After examining each AFC playoff team, it’s time to turn our attention to the NFC. The senior conference is a little more top heavy, but the single-elimination format combined with the dwindling talent gap caused by the salary cap has created an environment where any team can emerge.
So, who will come out of the NFC this year? Obviously, no one knows for sure, but each team has a compelling case.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3, NFC South Champions, Home Field Advantage)
Why they could win the SB: Well, for starters, the Saints employ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who’s still dicing opposing defenses up at an MVP level (3,992 yards, 32 TD’s, 80.8 QBR).
Of course, Brees has always put up dazzling numbers, but with talented skill position players like Alvin Kamara (1,592 yards from scrimmage, 18 total TD’s), Mark Ingram (645 rushing yards), and Michael Thomas (1,405 receiving yards, third in DYAR) and a solid defense (11th in DVOA), the Saints have lifted themselves out of the 7-to-9 win muck and become championship contenders.
The Saints are arguably the most balanced team in the NFC. That and their home field advantage makes them the favorite to punch their ticket to Atlanta.
Why they might not win: Much like the Patriots — and, to a lesser extent, the Chargers — New Orleans needs their veteran quarterback to continue to turn back father time if they want to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. As unlikely as that is, Brees did struggle down the stretch, as he posted a very average 84.7 passer rating while averaging 6.4 yards per attempt through his final four games of the season. If that Brees shows up in the playoffs, the Saints will fall short.
2. Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC West Champions, First Round Bye)
Why they could win: The days of Jeff Fisher-induced mediocrity are long gone, as Sean McVay has transformed this team into a viable championship contender, as L.A. finished the year second in overall DVOA and second in offensive DVOA.
McVay’s magic genius dust continued to work wonders for Jared Goff too, as he once again put up very good numbers (4,688 yards, 32 TD’s, 12 INT’s, 66.4 QBR). If he plays well and Todd Gurley keep playing like an MVP candidate (1,831 scrimmage yards, 21 total TD’s), then L.A. has a good chance to reach the Super Bowl.
Why they might not win: Take a look at Jared Goff’s stat line from last postseason:
24/45, 259 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 77.9 passer rating
Now, do those numbers scream “franchise QB that can win tough playoff games” to you?
Most critics concur that McVay’s playcalling and micromanagement masks many of Goff’s deficiencies. While not the outright bust that he seemed destined to become, Goff is merely an ok QB that benefits from a sound offensive scheme and talented receivers. If opposing defenses find some cracks in the facade, that puts more pressure on Gurley to perform and the defense to get stops (a defense that ranked 19th in DVOA during the regular season, even with DPOY candidate Aaron Donald).
3. Chicago Bears (12-4, NFC North Champions)
Why they could win: Thanks to the Oakland Raiders’ incompetence, the Bears nabbed All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack and he helped transform Chicago from a middle-of-the-road defense (14th in defensive DVOA in 2017) to a dominant one, as they ranked first in defensive DVOA, first in pass defensive DVOA, and second in run defensive DVOA.
The dominant D takes a lot of the pressure off of a relatively pedestrian offense (20th in DVOA). Chicago didn’t light up the scoreboard this year, but Mitchell Trubisky has shown some promising signs, as he posted a 72.8 QBR, which ranked third among qualified QB’s. If the offense alleviates even a little bit of the pressure off of the defense, then this team can make a run.
Why they might not win: As great as this Bears defense is, the offense will determine how far they go. While no other NFC playoff team boasts a defense as stout as Chicago’s they are good enough to slow down Trubisky and the gang and if that happens, the Bears could be in trouble. They better hope none of their games devolve into a glorified Arena Football game.
4. Dallas Cowboys (10-6, NFC East Champions)
Why they could win: The Cowboys have one and only one path to playoff success: run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott (2,001 scrimmage yards), control the clock (second in average time per drive), get timely plays from quarterback Dak Prescott (3,885 passing yards, 22/8 TD/INT) and Amari Cooper (80.6 receiving yards per game in nine games with the Cowboys), and lean on the defense (ninth in DVOA). If that happens, then Dallas has a chance.
Why they might not: There are plenty of numbers to show that the Cowboys aren’t as good as their record suggests. Their 8.4 expected wins are the fewest of all the playoff teams and their plus-15 point differential is the worst among the 12 teams in the tournament, as is their overall DVOA ranking (21st). If the defense can’t slow down these offenses — which is a realistic possibility — then Dallas will have another brief playoff run.
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6, Wild Card)
Why they could win: Despite sporting a roster that barely resembled their dominant Legion of Boom days, the Seahawks returned to the playoffs this year thanks in large part to Russell Wilson. The Pro Bowl signal-caller turned in another low-key resplendent season, throwing 35 touchdowns against just seven picks and helping the team rank ninth in offensive DVOA (and sixth in passing offensive DVOA).
Thanks to Wilson and the running quartet of him, Chris Carson (4.7 YPA), Mike Davis (4.6 YPA), and Rashaad Penny (4.9 YPA), the team has found a lethal balance on offense and with a good-enough defense (14th in DVOA), they could make a run at the title.
Why they might not: As great as Wilson is, asking him to win three road games with this otherwise average team (unless the Eagles catch fire again) may be too much to ask, especially if they have to go to New Orleans. Their defense performs well enough against both the run (17th in DVOA) and the pass (13th in DVOA). That’s probably not good enough to fend off the likes of the Rams or the Saints. If Wilson is anything other than Herculean, then this team likely won’t make it past the divisional round.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, Wild Card)
Why they could win: Oh, you have no idea how badly I wanted to slap a J. Jonah Jameson laughing GIF up here in lieu of trying to make a case for this team. To put this in perspective, Football Outsiders gives the Eagles a 0.7 percent chance to repeat as champions this year. FiveThirtyEight gives them a much more robust four percent chance.
But there is a chance! If Nick Foles can somehow keep his unbelievable run of good quarterback play going and the defense plays well — even with all the injuries in the secondary, they ranked a respectable 15th in defensive DVOA, so it isn’t an unreasonable proposition — Philly could shock the football world again.
Why they might not: For the Eagles to make it to the Super Bowl, they would have to go on the road and beat arguably the best defense in football and, assuming that happens, Drew Brees in the Superdome in the divisional round — where they got waxed in week 11 — and either Russell Wilson or the vaunted Rams offense in the conference title game (I suppose they could play Dallas too, but one pipe dream is enough for this article). Basically, the Eagles need a lot of things to go right for them to repeat this year. It could happen — they did beat the Rams in L.A. a few weeks ago when everyone was ready to bury them — but it probably won’t.