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Monday, January 2, 2012

Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? Are You Kidding Me? PLAYOFFS?!? - NFC Edition

Yes playoffs. It is that time of year again. The final weekend of the regular season offered us a cornucopia of late regular season drama, culminated with the Cowboys at Giants matchup on Sunday Night Football, sending the Giants to the playoffs. So, today, the Daily Hat Trick will break down the playoff prospects of all 12 qualifying teams.


1) Green Bay Packers - The favorite to emerge from the NFC. If I had to bet, even money, on one team to win the conference, I would put it on the Packers. The road to the Super Bowl will go through Lambeau as long as the Packers are in the playoffs.

HOWEVER...the Packers did not have a perfect regular season and they are not perfect. Their loss to the Chiefs and close victories over several other teams (including the playoff bound Lions and Saints) exposed a key weakness that has been evident all season. Their passing defense is atrocious, giving up roughly 4,800 yards.

The Packers gave up more yards in the air than any team in NFL history, shattering the 16 year old record set by the 1995 Atlanta Falcons. The Pack doesn't run the ball well, either. What they do exceptionally is move the ball in the air. Aaron Rodgers is having one of the best seasons that an NFL quarterback has ever had. The MVP candidate, at times, seems to be able to score at will.

The question is whether the Packers' formula for regular season success will translate in the playoffs. The cliche' expression, "defense wins championships" was coined for a reason. Their defense need not be great, but it cannot be porous if the Packers expect to win three consecutive playoff games and win a championship.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I thought the men would prefer to look at ESPN's Erin Andrews, whom Rodgers is rumored to be dating, than dudes in helmets and pads. I wonder if he's shown Erin his "discount double-check" yet. 1

2) San Francisco 49ers Jim Harbaugh is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. After Tennessee rookie coach Mike Munchak squandered a chance to reach the AFC playoffs, in part by losing to the two-win Indianapolis Colts, I can unequivocally say that my vote would go to Jim Harbaugh.

All of that said, the 49ers have many of the tools to make a Super Bowl run. They have a great defense and a very good running game, anchored by Frank Gore (1211 yds., 8 TD, 4.3 avg.). Alex Smith, in his 7th year in the NFL, appears to finally be demonstrating some of the potential that led the Niners to pick Smith #1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.

The Niners' weakness is that they lack receivers. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis are undoubtedly talented. It stops there. Quickly (if you aren't a Niners fan)! Name one other wide receiver with the 49ers! Did you say, "Ted Ginn, Jr."? That is correct. Ginn has caught 19 passes (none for touchdowns), barely more than one per game, all year. Did you say, "Braylon Edwards"? Well, he is fourth on the team in receiving yards per game in 2011. Unfortunately, he hasn't been on the team since Week 10.

Defense and rushing can will any team to a singular victory, even in the playoffs. However, the Niners' utter lack of playmakers in the passing game will make any significant deficit a tough one to overcome. With opponents like the Saints, Falcons, Giants, and Lions potentially emerging from the first round, I think Frisco is ripe for a swift exit from the playoffs.

Wouldn't a 49ers-Lions (ergo a Jim Harbaugh- Jim Schwartz) rematch be awesome?

3) New Orleans Saints - My team! WHO DAT! The Saints are the hottest team in the NFL, entering the playoffs.

We know the Saints strong suits: nobody can stop them. MVP Drew Brees obliterated Dan Marino's 27 year old single season passing records with just under 5,500 yards in the air. Brees has weapons like no other quarterback, with WRs like Adrian Arrington (5th on the depth chart) who have so much talent that they could be the slot receiver or a starter on many teams. The running backs? Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and Chris Ivory (4th on the depth chart but led the team in rushing in 2010). The Saints have an embarrassment of riches on offense.

So what are the Saints weaknesses? Their pass defense is porous, 3rd to last in the NFL after the Packers and Patriots (who also broke the Falcons' 1995 record for most passing yards surrendered). The Saints saving grace is that they are stingy against the run, which is why the Saints are ranked 24th in total defense as opposed to the Packers and Patriots being ranked last and next to last, respectively.

