Road to Miami: breaking down the NFC
Today, on the eve of the NFL playoffs, let’s take a look at the NFC playoff lineup -- what I like and what I question about all six teams.
Click here to check out my breakdown of the AFC playoff teams.
New Orleans Saints
What I like: The offensive firepower inside the Superdome. We tend to think of the vertical passing game of Drew Brees when discussing the Saints — and rightfully so considering the number of points they can put on the scoreboard. But let’s not count out Sean Payton’s ability to incorporate the running game into his game plan. When the Saints approach game day as a complete offense — along with using Reggie Bush in creative ways aligned outside the formation — they’re the best the league has to offer.
What I question: The playmaking defense. Where has this gone in New Orleans? I’m a huge fan of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his scheme for the Saints, but over the course of December, the production has dropped off — starting with the loss to the Cowboys when it was exposed down the field. Setting up Brees and the offense with short fields to work with will act as a direct ticket to Miami, but getting involved in shootouts can send the Saints home from the dance early. That defense needs to make plays in January.
What I like: Brett Favre. He’s the catalyst for this offense. Think of Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe, etc. Where would the offense be without him? Yes, Adrian Peterson can still be dominant, but I like Favre heading into the postseason because of his ability to extend the play and his willingness to challenge defensive backs down the field. A covered receiver is an open receiver for Favre. And when his receivers go up and get the football — like they have all season — he’s still one of the best QBs in the league. Favre’s production is good enough to take this team to Miami.
What I question: The Vikings secondary. The defensive backs for the Vikings are an average group. They don’t make plays, and with Antoine Winfield playing hurt, they don’t have a dominant corner. The safety position is weak, and unless the front four of the Vikings or Leslie Frazier’s blitz schemes save them, they’ll be victimized on third downs. Not the secondary you want to have in the playoffs. Giving up big plays in January is the No.1 way to find yourself on the couch watching the next round on TV.
What I like: The balance on offense with Tony Romo. Jason Garrett’s offensive game plan has changed over the month of December, and the Cowboys are built for a playoff run with the perfect balance of the downhill running game of Felix Jones and Marion Barber and the use of TE Jason Witten and WR Miles Austin in various route combinations. Romo is protecting the football and has been prolific in and out of the pocket. He’s playing the best football of his career. I like this offense a lot right now.
What I question: This team is loaded with talent, and I’m not going to question that. But with a lack of playoff experience, do the Cowboys have the ability to come from behind, to win a game in the fourth quarter and adjust the game plan on the fly? That’s the only area of concern I have for a team that might not have the luxury of playing with a second-half lead.
What I like: The athletic ability of their front seven on defense. They can rush with four and drop seven into coverage. They can pressure and they can make plays as a defense. We don’t talk about the Arizona Cardinals and point to the defensive side of the football, but players like Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson spark playoff runs. Considering the injury that may keep WR Anquan Boldin out of action, the play of the Cardinals’ defense will be monumental in pressuring the quarterback.
What I question: The lack of dedication given to the running game. For the cardinals to make another postseason run, they cannot rely on QB Kurt Warner and WR Larry Fitzgerald to make all the plays. There has to be a balance, and if teams do not have to bring an eighth defender into the box, there are ways to slow down Warner and his weapons by dropping seven into coverage and essential closing off the field to Fitzgerald. They must use the run to set up the vertical passing game.
Green Bay Packers
What I like: Dom Capers’ defense. Green Bay is a defensive football team that plays with an elite QB in Aaron Rodgers. I don’t view Capers’ unit as a shutdown defense, but that isn't needed to make a run to Miami. Instead, the defense that can cause turnovers and set up field position for its offense is the team that will advance. Green Bay can rush the QB, and it has enough playmakers in the secondary and the league’s best defensive player in Charles Woodson to put a run together.
What I question: I’m still not sold on the Packers’ offensive line. Despite the fact they have improved over the latter half of the season, the Packers will still have to adjust their game plan to get the ball out of Rodgers hands quickly. This is a unit you can pressure and a unit that will give up sacks. Expect to see plenty of the three-step game from the Packers this January.
What I like: The big play ability. Big plays win football games in January, and the Eagles have the ability with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek to move the ball down the field in chunks. Donovan McNabb will have to be patient with the football and take his chances when he has the numbers in the secondary, but a deep ball is the way to swing momentum and take field position away from the opposing team.
What I question: The Eagles can’t run the football. Those are just the facts, and in reality, that’s what we expect from Andy Reid -- a coach who would rather have a four-yard completion over a six-yard run. It hurts the Eagles in the red zone and it kills them on third downs. Just as we applaud their big-play ability, this team stalls in crucial situations when they can’t move the ball when the field shrinks. And if you can’t run the ball in January, you have no chance to advance.
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