The NFC playoffs feature five teams who missed the postseason last year. Just 3 wins separate the six NFC playoff teams. Two years ago, there were four new teams in the NFC playoff field, and the teams were separated by just 2 wins. That year featured three overtime games. With this year's field lacking playoff experience, and so evenly matched, we might be in store for that type of action once again.
The NFC East and South produced four of the six playoff teams, with another two in the hunt until the final weeks. While the Bears and Seahawks clinched their divisions early and earned first round byes, the other four teams have been battling in playoff-type games for several weeks.
It's almost impossible to separate the four teams playing on Wild Card weekend. Any one of them could have ended up division champion or a wild card heading into the final weekend, and three of them could have missed the playoffs with a loss in Week 17. I've grouped this bunch together as The Four-Headed Monsters. The second group -- The Enigmas -- includes Seattle and Chicago.
The Four-Headed Monsters
Just as it is in the AFC, the hottest team in the NFC heading into the playoffs is the #6 seed. When their overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers -- their 4th loss in 5 games -- left them 5-6, no one imagined that the Redskins would climb past both the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia eagles to make the playoffs. Washington stormed into the playoffs riding a 5-game winning streak that included three road wins and two impressive performances against the Giants and Cowboys. Consider the fact that the Redskins are the only team in the NFL to have beaten both Chicago and Seattle this season, and you can understand why the Redskins are a popular NFC sleeper pick.
On offense, three names sum up the Redskins: Mark Brunell (3,050 yards, 23 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), Clinton Portis (1,516 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns), and Santana Moss (1,483 yards receiving, 9 touchdowns). Portis is the catalyst for this offense, and he has been the running back Joe Gibbs expected when they traded for him from Denver two years ago. With just 9 fewer carries than last year, Portis has gained 201 more yards. This has allowed Brunell to average just 23 pass attempts in his last four full games.
And when Brunell does pass, his favorite target, Santana Moss, is almost always open. Moss had career highs in yards and receptions (84) this season. The Washington offense also relies heavily on the tight end, and Chris Cooley has more than doubled his output from his rookie season with 71 catches, 774 yards, and 7 touchdowns.
Defensively, Washington has not allowed more than 20 points in regulation since their 36-35 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 10. The defense allowed just 61 yards rushing in that game, but 3 costly turnovers led to 14 Tampa Bay points. Since that game, the Redskins are +7 in turnover differential, and are bound to make some opponents nervous.
The Panthers were the team no one could get a handle on this season. With Super Bowl-level expectations put on them, they lost their first game -- at home -- to the emotionally charged Saints. They went on to win six straight, only to go 3-3 and need a win in their final game to secure a playoff spot. They responded to this challenge by trouncing Atlanta 44-11.
Carolina is a team that is built on its defense. They finished with the 3rd overall defense in the NFL. They can stop the run (4th) and defend the pass (9th). Led by Julius Peppers (10.5 sacks) and Mike Rucker (7.5 sacks), the Panthers finished with 45 team sacks, second only to Seattle in the NFC. They forced 38 turnovers (2nd best in the NFL behind Cincinnati).
Offensively, the lone bright spot was Steve Smith who had career highs in catches (103), yards (1,563), and touchdowns (12). Quarterback Jake Delhomme was up and down. He threw for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns, but also threw 16 interceptions. Neither DeShaun Foster (879 yards) nor Stephen Davis (549 yards) gained over 1,000 yards rushing. Davis' production (he had 12 touchdowns) has been missed since Week 14 when he was placed on injured reserved with a knee injury. Foster will play this Sunday despite a nagging toe injury.
The Panthers went 6-2 on the road this season, including a big win in Tampa Bay. They'll need to continue their road show and get back the consistency they showed during their winning streak if they have any hope of making the Super Bowl this year.
MVP candidate Tiki Barber has made all of the difference for the Giants this season. He finished with 1,860 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns, and had two 200-yard days in the Giants' final 3 games. He also had 54 catches for 530 yards, giving quarterback Eli Manning (3,762 yards, 24 touchdowns) an outlet out of the backfield.
But one of the most important stats for Barber was his 1 fumble. After fumbling 16 times over the last 3 years, Barber found a new technique for carrying the ball. His value to New York is obvious: the Giants were 1-3 in games in which Barber had fewer than 19 carries.
