Assessing the Six NFC Playoff Contenders

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles

Kirk Cousins improved dramatically during the second half of the season for Washington

We’ve covered the six aspiring AFC playoff contenders, so now it’s only fair that we take a look at their NFC counterparts. The 15-1 Carolina Panthers lead the field, but Arizona aren’t far behind and their 13-3 record was much deserved. However it would be foolish to write off any of the other four teams in the NFC; Green Bay and Seattle are led by Superbowl winning quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Washington QB Kirk Cousins has been phenomenal in the second half of the season. Minnesota shouldn’t be discounted either – they did beat Green Bay to win the NFC North in week 17, after all. To find out who to look out for on each team, just scroll down.

Arizona Cardinals

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Although they suffered a heavy defeat last week against the division rival Seahawks, Arizona still managed to secure a first round bye having begun the regular season with a 13-2 record. Carson Palmer is enjoying a career season at the advanced age of 36, spreading the ball to a variety of weapons including veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerland and the ever-improving Malcolm Floyd. The Cardinals passing game thrives on throwing the ball deep to their multiple weapons, and with Palmer at the controls they have the ability to put up points in bunches and are a threat to score on every play. Andre Ellington and David Johnson are the options at running back after former Titan Chris Johnson suffered a season ending injury. Johnson’s absence hasn’t been felt too harshly as his namesake David and Ellington have both performed ably since coming into the lineup.

Last season Todd Bowles helped craft an attacking defense that constantly put opposing quarterbacks under pressure, and although Bowles has since departed for pastures new the unit still contains a number of playmakers and has performed at a high level. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu suffered the misfortune of a season ending injury against Philadelphia in week 15, however cornerback Patrick Peterson remains and the former first round pick is entrenched as one of the NFL’s more consistent cover corners. Linebacker/safety hybrid Deone Bucannon led the team in tackles with 112 and also recorded three sacks and three forced fumbles, demonstrating his valuable versatility, and veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney led the team in sacks with eight, helping the team totalled an impressive 36 on the year. Well deserving of the number two seed despite their injuries, Arizona are arguably the most complete team in the NFC – even more complete than the 15-1 Panthers.

Biggest Strength: Versatile offense capable of scoring on any play

Biggest Weakness: Missing key players (Mathieu, Chris Johnson) through injury

Carolina Panthers

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

A week 16 blip against Atlanta aside, the Panthers were unstoppable on their way to a phenomenal season highlighted by an MVP showing from dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton. Newton threw 35 touchdowns to just ten interceptions, in addition to another 636 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground. Carolina’s rushing attack was supplemented by veteran Jonathan Stewart, who finished with 989 yards rushing on the year. Mike Tolbert remains one of the better full backs in the NFL, and Ted Ginn Jr. finally emerged as a weapon in the passing game after he stepped up in the absence of the injured Kelvin Benjamin. Ginn Jr. averaged 16.8 yards per catch and hauled in ten scores, while tight end Greg Olson enhanced his reputation as one of the NFC’s leading tight ends with a 77 catch, 1,100 yard season. With Newton at the controls, Carolina have evolved from a distinctly average offense in 2014 to an explosive unit capable of keeping up with the best of them.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is top of a number of prospective head coaching lists and with good reason, following yet another standout performance from his unit this season. McDermott learned his trade under the legendary Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and he’s incorporated his mentors scheme successfully in Carolina, blitzing from every angle and putting constant pressure on opposing offensive lines. Luke Kuechly is the premier inside linebacker in the NFL, and his lateral agility is unmatched. Thomas Davis is equally important to the Panthers D, and between them the pair totalled a mind-boggling 223 tackles in the regular season. The other household name on the Panthers defense is cornerback Josh Norman, who infamously got into a scrap with Odell Beckham Jr. when the pair squared off a couple of weeks ago. Despite that incident Norman turned in his best season as a pro, and his ability to shut down opposing receivers is not to be underestimated.

