bay Packers getting a win in San Francisco and the Falcons finally ending their home playoff problems. That would put the Packers against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. That's fitting. Rodgers and Ryan were the top two quarterbacks in the NFC in my opinion. It's a quarterback-driven league. Don't count out the Packers and Rodgers getting to the Super Bowl.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer