Not since the 2011 Giants has an NFC team outside of the top two seeds run the table to make it to the Super Bowl. The last five NFC champions (2012 49ers, 2013 and 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Panthers and 2016 Falcons) were all among the clear-cut best in their conference all season long, and their appearance in that season’s Super Bowl wasn’t surprising.
This postseason, it’s wide open in the NFC. Legitimate cases could be made for all six teams to win the conference title. Likewise, every team has a flaw or two that could prove fatal.
The top three seeds all have unproven postseason quarterbacks: Nick Foles in Philadelphia (who has looked miserable in his starting role), Case Keenum in Minnesota and Jared Goff in L.A. Meanwhile, the bottom three NFC seeds boast future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and the last two league MVPs in Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. The latter trio has 25 combined playoff game appearances; the former trio has one.
On paper it would seem the Saints are the most complete team after the Vikings. New Orleans has been putting up 2009 vibes with a less-is-more season from Drew Brees, a competent defense and likely Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara teaming with Mark Ingram in the backfield. But the Saints have lost three times since Thanksgiving, including Sunday’s embarrassing last-minute defeat at Tampa while playing for the division crown, which New Orleans ended up winning anyway by virtue of the Panthers’ loss.
Carolina’s offense has been unpredictable all season. Heck, even before the season started, when everyone thought Cam Newton would run the ball less, only to lead the team in rushing this season for the second time in his career.
And while the Falcons tallied six losses, five of them came against teams with winning records. First-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took his lumps this year following Kyle Shanahan but still had a top-10 offense in total yards. Atlanta, no doubt, is looking to avenge the way last year’s postseason ended.
Top wildcard matchup
Carolina at New Orleans. The Saints, who’ll surely dressed in their all-black unis for the Sunday game with the Panthers, have not lost in the previous five postseason games at the Superdome dating back to 2000. This matchup pits two teams that know each other well. The Saints took the season series 2-0, winning by double digits both times. But since Newton came to Charlotte, the series is split 7-7, and this is the first postseason matchup between the NFC South foes. The Panthers’ defense will have to find their way to Brees, and the offense must figure out how to free up receiver Devin Funchess against standout Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The classic offense vs. defense chess match between Sean Payton and Ron Rivera should deliver next weekend.
Minnesota. The Vikings could play the 3, 4 or 5 seed at home, where they went 7-1 this season. They’ve won 11 of their past 12, and six of those wins weren’t close (margin greater than one possession). No NFC team is hotter than Minnesota, which hasn’t missed a beat with Keenum but also has two competent quarterbacks (Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford) in waiting if needed. The defense finished the season best in the league in points allowed (15.75 per game), and history tells us that usually translates into postseason success. If Philadelphia loses in the divisional round with Foles at quarterback, the Vikings could be at home all the way through the Super Bowl.
Carolina. Here’s a team that knows what it takes, so forgive the “Cinderella” designation for the 11-win Panthers. This is the fourth postseason trip in five years for Carolina, and more than half of the starters were on the Super Bowl 50 squad. The Panthers will desperately need running back Jonathan Stewart, who sat out Sunday’s win/loss with a back injury; their backs had 30 yards on 12 carries without him. If the offense can find consistency and match the championship-caliber defense (a defense that didn’t sack Matt Ryan until seven minutes left in the game on Sunday), the Panthers can find their way back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.