Biggest Strength: All-pro linebacker unit, Cam Newton

Biggest Weakness: Lack of a true number one receiver

Green Bay Packers

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Washington (4.40 ET, Sunday 10/1)

Starting 6-0 but finishing 4-6, Green Bay have plenty of questions to answer this evening when they take on the NFC East champion Redskins in Washington. Aaron Rodgers has played well below his elite best and his receivers and running backs have done little to bail him out. Add in a porous offensive line and all is not good on that side of the ball for the Packers. Leading rushers Eddie Lacy and James Starks both averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, and between them they managed just five rushing touchdowns on the season. One positive for Rodgers is that four players caught 50 or more balls on the team, demonstrating that Green Bay does at least have a varied passing game. It’s worth remembering, though, that had Richard Rodgers not hauled in namesake Aaron’s hail-mary at Detroit Green Bay would’ve finished a mediocre 9-7.

Defensively, Clay Matthews is still the star of the show, although his total of 6.5 sacks isn’t anywhere near the total he’s posted in previous years, in large part because Matthews now plays as an inside linebacker in some sub packages. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is maturing nicely into a skilled all around safety, and the second year pro led the team in tackles while also registering three sacks and two picks. Sam Shields is the team’s top cover corner, and veteran Julius Peppers helped generate some pass rush opposite Matthews with his 10.5 QB takedowns. Nonetheless questions remain about whether or not Green Bay’s defense is good enough to sustain the offense when it struggles, as it did during the second half of the season.

Biggest Strength: Aaron Rodgers, at his best, is the top QB in the league

Biggest Weakness: Poor pass protection, lack of reliable weapons on offense

Minnesota Vikings

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Seattle (1.05 ET, Sunday 10/1)

The Vikings are the antithesis of the modern NFL offense, in that they excel at running the football but struggle to move the ball through the air. Having Adrian Peterson helps in the first regards, and a lack of options in the passing game has held them back in the latter. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was less than exceptional in his second season as a pro, throwing just 14 touchdown passes and leading the Vikings to the second fewest passing yards per game in the NFL. Peterson led the league in rushing after missing the entire 2014 season, however Stefon Diggs was Minnesota’s leading receiver with just 720 yards. While AP may help the Vikings to control the clock against Seattle, they’ll need their passing game to step up to the mark if they’re to keep pace with the resurgent Seahawks offense.

The Vikings have a number of emerging players on defense, including end Everson Griffin and safety Harrison Smith. Veterans Chad Greenway and Terrance Newman still feature, and the 43 sacks Minnesota amassed during the season reflect well on their pass rush. Whether or not they can get to Russell Wilson and keep him in the pocket, however, could prove a bridge too far.

Biggest Strength: The best running back in football

Biggest Weakness: Second least effective passing game in the NFL

Seattle Seahawks

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Minnesota (1.05 ET, Sunday 10/1)

They’re back. After reaching the previous two Superbowls, Seattle looked in danger of failing to make the playoffs after a poor start to the season which ultimately proved to be no more than a Superbowl hangover. Russell Wilson produced the best football of his career in the second half of the season, and Doug Baldwin finally gave him a number one receiver worthy of the name when Jimmy Graham went down for the season through injury. Marshawn Lynch is still hobbled, however, and with his replacement Thomas Rawls also out for the year Wilson and the passing attack will be under pressure to perform in sub zero temperatures in Minnesota.

The Seahawks defense became the first in NFL history (post-1970 merger) to lead the league in scoring defense for four consecutive years, and like the offense they improved as the season went on. In fact over the last 5 games the ‘hawks D surrendered just 55 points. Kam Chancellor ended his holdout after missing the early stages of the season to return alongside Earl Thomas as the league’s top safety duo, while Richard Sherman remains an elite cover corner. Bobby Wagner anchors the linebacker unit, and all told there still isn’t a defense in the NFL that can match Seattle for pure talent. Underestimate the six-seed Seahawks at your peril.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense with experience winning in the playoffs

Biggest Weakness: Multiple running back injuries

Washington Redskins

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Green Bay (4.40 ET, Sunday 10/1)

Hands up who thought Washington would win the NFC East this season? Yep, didn’t think so. After Jay Gruden made the bold decision to go with Kirk Cousins as his starting QB for the season many thought he’d erred in removing Robert Griffin III from the lineup, yet Cousins responded with an outstanding seven game stretch to end the year and catapult Washington to the NFC Easy crown. With DeSean Jackson back in the fold following hamstring trouble and Pierre Garcon opposite him Cousins has plenty of weapons to throw to, although the Redksins rushing attack ranked just 20th in the NFL during the regular season. Tight end Jordan Reed turned in his best season as a pro, leading Washington in receptions with 87 and reaching the end zone on 11 occasions.

