The NFC Road to Super Bowl XLI

For the fourth straight year, the NFC playoff picture is a jumbled mess. There are no standout teams that seem like sure-fire winners. The AFC once again dominated the NFC. There are four teams from the AFC sitting at home this weekend who could probably make some noise in the NFC field.

Last year, three of the first four NFC playoff games were won by the road team. Would anyone be surprised to see the first four home teams go down? We could have our first ever all-Wild Card Championship Game.

I've separated the NFC playoff teams into three groups: the Teams on a Roll, the Teams Who Don't Belong, and the Enigma (the Chicago Bears). Logic says one of the teams on a roll will make it to the Super Bowl, but this hasn't been the most logical of seasons, especially in the NFC.

Teams Who Don't Belong

New York Giants

If the NFL seeded teams the way college basketball does, the Giants would have gained some respect from the selection committee. New York played a whopping eight games against playoff teams this season. Throw in all the teams who were alive for a playoff spot entering Week 17 and the number balloons to 12. But the Giants went just 2-6 against playoff teams and 2-2 against the bubble teams. That's not exactly championship caliber.

The Giants are one of four NFC teams that limps into the playoffs having lost at least 2 of their final 4 games. New York actually lost 6 of its final 8 games. And yet here they are in the playoffs. Between the public sniping and the crushing losses, it's a wonder that New York made the playoffs at all. But in the NFC, 8-8 was good enough and the Giants won enough tiebreakers to sneak in.

Offensively, this is practically a carbon copy of last year's team. Tiki Barber had 1,662 yards rushing and 465 yards receiving, but with just 5 touchdowns. Eli Manning was good but not great again (3,244 yards, 57.7% completions, 24 TDs, 18 INTs). Defensively, the Giants were near the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category. They've allowed 23 or more points to 7 of their last 8 opponents.

They draw division foe Philadelphia in Round 1, which is a perfect draw considering how close both games were this year. And the last time things looked this desperate for the Giants -- during their Week 4 bye -- they ripped off five straight wins. They have no shot of playing at home, where they lost their final four games. And that might be the medicine this team needs to get jump started.

Dallas Cowboys

How 'bout them Cowboys? When head coach Bill Parcells benched Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tony Romo, the script was seemingly set for a replay of the Patriots' 2001 season, when Tom Brady guided the team to Super Bowl glory in lieu of Bledsoe. But a strange thing happened on the way to Romo and the Cowboys' coronation. Dallas lost to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Detroit -- all at home -- and ended up a 9-7 Wild Card instead of the NFC East Division champ.

Romo (2,903 yards, 19 TDs, 13 INTs) led the Cowboys to 5 wins in his first 6 games as a starter. This included a win over previously unbeaten Indianapolis, a 5-touchdown performance against Tampa Bay on Thanksgiving, and a win at the Giants. Since then Dallas has lost 3 of 4 and Romo has thrown 6 interceptions in 4 games.

The Cowboys finished with the 5th-best offense in the league and scored the 4th-most points. The passing offense was ranked #5 in the league, with Terrell Owens (85 catches, 1,180 yards, 13 TDs) and Terry Glenn (70 catches, 1,047 yards, 6 TDs) saw the majority of the action. Of course Owens also dropped the most passes in the NFL according to some stat-keepers. The running game looked like the saving grace for a while, as Julius Jones (1,084 yards) and Marion Barber III (654 yards, 14 TDs) led the way. But the two backs combined for a mere 83 yards on just 33 carries in the final two losses of the season. Meanwhile the defense has allowed 33 points and 425 yards in their last four games.

Dallas ranks pretty low in the chemistry department, and their play-calling, preparation, and concentration have all been questioned. And yet the talent on this team is equal to or greater than every other NFC team. If Dallas can regain their mid-season form, they might actually be a threat in this strange NFC group.

Seattle Seahawks

Injuries seemingly derailed the Seahawks' hopes of returning to the Super Bowl this year, but they turned it around in time to win the NFC West and make the playoffs. Their 9-7 record is the worst of any division champ, they lost three games at home and dropped three games to their non-playoff bound division foes. Before beating Tampa Bay last week, the Seahawks had lost three straight.