This forces opponents to go to the air. Of course, three things can happen when you throw the football and two of them are bad. In addition, their pass rush is formidable, though not elite. However, the Saints force very few turnovers, near the bottom of the league.

The Saints will also have to play at least one game on the road, against the San Francisco 49ers, if they are to reach the Super Bowl. The franchise has never won a road playoff game. The bottom line is that Drew Brees cannot allow his team to fall behind by multiple scores against any of the prospective playoff foes or the Saints will be in jeopardy. That said, the Saints are the only NFC team, other than the Packers that I think can emerge from the NFC.

Drew Brees: The NFL's all-time record holder for most passing yards in a single season (5,476 yards).

4) New York Giants - Boy oh boy! I don't know what to say about this team. Eli Manning (4,933 yds., 29 TD, 16 INT, 61% comp.) is the man! He has his share of critics, but if he couldn't answer those critics sufficiently with his performance this year, he never will.

After Eli Manning, the picture is very cloudy for the Giants. Victor Cruz (82 rec., 1536 yds., 9 TD) and Hakeem Nicks have talent (76 rec,, 1192 yds., 7 TD). Beyond those two, there are a lot of question marks in the receiving corps. Can Mario Manningham stay healthy throughout the playoffs and play up to his potential? Will Jake Ballard be healthy and help provide the quality of safety valve that the departed Kevin Boss offered in the past?

For all of the questions in the passing game, I think the Giants' undoing will be in every other area of their game. They can't run the ball. They aren't reliable and consistent in stopping the run. The secondary is made out of Swiss cheese. Against a team like the Atlanta Falcons in the first round, with an extremely talented offense, a bruising running back in Michael Turner, and a defense that does not give up an abundance of yards on the ground, this is a recipe for playoff catastrophe.

Tony Romo and Eli Manning. I can imagine this discussion.
"Damn some of my teammates suck, dude!"
"Yeah, me too!" 4
5) Atlanta Falcons - Let me say that I would not put money on any team other than the Saints or Packers to win the NFC. However, there are no guarantees and every bet has risk and uncertainty. If I were a betting man, the Falcons are the team that would make me sweat a little.

Frankly, I expect the Falcons to dispose of the Giants in the first round unless Eli Manning has a landmark performance, even by Manning's standards. I think that the Falcons have the best chance, from a matchup standpoint, to beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau. I am a Saints fan and the Falcons are our archrivals, but if the Falcons and Saints advance out of the first round (putting the Falcons against the Packers), I will be a Falcons-supporting fool in the second round (to avoid the Saints, should they win in the second round, having to travel to Green Bay).

The Falcons move the ball in the air as well as all but the most elite teams in the NFL. Running back Michael Turner is very tough to stop once he gets into a rhythm. The Falcons defense has been susceptible to the better passing attacks, which is their weakness. But the Falcons are a team that is realistically capable of beating any playoff team on any given day.

As Chris Hawkins of the Tennessee Titans learned the hard way, trying to tackle Michael Turner (33) is like trying to tackle a comparably sized bowling ball. 5
6) Detroit Lions - The Lions face the Saints in the first round. I expect them to give the Saints fits with their talented young quarterback, Matt Stafford, and all-world receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. The Lions do not spread the ball around as much as the Saints. The vast majority of the Lions' receiving yards are heavily concentrated among their two starting WRs (Megatron and veteran possession receiver Nate Burleson) and their starting tight end, Brandon Pettigrew. 

I think the ability to concentrate on a limited number of receivers plays into the Saints hands, especially since the Lions have no formidable rushing attack. The Lions defense is average, but they rush the quarterback well and force turnovers. They do not do a good job against the run, though.

The Lions have the talent to beat the Saints should the Saints not play their "A" game. However, the Saints have played their "A" game ever since playing a "D-" game against the Rams in late October and ripping off 8 consecutive subsequent wins. The game will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints have not lost all year. In short, I doubt the Lions will escape the first round alive, but if they defy those odds...WATCH OUT!
Good luck stopping Megatron. 6

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