Commentary

NFC playoff Q&A: Expect excitement

The defending champs are the favorites, but conference won't lack fireworks

Originally Published: January 1, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers know how it works when you're the defending Super Bowl champions. Everybody is watching them. Everybody is gunning for them. It could be easy to fall into bad habits, to start letting cockiness and comfort infect more valuable traits like desire and determination.

"We know people talk about hunting us," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "That's why we talk about being the hunters. We know we're still hungry."

The way the Packers tell it, we haven't seen anything yet. As easily as they rolled to a league-best 15-1 record, they know how hard it is to win consecutive titles. Only three teams have done that in the past two decades (Dallas, Denver and New England) and the NFC certainly isn't going to offer an easy road. The New Orleans Saints are riding an eight-game win streak. The San Francisco 49ers have won 13 games behind first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. The Atlanta Falcons also were the NFC's top seed last season while the Detroit Lions and New York Giants have upset potential.

More than anything, the Packers realize they aren't the only team with a quarterback playing well. While Aaron Rodgers looks like the surefire MVP winner for this season, many think New Orleans' Drew Brees deserves mention for that same award. Two other signal-callers have been to multiple Pro Bowls (Atlanta's Matt Ryan and New York's Eli Manning) while San Francisco's Alex Smith could be the Comeback Player of the Year. Let's not forget Detroit's Matthew Stafford, either. He wound up as the third alternate in NFC Pro Bowl voting after throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.

What all this means is that there will be no lack of fireworks when the NFC postseason begins. Yet we also shouldn't think that offense solely will rule the day. Defense will still matter. Running the ball will still be essential. Costly errors will continue to kill aspirations faster than well-constructed game plans.

Here's something else we know: It should be as entertaining as ever.

Here are 10 questions worth asking as the NFC postseason begins:

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIREAaron Rodgers may be the MVP favorite, but no QB has been hotter in the season's second half than the Saints' Drew Brees.

1. Which team has the best chance of upsetting Green Bay in Lambeau Field? San Francisco. The 49ers have an inner toughness that belies their West Coast roots, largely because Harbaugh has built a team that has thrived all season by doing the very things that consistently win games in the postseason. They pound the ball behind Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore and a dominant offensive line. No defense in the NFL gives up fewer points or yards per game. The 49ers also have excellent special teams and rarely turn the ball over. In other words, San Francisco is likeliest to steal a page from the playbook that helped Kansas City deal Green Bay its only loss of the season: Control the clock, grind it out and don't give the Packers an inch.

2. Who's the most dangerous NFC quarterback entering the postseason? Drew Brees. With all due respect to Rodgers, Brees has been the better quarterback in the second half. In the seven games leading up to this weekend's season finales -- let's discount Sunday's effort because Rodgers didn't play for Green Bay against Detroit -- Brees had thrown more touchdowns (22) and posted a higher completion percentage (71.3 percent) than his Packers counterpart while throwing as many interceptions (three). The Saints also scored at least 40 points in three of those contests, including 45 on Carolina in Week 17. Brees is scary enough when he's orchestrating the Saints' high-octane offense within the cozy confines of the Superdome. This year he looks so dangerous that New Orleans could return to the Super Bowl despite having just one guaranteed game at home.

3. Are people underestimating the Atlanta Falcons? You don't want to read too much into Sunday's beatdown of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that clearly has given up on head coach Raheem Morris; but 42 points in the first half of that 45-24 win? That definitely sounds like some kind of reliable mojo. The Falcons basically have two things going for them as the postseason starts. The first is seeding. Thanks to the Lions' loss in Green Bay, the Falcons end up meeting the Giants in the wild-card round and avoiding New Orleans. The other advantage is experience. Don't make the mistake of thinking these Falcons have forgotten what it was like to be a 13-win, top-seeded team that was upset by Green Bay in last year's postseason. They have plenty of weapons on offense, a solid defense and the underdog status that can serve as ample motivation.