Shaun Alexander -- last season's MVP and touchdown record-holder for all of 14 games -- missed 6 games with a broken bone in his foot. He rushed for 896 yards and just 7 touchdowns (one year after collecting a record 28). Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (2,442 yards, 18 TDs, 15 INTs) missed four games with a sprained knee. The team went 2-2 without the key contributors and hasn't been the same since. Another group of players -- including receivers Darrell Jackson, Nate Burleson, and D.J. Hackett, and offensive linemen Chris Gray and Floyd Womack -- are all game-time decisions according to head coach Mike Holmgren.

The Seahawks beat just one playoff team this year (the Giants way back in Week 3) and their last five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 31-49. Last week they traveled to play the 4-11 Buccaneers and Las Vegas had them as 3-point underdogs going in. They'd be underdogs at home this weekend if they weren't playing the Cowboys.

Stringing together three straight wins seems like too tall of a mountain for this team to climb this year.

Teams on a Roll

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are one of the hottest teams in the league, having won 5 in a row. The resurgence began two games after quarterback Donovan McNabb went down for the season with a season-ending knee injury. The Eagles' offense has moved away from the pass-first mentality they had for the first half of the season, and instead rely on ball control and the accurate and dependable passing of Jeff Garcia, who has thrown 10 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions in 6 games.

Philadelphia finished with the 2nd-best offense in the league, finally finding success in the running game thanks to Brian Westbrook (1,217 yards, 7 TDs). Westbrook had six games of 100 yards or more this season, which is three more than he had in his first four years in the league combined.

When the 2006 schedule was announced, all but the most diehard Eagles fans looked at the December road trip of at Washington, at NY Giants, and at Dallas on consecutive weeks as a recipe for disaster. But after winning all three games, the Eagles won the NFC East for the 5th time in 6 years. The previous four times they made it to the NFC Championship Game. Their road is a lot tougher this time, but they are the hottest team in the NFC.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints are quickly becoming the trendy pick in the NFC. And it's not hard to understand why. They've got the #1 offense, sparked by another stellar season by Drew Brees (a league-leading 4,418 yards passing, 26 TDs, and 11 INTs), the steady running of Deuce McAllister (1,057 yards, 10 TDs), and a breakout performance by rookie Reggie Bush (742 yards receiving and 565 yards rushing, with 8 TDs).

They finished with the 3rd-best pass defense in the NFL, and (ignoring their Week 17 game in which they rested most regulars) held their final five opponents to just 12.6 points per game. Their home field advantage was evident early on in the season, as the raucous home crowd reveled in the team's success.

But there have been some chinks in the Saints' armor more recently. They lost to both Cincinnati and Washington at home in the Weeks 11 and 15 (and the Panthers in the final meaningless game). The loss to the Redskins was sandwiched in between huge road wins over Dallas and the Giants. Perhaps it was simply a letdown/trap game. Or perhaps those two home losses were signs that teams aren't intimidated by the New Orleans crowd anymore.

Last season the Colts and Bears each rested their players in the final game of the season, took off the bye week, and were knocked off at home. Recent history suggests it's better to play everyone as much as possible through Week 17, especially if you have the bye week. Momentum can be a double-edged sword in the NFL.

The Enigma

Chicago Bears

The flip side to resting everyone in your final game is playing your starters and having them play badly. Such was the case for the Bears last week as they looked awful against the Packers and lost what was essentially a meaningless game. But the players and fans won't forget what they saw.

One year ago Rex Grossman was a question mark entering the playoffs after getting very little regular season playing time. This year he's just as much of a question mark, as no one knows how he will perform from week to week. Grossman threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns, but also threw 20 interceptions. He had five different games with 3 or more interceptions. He had games in which his quarterback rating was 10.2, 1.3, and 0.0. And yet in other games he controlled the offense and put points on the board.

The defense has been the main story. They allowed the 3rd-fewest points (15.9), the 5th-fewest yards, and intercepted the 2nd-most passes. They won a game against Arizona in which the defense and special teams scored 21 points and their offense scored 3. Rookie defensive end Mark Anderson registered 12 sacks in 15 games, good for 8th in the NFL. Linebacker Brian Urlacher was 5th in the league with 142 tackles. Four different players had 3 or more interceptions. The pressure comes from everywhere, and when the offense takes care of the ball the Bears win.

We've seen teams such as the Ravens and Buccaneers win Super Bowls with stellar defenses and very little offense, but those teams had offenses that rarely turned the ball over. This Bears squad constantly puts its defense in bad field position, and as they found out last year, that can be deadly in the playoffs. Grossman alone turned the ball over 25 times this year. The Bears have been the best team in the NFC all season, but it just might not be enough in the playoffs.


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