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.
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
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
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
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
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
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