4. Will the Lions break their 20-year stretch without a postseason victory? Not if they play the way they did in Green Bay on Sunday. Facing a Packers team that didn't dress its three best starters -- Rodgers, cornerback Charles Woodson and outside linebacker Clay Matthews -- the Lions found themselves losing 45-41 to a squad that had nothing to prove or gain. Most puzzling was how their defense allowed backup Matt Flynn to do a pretty good Rodgers imitation (Flynn set team records with 480 yards and six touchdowns) in a contest that could've helped the Lions earn a more favorable first-round matchup. The Lions could be more dangerous if their offense was more balanced, but right now they're riding the combination of quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson as far as it will take them.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Mike Carter/US PresswireThe Lions' Ndamukong Suh needs to make a difference on defense or Detroit could be one and done again.

5. Which player needs to step up his game in the postseason? Ndamukong Suh. The Lions might want to remind him that the postseason begins this week because he's been impossible to find ever since earning a two-game suspension for stomping on the arm of Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith during the teams' Thanksgiving Day game. This is the same ornery defensive tackle who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season after registering 10 sacks and earning a reputation as a dominant interior lineman. This year Suh mostly has been known for dirty play and an inability to create the same impact (he actually did have a sack in the Lions' 45-41 loss to Green Bay on Sunday, which was the first time some people realized he was uniform). This just in: The Lions' defense was formidable when Suh and his linemates were harassing quarterbacks. With him missing in action -- he has 35 tackles and three sacks this season -- Detroit is easy prey for any quarterback looking to make a name for himself.

6. Can the Giants generate some momentum for a playoff run? And can that momentum be similar to the one the Giants enjoyed in 2007? It wouldn't be surprising. The Giants have looked impressive in must-wins over both the Jets and the Cowboys to reach the playoffs. They deserve credit for their resilience (injuries have crippled this team from day one) and resolve (they have six fourth-quarter comebacks this season). They also have Eli Manning playing at a high level, the brilliance of rising star wide receiver Victor Cruz and an assortment of gifted pass rushers. As rugged of a road as the Giants have traveled, they have beaten the Patriots and barely lost to both San Francisco and the Packers. They have the confidence that comes with facing the best. That should make give them legitimate upset potential as a fourth seed.

7. Can anybody slow down Victor Cruz? If it hasn't happened yet, it's hard to see it occurring in the playoffs. Cruz is clearly Manning's favorite target, as proven by the receiver's 82 receptions and team-record 1,536 receiving yards. What's most impressive about Cruz is that he is at his best when facing top-tier cornerbacks. He's had 100-yard receiving games against the Eagles, Packers and Jets - all of whom boast at least two cornerbacks who've made the Pro Bowl - and Cruz hasn't been intimidated by anybody. If the Giants are going to do anything this postseason, the continuation of his spectacular play will have to be a factor.

8. Which offensive player will be the biggest X factor? Jordy Nelson. Greg Jennings is the Packers' Pro Bowl wide receiver this season, but Nelson has made a strong case for his own spot in Hawaii. He set career highs in receptions (68), yards (1,263) and touchdowns (15) and he torched the Lions for 162 yards and three scores on Sunday. It was obvious late last season that Nelson had an eerie chemistry with Rodgers. Now it's apparent that he can make plays regardless of who is throwing the football or what defense he is facing. Nelson already has become Green Bay's go-to receiver with Jennings hobbled by a knee injury. Look for Nelson to be even more difficult to stop once Jennings returns to the lineup.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiWhat kind of impact can 49ers' rookie linebacker Aldon Smith make this postseason?

9. Which defensive player will be the biggest X factor? Aldon Smith. The San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker should've made the Pro Bowl after producing 14 sacks in his rookie season. The people who overlooked him for that honor should have no problem noticing him when the playoffs begin. Smith is the kind of pass-rushing weapon that is vital for any defense in a season in which quarterbacks have dominated. A raw talent when the 49ers drafted him seventh overall, he's grown up faster than imagined, as proven by his 6.5 sacks over his past five games. Smith already has four multiple-sack games this season. He'll have at least one more in the playoffs.

10. Who is the favorite to make the Super Bowl? We know Green Bay isn't perfect. The Packers hardly use their running game. Their defense is suspect. And their offensive line has been beaten up lately. But even with those issues, it's still hard to bet against a team that won last year's Super Bowl, enjoyed a 19-game win streak at one point and ended this regular season with 15 victories.

Plus, the Packers have the opportunity to play two home games in the chilliest environment in the league. Flaws are one thing.

Fate is another. The Pack will be there at the end.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.