Defensively Dashon Goldson led the team in tackles with 110, while Ryan Kerrigan anchored the pass rush with 9.5 sacks. “Pot Roast” Terrance Knighton proved to be a solid addition at nose tackle, and ultimately the off-season turnover helped Washington perform a worst-to-first turnaround and most likely save Gruden from the axe.

Biggest Strength: Momentum, recent performances from Kirk Cousins

Biggest Weakness:  Lack of defensive playmakers

 

 

 

Assessing the Six AFC Playoff Contenders

jj watt

J.J Watt has been a one man wrecking ball for Houston this season

With the NFL playoffs set to begin in earnest this Saturday, there’s no time like the present to take a look at the teams who’ve made it to the NFL’s annual post-season dance. With only 12 of the league’s 32 franchises still in with a shout of lifting the Lombardi trophy in San Francisco on February 7, each team’s strengths and weaknesses will be exposed sooner or later as the playoff field gradually shrinks. To find out what to look out for when the games get underway this weekend, just keep reading.

Cincinnati Bengals

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Pittsburgh (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Marvin Lewis is surprisingly yet to win a playoff game in his 13 years at the helm in Cincinnati, and if he’s to break his duck this weekend against the rival Steelers he’ll need Andy Dalton fit and firing just 27 days after he sustained a broken thumb. The chances of Dalton returning and playing are slim, although Lewis will at be able to take solace in the fact that the rest of the Bengals 53-man roster is as good as it’s been under his stewardship.

On offense Tyler Eifert has developed into one of the premier tight ends in the NFL, and his 13 touchdown receptions led the league as he became Dalton’s favourite red zone target. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, helping to give balance to Hue Jackson’s offense and taking the heat off of the passing attack. Jackson’s ability to utilise multiple weapons and lead Dalton to a career best season (25 TD’s, seven INT’s) has helped make him one of the most sought after co-ordinators in the NFL, and once the Bengals playoff run ends it’s likely he’ll earn a second shot at being an NFL head coach.

Defensively Carlos Dunlap leads the pass rush with 13.5 sacks, while interior lineman Geno Atkins (11 sacks) is an elite force in both stopping the run and pass. Adam Jones has matured into a top-end cover corner, while ballhawking safety Reggie Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions with eight. Those two in particular will need to be at their best as they aim to keep Ben Roethlisberger and the high octane Steelers passing attack in check on Saturday, especially if Dalton isn’t ready to go and A.J McCarron is once again under centre.

Biggest Strength: Weapons at the skill positions on offense

Biggest Weakness: Uncertainty over the QB position and an 0-4 playoff record over the last four seasons

Denver Broncos

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Denver clinched the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a hard earned win over San Diego in week 17. A loss would’ve seen them drop all the way to the five seed, and much of the credit for avoiding that fate lies with Peyton Manning after the veteran QB engineered the team’s comeback having replaced Brock Osweiler midway through the third quarter. Manning looks a shoe in to start for Denver at Mile High Field in two weeks time, when they’ll face the lowest remaining seed in the AFC, although the future hall of famer still has much to prove after his interception-laden start to the season.

The Broncos real strength lies in their defense, led by a ferocious pass rush featuring veteran DeMarcus Ware and elite linebacker Von Miller. The secondary also contains star talent, with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris just two of a number of ball-hawking defensive backs on the Denver roster. While the offense has often relied on the defense to bail it out over the course of the 2015 season, Gary Kubiak will need players such as running back C.J Anderson and wide reciever Demaryius Thomas to step up and help the weak-armed Manning put up enough points to keep pace with some of the high octane offenses they’re likely to face on their path to Superbowl 50.

Biggest Strength: Pass rush

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent QB play

Houston Texans

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Kansas City (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

It takes a special type of player to enter the MVP discussion in consecutive years despite playing on the defensive side of the ball, but everyone is well aware of the threat J.J Watt possesses when he puts his hand on the ground. Watt was complimented well by Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) during the regular season and between them they offer a significant threat to the health of opposing quarterbacks. Mercilus has helped Houston get over the disappointing play of Jadaveon Clowney, the number one overall pick in 2014, who for the second straight year underwhelmed with just 4.5 sacks.

