The NFC playoff picture is beginning to crystallize, with only the Giants capable of changing the current mix of teams, but the elite of the conference collectively fell on its face in Week 15.
--New Orleans got the ball rolling the wrong direction by not only losing its perfect season, but getting badly outplayed by the December misfits from Dallas.
The huge advantage of playing at home at the Superdome in primetime? The Saints came out flat and were quickly down 14-0. And the run defense is beginning to look like it could be New Orleans' Achilles' heel. Several recent opponents have taken it right up the gut with consistent success.
Dallas also exposed a burgeoning blind-side protection issue by abusing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and taking advantage of assignment breakdowns by New Orleans' running backs. The Cowboys, Vikings, Eagles, Cardinals and Packers are the other current NFC playoff teams, and each has excellent ability to bring pressure from Drew Brees' blind side.
--Green Bay started Sunday with an opportunity to lock up at least a wild card spot. By the end of the day, they were still leading the wild-card pack but their postseason prospect had taken a significant shot to the gut.
Just two weeks ago the Packers had managed to climb into the top spot in overall defense. But the season-ending injury to cornerback Al Harris finally caught up to them as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shredded the secondary for 503 passing yards - the most ever allowed by Green Bay.
Keep the Packers' pass rush off your quarterback and throw anywhere that isn't occupied by Charles Woodson, and Green Bay's pass defense is ripe for the picking.
--Minnesota had an opportunity to close to within one game in the race for home-field advantage as it closed the action Sunday. And while Green Bay's historically bad defensive performance locked up the division title before the Vikings even kicked off, the loss to Carolina was concerning on several fronts.
The biggest red flag is there appears to a blueprint forming on how to cripple the Vikings' potent offense. In two of the past three weeks, Arizona and Carolina have managed to take running back Adrian Peterson out of the game and then feast on quarterback Brett Favre on third-and-long.
It's certainly not easy to negate Peterson, but there is now plenty of film between the Cardinals and Panthers games for playoff opponents to study.
Defensively, the Vikings clearly miss middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Jasper Brinkley isn't in the same league as a field general, and the run defense has taken a step back. Carolina showed that if you can run the ball decently against Minnesota and take the teeth out of the pass rush, the secondary quickly becomes vulnerable.
NFC Playoff Picture Taking Shape
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