SI.com's Don Banks had a veteran NFC insider assess this weekend's games.
The Skins are really the only NFC team with a sense of momentum right now. They're playing inspired football over the last four weeks, both offensively and defensively. Their run defense has been phenomenal, and Todd Collins has exceeded everyone's expectations. But the difference to me is how well Clinton Portis is running behind the left side of that offensive line: Left guard Pete Kendall, left tackle Chris Samuel and Casey Rabach at center. That offensive line has been playing really well for a month now.
Another thing the Redskins have going for them is Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle-El have been banged up for most of the season, but when they really needed them most, they've gotten healthy. So to beat Washington you have to beat a really good offensive line, receivers who have started to make some plays, and to top it off, they're getting really solid quarterbacking from Collins. He's tough to game plan for because there's not much film of him. Before this past month, the guy had taken 27 snaps over the last nine years.
Washington is really a Gregg Williams defense right now. They're playing well because they're being coached very well. The different looks Williams is giving opponents is driving this team defensively. The strength of the team is how well it's playing the run in the box. At linebacker, Marcus Washington and London Fletcher are playing extremely well. And strong safety Reed Doughty (Sean Taylor's replacement) has been very effective at stopping the run. He's a bit of a liability in space, but tough against the run.
Lastly, Washington's getting good play from Fred Smoot at cornerback. Now it's able to play three deep and match up one-on-one against receivers, with Doughty in the box. That defense has made the difference.
You watch the Seahawks these days and you can tell they don't have a lot of confidence in their running game. They've really put the onus on this team winning directly on Matt Hasselbeck and his receivers. Hasselbeck is not the most talented quarterback in the NFL, but he is one of the smartest. He's been in that system for so long and he knows where all his receivers are at all times. He's done such a good job locating his receivers, and spreading the ball around, and that's without really having a go-to guy that he loves to throw to.
But Seattle doesn't really have a running game right now, and I think it makes them very vulnerable in the playoffs. They've become almost a one-dimensional team. Injuries have really hurt Shaun Alexander over the last season and a half. He just doesn't look as explosive as he once did through the hole. He was never nimble, but he used to hit the gap and have a little explosiveness. Now he's not hitting the gap much any more. He still shows flashes, but on the consistent basis he doesn't have it. I'd still ride him in the playoffs over his backup, Maurice Morris. Hopefully Alexander still has one or two big runs a game in him, and in the playoffs, that might be all you need.
Seattle middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is one of the elite linebackers in the NFL. Not only because he plays the middle so well, but he can drop into coverage and run, and he has great ball skills. He can stay on the field for every down. He's instinctive as heck against the run, and just as instinctive playing the pass.
Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney has been a great signing. A lot of teams wish they would have gone after him harder in free agency. He's had absolutely the impact they though they were getting. He's not just a designated pass rusher; he can play the run too. They couldn't have asked for anything more than he's given them.
That last game against New England was huge for Eli Manning. He just hadn't been very good over the last few weeks, and his showing had to help his confidence in the playoffs. What really helped them down the stretch was their running game. Even when Brandon Jacobs was hurt, Ahmad Bradshaw stepped in and had a great game.
Without Jeremy Shockey in there, this is a team that's going to have to run the ball well for Manning to have success in the playoffs. Manning is down to one go-to guy in Plaxico Burress. He's been great this year, but he's still playing with that bad ankle. So with one real playmaker for Manning to throw to, the running game has to step up. Jacobs and Bradshaw have to be the difference in the postseason. Their success will make Manning a success.
The best news is this matchup favors the Giants running the ball because they have such a solid offensive line. New York has five quality starters, and they play well together. If they get in a groove, this offense can ride that running game.
The Giants also have the deepest pass rush in the playoffs. The strength of that team is the front four. Their linebackers and secondary are playing well enough, but they could get dink and dunked down the field by Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia. It'll be a matter of whether Garcia can beat the Giants over the middle of the field.
The Bucs, to me, are the most vulnerable team in the NFC. They really took their foot off the gas the last two weeks of the season, starting with the second half of that game in San Francisco. They almost looked like they went into shutdown mode. That really surprised me, because it's not like they have a bunch of superstars on this team. They're a team built without superstars. They have a bunch of good solid parts. It was surprising to see them pull guys when they were playing pretty well.
Garcia hasn't played much down the stretch, but he can come back and play well in the playoffs, even with that bad back. I think the passing game will probably benefit from them holding him back the last two weeks to get healthy, but conversely, the running game is really tough to jump right back into. A running game is a matter of rhythm, and you can't always find it again once it's gone.
The Bucs at running back are going with Earnest Graham, and he's not an edge runner, which fits their talent on the offensive line. The strength of this running game in particular is up the middle. They've got a good center in John Wade, and two good young guards in Davin Joseph and Arron Sears. I want to see if they can re-establish the run in the playoffs, because it tough to just turn it on.
The Bucs don't have a great defense any more. They've gotten pretty good play out of their corners, though. Ronde Barber is still playing a good, No. 1 corner. But of all the NFC teams, this is the one that looks the weakest across the board. They're 9-7, but they kind of forfeited their last two games in order to get healthy. They haven't been a dominant team, just the best team in a division that struggled all season.