Things Could Be Worse

When the playoffs open Saturday, the Vikings won't be involved. But thanks to the lack of a dominant team in the NFC, the road back to playoffs isn't nearly as difficult in the NFC as it is in the AFC.

The Vikings' collapse in their final 10 games following a 4-2 start was disappointing to say the least, but, as the old adage goes, it could be much worse.

The NFC is clearly the weaker of the two conferences. The Giants made it into the postseason despite dropping six of their last eight games and, as hard is it would have been to believe, had the Vikings beaten the Packers in Week 16, they would have entered their game with the Rams last week controlling their own destiny.

The Bears are the class of the NFC, but there are clearly signs of trouble with their defense and sputtering offense. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Bears gave up more than 20 points just once. In the final four games, the Bears surrendered 27, 31, 21 and 26 points. More troubling was that that streak came against NFC dregs in the Rams, Buccaneers, Lions and Packers. The dominance of the Bears is far from set in stone, and many national prognosticators are having a hard time picking the Bears to advance to the Super Bowl despite having home field advantage.

So too are the Saints. The most consistent of the rest of the NFC teams, the Saints never lost more than two games in a row all season and three of their six losses came against AFC North teams. But the Saints' Achilles heel is their run defense, which allowed more than 2,000 yards this season and an average of almost five yards per rush. It's hard to maintain a dominance when your defense is that accommodating against the run.

The rest of the NFC playoff field includes the Seahawks, who lost three of their last four games but still backed their way into a division title; the Eagles, who lost five of six games before hitting a five-game winning streak to end the season; the Giants, who collapsed with a 2-6 record in the second half of the season; and the Cowboys, who lost three of their last four games to blow the division title and a first-round bye in the process.

A case can be made that just two or three teams in the NFC truly belong in the playoffs. But over in the AFC, quality teams are falling over themselves. The Broncos have been a playoff mainstay for years, but fell short this time around. The Jaguars have one of the best rushing teams in recent history, but they too fell a little short of the postseason. The Bengals imploded or they would have been back in the playoffs, and the defending champion Steelers never really had a legitimate shot to defend their title.

At this point, there are probably twice as many quality teams in the AFC than in the NFC. If you're the Oakland Raiders, that has to be bad news because just trying to work your way up the ranks of your own division is a tall order, much less making a playoff run. In the NFC, any team that gets hot -- or even avoids a long losing streak -- has a shot at making the playoffs and a two- or three-game run to the Super Bowl.

If quality is what you like, the AFC is the place to be. But if having an easier road to the playoffs is what you want, the NFC is your ticket.

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