The NFC Road to Jacksonville

<p> The NFL playoffs start Saturday Jan, 8th, 2005. While the AFC is teeming with talented clubs from top to bottom, there is barely a duo of worthy competitors in the NFC.</p> <p>Darren Kelly puts these NFC contenders into three categories; &quot;The Crazy Eights&quot;, the &quot;Could be Contenders&quot; and the &quot;Favorites.&quot; Get inside to see which is which.</p>

PHOTO: Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre celebrates his 3-yard pass to Packers wide receiver Donald Driver to tie the score against the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth quarter Friday, Dec. 24, 2004, in Minneapolis. Green Bay won, 34-31.(AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)

The NFC Road to Jacksonville
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor

Yes, it's true. Someone must represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Unlike in the AFC, the NFC playoffs this year are a complete crapshoot. There are two 8-8 teams, three teams that come limping into the playoffs, and no discernible favorite. The head coaches in the NFC are a combined 9-12 in the playoffs with their current teams, including a 1-3 record in the NFC Championship Game (by contrast AFC head coaches are 23-15 in the playoffs with their current teams and have won 4 of the last 7 Super Bowls). We'll put the NFC clubs into 3 categories: the Favorites (Only Because They Have a Bye), They Could Be Contenders, and the Crazy 8-8s.

The Crazy 8-8s

Minnesota Vikings
Losers of 2 in a row and 4 of their last 5, the Vikings are not your father's playoff team. And yet this year has been a typical recent Vikings season. They started 5-1 and finished 8-8. Last season they got off to a 6-0 start only to finish 9-7, losing 2 out of their final 3 games and missing the playoffs thanks to the lowly Arizona Cardinals. And four years ago it was a 7-0 start and an 0-3 finish that the Vikes brought into the playoffs (eventually losing the NFC title game to the Giants 41-0). And to top it all off, the Vikings' opponent in their first game is division foe Green Bay, who won both match-ups against Minnesota this year by the score of 34-31 each time.

What negative trends are the Vikings facing in their first game? No 8-8 team has ever won a playoff game. Teams playing a team that beat them twice in the regular season are 5-10 in the 3rd game, and have lost 5 of the last 6 match-ups. Since moving into the Metrodome in 1982, the Vikings are 2-8 outdoors in the playoffs (dome teams are 11-37 all time in outdoor playoff games).

The Vikings do have talent. Daunte Culpepper had a career year (4,717 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions). Randy Moss missed 3 games but still finished with 767 receiving yards and 13 TDs. And Nate Burleson has emerged as another receiving threat (1,006 yards and 9 TDs). You just have to wonder if they can handle the playoff pressure. And after watching Moss storm off to the locker room with 2 seconds remaining last week and the Vikings attempting to retrieve an onside kick, you also have to wonder if this team even cares.

St. Louis Rams
Somehow, the Rams are in the playoffs. Another 8-8 club, they have a better chance than the Vikings of at least winning their first game. They play division foe Seattle, who the Rams beat in both meetings this season. The win in Seattle back in Week 5 (33-27 in OT, a game in which the Rams erased a 17-point 4th quarter deficit) still hangs around the Seahawks' necks like an anchor. Sure the Rams are a dome team on the road outdoors in the playoffs, and no 8-8 team has ever won a playoff game, but no 8-8 team has ever played a team with fewer than 10 wins (Seattle is 9-7). And given their recent history against Seattle (they've won 3 of the last 4 meetings), the Rams have reason to feel confident in their first game.

Beyond the first game is when things are murky for the Rams. Should they beat the Seahawks it'll be off to either Philadelphia or Atlanta. While Atlanta would provide the comfort of another dome to play in, it would also mean containing Michael Vick and the #1 rushing offense in the league (and the Rams were 29th against the run this season). This team is not the Greatest Show on Turf from years past, and seeing them move too far in the playoffs seems to be a stretch, but anything's possible in the NFC this year.

They Could Be Contenders

Seattle Seahawks
Everyone's preseason favorite turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the NFL season, as the Seahawks barely won the NFC West at 9-7. Even Shaun Alexander seemed disappointed with their win over Atlanta last weekend that guaranteed them the division crown and a home game (although he has since retracted his "stabbed in the back" quote after losing out on the rushing title by 1 yard after quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's name was called for the TD instead of Alexander's on their final offensive play).

This team never found its identity all season. After hearing all about their road woes last year they busted out of the gate with back-to-back road wins and a 3-0 start. But following their collapse against the Rams, their 38-9 home loss to the Bills, another collapse against the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, and another shellacking by an AFC club (a 37-14 loss at the Jets), the Seahawks cannot be considered a threat. Except...they play in the NFC. A win over the team that beat them twice already wouldn't be unprecedented, and they are at home.