Manning has had an up-and-down year. His 17 interceptions, 52.8 completion percentage, and 75.9 passer rating are the worst among playoff starting quarterbacks. But he has made some big throws to Plaxico Burress (1,214 yards, 7 touchdowns), Jeremy Shockey (891 yards, 7 touchdowns), and Amani Toomer (684 yards, 7 touchdowns). Manning and the 4th-ranked offense can't afford mental mistakes at this time of the year. Not with the top 3 defenses in the NFL -- Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Carolina -- all in their playoff bracket. They'll need to beat two -- and possibly all three -- of those teams to advance to the Super Bowl.
The last time Tampa Bay had the #1 defense in the NFL, they brought the Lombardi trophy home to Florida. This year, with Simeon Rice (14 sacks), Derrick Brooks, and Shelton Quarles leading a solid front seven, Ronde Barber (5 interceptions) and Brian Kelly (4 interceptions) patrolling the secondary, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin drawing up the schemes, Tampa Bay could make some noise in the playoffs.
As usual with Tampa Bay, the offense is a question mark. Quarterback Chris Simms has played decently since taking over as the starter, throwing for 2,035 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games. But he has also thrown 7 interceptions and been sacked 29 times.
Offensive rookie of the year Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (1,178 yards, 6 touchdowns) has been a catalyst at times. But as New England, Washington, and Carolina have all shown, he can be stopped, as each of them held Williams to less than 30 yards rushing.
A win over Washington would send Tampa Bay to Chicago to face the Bears, who won their Week 12 match-up 13-10. The Bucs put themselves in a huge hole early in the game when Simms fumbled on his own 1-yard line, leading to a Bears touchdown. The rest of the game was a typical Tampa Bay field position game. If the Bucs can get another shot at the Bears, they might be headed to their 2nd NFC Championship Game in 4 years.
The #2 seed in the NFC might be the biggest enigma the NFL playoffs have ever seen. Armed with the 2nd best defense in the NFL, and the fewest points allowed in the league, the Bears rolled over their NFC competition. With the exception of their final game against the Vikings, in which many of the starters rested, the Bears did not allow more than 17 points to an NFC opponent.
But they dropped 3 games to AFC teams -- Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland -- all of whom scored 20 or more points.
And then there's the Chicago offense, ranked 29th in the NFL. They average just over 16 points per game. Thomas Jones has rushed for 1,335 yards, but he's all alone in keeping this offense moving. Things are supposed to be different now that quarterback Rex Grossman is starting, but he's thrown just 39 passes this season, and 195 over his injury-plagued three-year career. Does anyone really know how he'll handle the pressure of the playoffs?
One other problem for Chicago is that after dominating Detroit (38-6) and Green Bay (19-7) in their first meetings, they needed overtime to beat Detroit and a late turnover to beat the Packers. Teams have not been able to handle the Bears' defensive speed the first time around, but have been able to make adjustments in their second meetings. With Washington, Carolina, and Tampa Bay -- three teams the Bears have played once this season -- as potential opponents, Chicago might be in trouble.
Defensive teams such as Baltimore and Tampa Bay have won Super Bowls despite their offenses. But if Lovie Smith's Bears can win with this offense -- led by a quarterback who has thrown fewer passes this season than Donovan McNabb threw in last year's Super Bowl -- it would go down as one of the most amazing performances of all time.
Maybe it's because they played in the worst division in football. Or, maybe it's because they've played just one meaningful game against a potential playoff team in the last nine weeks. Or, maybe it's because there's an East Coast bias. Whatever the reason, experts doubt the Seahawks.
They finished with the 2nd best offense in the league. Shaun Alexander got his rushing title this year with 1,880 yards, and also broke the single season touchdown record with 28. Matt Hasselbeck was the 4th-highest rated quarterback in the league, throwing for 3,459 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. But they don't have a big time receiver (Bobby Engram led the team with 778 yards receiving), and Alexander is not a pass-catching back (he has just 15 receptions).
Although the team registered a league-leading 50 sacks, Bryce Fisher (9), and Rocky Bernard (8.5) are not household names. They were 5th against the run, but 25th against the pass. Rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu has been impressive, leading the team in tackles (105), registering 4 sacks and 3 interceptions. But the perception is that the Seahawks could be ripe for an upset if the right team comes to town.
They do have the bye, and home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They went 8-0 at home, and considering the competition in the NFC, that might be enough. But there are four-headed monsters and another enigma waiting for their shot at the only returning team from last year's playoffs.