NFC Playoff Handicap
6. Arizona Cardinals (10-6; No. 4 seed)
Last season, the Cardinals went 9-7 and proceeded to win three playoff games en route to the Super Bowl -- it won't happen again. And the prediction has nothing to do with the 'Cards 33-7 loss to the Packers on Sunday. In 2008, Arizona's regular season opponents won at a 53 percent clip, a mark representing a tie for the second-toughest schedule for an NFC champ since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. In 2009, Arizona's opposition offered a tougher 48 percent win clip, and -- like last season -- the Cardinals enter the postseason having beaten just two teams (Houston and Minnesota) with winning records while representing the worst division in football. The Cardinals are 2-2 in their last four with those wins coming over lowly St. Louis and Detroit. Their pass defense ranks 23rd in the league, the rushing offense ranks 28th, and they own the worst Plus/Minus turnover differential (-5) of any of the teams herein. Arizona's late-Sunday afternoon rematch with Green Bay will undoubtedly prove closer than last week's meaningless (for them) contest, however the 'Cards are just 4-4 on their own turf and I don't see that record improving against a sizzling Packer team that's won seven of their last eight. A banged-up Anquan Boldin won't help matters.
5. Dallas Cowboys (11-5; No. 3 seed)
The Cowboys have been playing some exceptional football in the last month and roll into the postseason as victors of three straight, including wins over New Orleans and Philadelphia. They'd no doubt chart higher herein . . . if only they weren't playing Philly . . . again. Everything about the Philly vs. Dallas matchup on Saturday night suggests a sour end to the debut season of Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys entered the league in 1960 and have never beaten the Eagles thrice in a season. Prior to last Sunday's favor to the Vikings, Dallas also beat Philly back in Week 9. The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996 and head coach Wade Phillips -- while sporting a sound .600 regular season win clip -- is a career 0-4 in the playoffs. QB Tony Romo? He hasn't won a postseason game either (0-2). The Cowboys haven't given up a point in two straight games -- that will change this weekend when the Eagles put up far more than the mere 15.6 points per that the Cowboys have allowed on the year.
4. New Orleans Saints (13-3, No. 1 seed)
What's perhaps most notable about the Saint's Bayou Burnout isn't just the fact that they enter the playoffs as losers of three straight. Rather, looking back further along the Saints' season is to find a team that beat non-playoff teams Washington and Atlanta by just six combined points in Week's 13 & 14 prior to the losses. The plight has been in play for a while, and New Orleans will enter their Divisional Playoff next Saturday without a win since way the hell back on December 13th. Concurrent to quarterback Drew Brees' slight declension in production (seven TD's in last four games after nine in first two) has been the unraveling of the Saints D. That unit has allowed at least 20 points in 10 of the team's last 12, gave up a crazy 2,000 in the month of December, and suffered nearly 500 rush yards in the Saints' past three games. It will surprise few if New Orleans' endeavors a shoot-out next weekend -- but can they outscore their visitor? Brees still finished the year with the No. 1 QB rating, but the Saints talented three-headed running attack hasn't offered an individual 100-yard rusher since Pierre Thomas went for 126 in Week 3. No team to lose their last three has ever won the Super Bowl.
3. Green Bay Packers (11-5; No. 5 seed)
The Pack looked pretty cooked entering Week 10, having dropped to 4-4 with a loss to Tampa in Week 9 and suffering two losses to the Vikings. But then they rattled off three wins in a 12-day stretch and now enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NFC. Green Bay has won seven of their last eight, going 3-0 against playoff teams during the run and the lone loss in that stretch came via a last-second defeat to Pittsburgh. They sport the league's top rush defense, the No. 3 scoring offense and lead the NFL with 30 interceptions despite losing cornerback Al Harris back in Week 11. Digging deeper into their impressive statistical cache: the Pack also has the league's top Plus/Minus turnover differential (+22), rank No. 1 in time of possession and is No. 3 in 3rd down conversion percentage. To advance, they'll need to readily limit penalties, in which they also lead the league. In addition, the availability of stud d-back Charles Woodson and his NFL-best (tied) nine interceptions is in some question after he suffered a shoulder injury last week. His presence is a must for Pack success.
2. Minnesota Vikings (12-4; No. 2 seed)
Among the Purple's biggest wins of the season was Dallas' victory over Philly last weekend. The vet Vikings should readily benefit with the bye week, a week that Brad Childress has given them off until Sunday. While Minnesota no doubt suffered some confounding December defeats -- all of those losses came on the road. At home, the Vikings have been monsters, becoming just the 13th team since 2000 to go 8-0 on their home turf. The Purple concluded the campaign as the league's No. 2 scoring offense at 29.9 ppg. and averaged nearly 33 points at the Dome, scoring at least 27 in each home game. The banged-up defense still finished the season with the league's most sacks (48) and also ranked in the top five in both forced fumbles (23) and fumbles recovered (13). Offensive weapons abound both through the air and on the ground, and Brett Favre's 22 career postseason games should provide a calming presence as Childress seeks his first playoff win. Adding to the stat pile: the Vikings rank in the top-5 in both time of possession and 3rd down percentage, and Adrian Peterson -- while sporting just a lone 100-yard effort since Week 6 -- still gained over 1,300 yards and concluded the year ranked 5th in rushing. The pass defense for the Purple can prove suspect, so it's imperative for this bunch to consistently get in the opposing quarterback's face with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Ray Edwards. Losing the first home game come the playoffs would seem aptly-Viking from a historical standpoint, but I see some new history being made next weekend with the Purple returning to the NFC title game for the first time since 2000.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5; No. 6 seed)
Yes, the Eagles enter these playoffs as the lowest seed. And yes, the Eagles got whooped by Dallas last Sunday. But prior to that, Philly had run off six straight wins, three of which came on the road. This team is dangerous, opportunistic, and owns a sideline-to-quarterback pedigree absent in all others present. In coach Andy Reid's 10 previous seasons on the Eagles sideline, Philadelphia has made the playoffs seven times -- in every one of those appearances they've won at least one postseason game. In five seasons between 2001-08, they advanced to the NFC title game, yet made it to the Super Bowl but once in that window. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is a veteran of 15 playoff games (with a 9-6 record) and heads an offense that led the NFL in passing plays of 40+ yards (21) and was second in aerial plays of 20+ yards (65). Options for McNabb abound, led by electric wideout DeSean Jackson. A consistent running game has eluded the pass-happy Eagles, but backs Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and even fullback Leonard Weaver can all do damage through the air. The Philly defense is highly active, ranking in the NFL's top-5 in sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries, and that unit is well-complimented by the Eagles' special teams. Kicker David Akers tied for the league lead with 32 field goals and has booted 30 makes in his postseason career. Along with his nearly 1,200 yards, nine TD's and 18.5 yards per catch, Jackson led the NFL in punt return average, taking two returns to the end zone. The Eagles no doubt are heavily reliant on the big play, but for all the rematch reasons listed in the Dallas capsule above, I see them playing on. And for all of the Reid/McNabb postseason experience, I see the Eagles as the most dangerous bunch entering the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
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