Green Bay Packers
Once again Green Bay is turning folks into believers. Every year about this time it seems that the Packer bandwagon gasses up and people pile on. Maybe its because they have to be considered the hottest team in the NFC. After a 1-4 start, the Pack won 6 straight and 9 of their last 11. But the two losses are the ones that really stand out. At Philadelphia in Week 13, Green Bay played its worst game of the season, losing 47-17. And following a lackluster win over Detroit, the Pack laid another egg at home, falling to the Jaguars 28-25. They finished just 4-4 at home, where they host Minnesota in their first game.

Another typical NFC team (when you think they'll win, they lose, when you think they'll lose, they win), the Pack could drop their first game or they could win three straight. They've got a huge advantage over the Vikings in the trends department (see the Vikings entry) and could easily pull off a win in their first game. With a win, they would head to Atlanta for a chance to avenge their 2003 home playoff loss to Michael Vick and the Falcons.

Brett Favre once again threw for over 4,000 yards with 30 TDs. But he also threw 17 interceptions. For every great highlight film play, he now seems to toss in a head scratcher. And while Ahman Green amassed 1,163 yards rushing, the league's 4th ranked offense seemed to thrive on the passing game, not the running game (they were #1 in passes attempted and completed, and 5th in passing yards). On the other hand, the defense (ranked 25th in the NFL) seemed to be letting the Packers down at the wrong times all year. The Packers allowed a league-worst 33 passing TDs while only picking off 8 INTs (2nd worst), and running backs had a gaudy 4.6-yards-per-carry average against them. That doesn't bode well against an opponent such as Atlanta.

The Favorites (Only Because They Have a Bye)

Atlanta Falcons
One win and you're in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, winning has been a problem for the favorites since clinching their byes. Following a thrilling 34-31 win over Carolina, the Falcons rested everyone for most of the next two games and lost them both (as did the Eagles). Only two teams have advanced to the Super Bowl after losing their final two games. Momentum is the catchphrase when it comes playoff time, and the Falcons have none.

They also have an identity crisis. Does Michael Vick run too much? Does he stay in the pocket too much? Are they the team that lost 56-10 to the Chiefs (in Week 7) or the team that went to Denver the next week and won 41-28? Are they the team that won 4 straight and 6 of 7 following the Chiefs loss, or the team that lost 27-0 to Tampa Bay? It's tough to tell when you don't put everyone on the field for the final two games. After what amounts to 3 weeks off, the Falcons will open up against the Packers, Seahawks, or Rams, knowing that they SHOULD beat whoever arrives at their doorstep.

The Falcons rushed for a league-leading 2,672 yards and 20 TDs (3rd to only the Chiefs and the Chargers). Vick had 902 of those rushing yards, while Warrick Dunn racked up 1,106 and T.J. Duckett 509. When the Falcons were on, they usually opened their first drive with an array of designed rollouts for Vick, showing the defense that it would be a long day if they had designs on containing him. After their opening drive, they tried to keep Vick in the pocket and run the ball with Dunn and Duckett. It just didn't work every week, leaving the Falcons to wonder how they would consistently score points. This year's defense wasn't as good as the one from two years ago, but they can stop the run (they finished 9th in the league against the run). Take away the debacle against the Chiefs (when they allowed 271 yards rushing and 8 TDs) and the stats would be even better.

The Falcons have shown the ability to win big games (including the playoff win in Lambeau two years ago), and they may just have the ingredients necessary to string together some playoff wins.

Philadelphia Eagles
Since Terrell Owens left with an injured ankle during Philadelphia's Week 15 win over Dallas (12-7), the Eagles have scored 2 TDs in the 3 quarters that Donovan McNabb played. In the other 7 quarters, the Eagles were outscored 51-10. Not exactly the way head coach Andy Reid drew it up.

Defense hasn't been a question for the 13-3 Eagles all season. They finished 10th overall, allowing (along with the Patriots) the 2nd-fewest points in the NFL, even after giving up 38 points to the Bengals in Week 17. But without Owens, where will the offense come from? Donovan McNabb had a stellar season, throwing for 3,875 yards, 31 TDs, and just 8 INTs. But 14 of those TDs and 1,200 of those passing yards went to Owens. Todd Pinskton was 2nd on the team with half the yardage of Owens and just 2 TDs. Brian Westbrook should be able to pick up some of the slack left from Owens' injury. He had 812 rushing yards and 703 receiving yards, along with 12 TDs even though he missed 3 games, including the last 2.

It's the lack of offensive consistency and the fact that the starting offense hasn't played a full game without Owens in the lineup that is the main concern for Eagles' fans. After 3 straight years of losing in the NFC Championship Game, this was the year they were supposed to get over the hump. A win over Seattle, St. Louis, or Minnesota in their first game will put them in the title game for the 4th straight time. But they'll have to find a way to win that game without Owens if they want to finally make it to the Super Bowl.

Darren, an avid sports fan from the Boston area, is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"

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