Brian Hoyer has played well under centre when not injured, although last week was his first appearance since he suffered a second concussion of the season during a December loss to New England. Hoyer has had the good fortune of being able to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins when healthy, with Hopkins emerging as the Texans number one receiver after the off-season departure of Andre Johnson. Hopkins hauled in 111 receptions and topped 1,500 yards, while his 11 touchdown catches also led the team by some distance. Other than Hopkins, however, Hoyer has a dearth of options with the loss of Arian Foster to a torn achilles in October a blow most teams would struggle to overcome. Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes have done their best to fill Foster’s large shoes, but unfortunately for Houston they’ll have to navigate the playoff field without their star rusher.

Biggest Strength: J.J Watt

Biggest Weakness: Limited offense

Kansas City Chiefs

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Houston (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Winners of ten straight games (yes, ten), Andy Reid’s Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL. Having started the season 1-5 and lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the season, Reid and his players could’ve been forgiven for looking towards next season and a high pick in the draft in May, yet they’ve turned their campaign around in incredible fashion and now head to Houston to take on the AFC South winner Texans. It’s been a long time since Reid won a playoff game (early 2009 with Philadelphia), but he’s a seasoned coach with extensive playoff experience having once led the Eagles to four straight NFC Championship game appearances (including an appearance in Superbowl XXXIX.

Once Charles went down Charcandrick West took over at the running back position, and the previously unknown player excelled with over 800 multi-purpose yards and five TD’s in just over half a season of play. West is ably supported by Spencer Ware, and quarterback Alex Smith is no slouch himself with his legs, forcing opponents to focus on what has become a productive rushing trio for Kansas City. Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin has been everything the Chiefs would have hoped for and more, giving Smith a genuine deep threat on the outside to pair with dangerous tight end Travis Kelce.

The real strength of the Chiefs lies on defense, however, with a host of household names including Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson leading the way. Rookie corner Marcus Peters could well win the rookie of the year award, and other familiar names include Tamba Hali, Sean Smith and Dontari Poe. It would take a brave man to bet against the rolling Chiefs, and make no mistake about it – they’re a team everyone in the AFC wants to avoid on their path to the Superbowl.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense

Biggest Weakness: Occasionally conservative offense, lack of dynamic weapons

New England Patriots

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

The defending Superbowl champs earned a bye in this first round of the post-season largely on the back of 10-0 start. However New England faded badly down the stretch, finishing 2-4 after injuries ravaged their offense and the offensive line failed to protect legendary QB Tom Brady. The time off before their first game in January should prove invaluable, as wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman return to full health. However breakout running back Dion Lewis is done for the season, as was his replacement LeGarrette Blount. The offensive line has also been a revolving door and no single lineman started all 16 games, which would make a fifth title of Brady’s career both unlikely and also immensely impressive, should he upset the odds and achieve it. Crucially, star tight end Rob Gronkowski has stayed fit all season and hauled in over 1,100 yards receiving and 11 touchdown receptions.

The Patriots defense has fared a little better on the health front, however, with last year’s Superbowl star Malcolm Butler emerging as a legit NFL cover corner. Chandler Jones leads the pass rush and his 12.5 sacks were nicely complimented by 8 from Jabaal Sheard and 6.5 from Rob Ninkovich. Devin McCourty remains the standout player in the secondary, and the safety recorded 67 tackles on the season.

Biggest Strength: Tom Brady and a versatile passing attack

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent line play, lack of a running game

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Cincinnati (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Having snuck into the playoffs at the expense of the New York Jets, the Ben Roethlisberger led Steelers are a potential banana skin for any of the higher AFC seeds. In fact, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the two wild cards, may be the two form teams in the entire conference despite not winning their respective divisions. Roethlisberger may have lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season ending injury, but with Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown as deadly weapons on the outside the Steelers offense has still operated at a high click since Big Ben returned from his four game injury absence earlier in the year. Heath Miller remains a reliable option at tight end, and Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays with his unique physique affords Bryant and Brown plenty of time to get open down the field.

Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t close to the force it was earlier in the century, and that has the potential to hold them back against some of the high octane offenses they’ll face over the next few weeks. Lawrence Timmons still mans the middle of the defense and amassed 119 tackles during the regular season, while Cameron Heyward led the team in sacks with just seven. Mike Mitchell registered three interceptions from the safety position, and he’s the unquestioned leader of a secondary unit that will need to exceed expectations if the Steelers are to make it deep into January.

Biggest Strength: Explosive passing game

Biggest Weakness: Lack of playmakers on defense

Who do you think will emerge victorious from the AFC? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley