NFC playoff field: Five newcomers and Falcons
Wildcard weekend predictions
By Arnie Stapleton
AP Pro Football Writer
In the topsy-turvy NFC playoffs, only the Falcons return from last year, and they sneaked in as the sixth and final team. They narrowly avoided the same fate as the Cowboys, Seahawks, Packers, Giants and Lions — all sitting this one out.
The top five seeds are newcomers, led by the Eagles. They are going with a backup quarterback and are making their first trip to the postseason party since 2013. The Vikings are back after a year away, hoping to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in its home stadium .
The five new teams went a combined 32-48 in 2016 but 59-21 this season, providing hope to all those franchises and fans who are already preparing for free agency and the draft.
The field features just two Super Bowl winners, the Rams at the turn of the century when they were based in St. Louis, and the Saints in 2010, when they upset the Colts and Peyton Manning.
The Rams, in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, host the Falcons on Saturday in the showcase of wild-card weekend. The Saints, who ended a four-year playoff drought, host the Panthers on Sunday.
Strength and weakness of each team:
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-3). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 15 to Oakland in 1981 and Super Bowl 39 to New England in 2005.
Hope: The Eagles have the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense with three productive backs: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. They’ll have to rely on them more to take pressure off QB Nick Foles and a passing attack that has struggled since second-year sensation Carson Wentz tore his left ACL in December, a major blow to the Eagles’ bounce-back season .
2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-3). No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 4 to Kansas City in 1970, Super Bowl 8 to Miami in 1974, Super Bowl 9 to Pittsburgh in 1975 and Super Bowl 11 to Oakland in 1977.
Hope: The defense , with all due respect to QB Case Keenum and the job he’s done. The Vikings ranked second in the league in both fewest rushing yards and fewest passing yards allowed, so there’s not really a one preferred way to attack them. No team gave up fewer points, either. With Pro Bowl picks at each of the three position groups yet a selfless attitude that’s kept individual players from chasing splashy plays or padding statistics at the expense of the scheme, coach Mike Zimmer’s unit will be a challenge for any opposing QB, especially in Minnesota at raucous U.S. Bank Stadium.
3. LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, beat Tennessee 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, while based in St. Louis.
Hope: The NFL’s most surprising comeback story shows few signs of ending prematurely. L.A. has the talent and smarts on both sides of the ball, with the league’s highest-scoring offense led by QB Jared Goff and MVP hopeful RB Todd Gurley. The Wade Phillips-led defense remains a strength with DT Aaron Donald disrupting offenses weekly. Rookie coach Sean McVay has outsmarted his older foes with impressive regularity.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 44, beat Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010.
Hope: Although Brees passed for his fewest yards (4,334) since joining the Saints in 2006, he was as efficient as ever, setting a single-season record with his 72 percent completion rate. And Brees didn’t need to throw as much because the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara combined for 1,852 yards rushing. They also performed well as receivers, particularly on screens, each gaining more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
5. CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 38 to New England in 2004 and Super Bowl 50 to Denver in 2016.
Hope: They have one of the league’s best defenses behind LB Luke Kuechly, LB Thomas Davis and DE Julius Peppers. They also have more playoff experience than any team in the NFC playoffs — by a wide margin — and a versatile former league MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton . Carolina has three times run for more than 200 yards in a game this season, and that bodes well for the playoffs where the ground game is magnified.
Nope: Despite an 11-5 record in the toughest division in football, the Panthers don’t match up well against first-round foe New Orleans and could be one and done. The Saints beat them twice in the regular season by a combined score of 65-34. If Carolina can get by the wild-card round, it has the potential to make a deep run. But the pressure will be on Newton to perform because Carolina’s wide receivers aren’t going to scare anyone.
The Dope: “We all know what they say about pressure, that it does one of two things. We’re hoping to shine like diamonds on Sunday.” — Newton.
6. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 33 to Denver in 1999 and Super Bowl 51 to New England in 2017.
Hope: Improved defense provides better balance to a team motivated by last year’s Super Bowl defeat. The Falcons were top 10 in scoring defense and total defense for first time since 1998 Super Bowl season. Defense boasts young, athletic playmakers, including LB Vic Beasley Jr., the 2016 NFL sacks leader, LB Deion Jones, LB De’Vondre Campbell and S Keanu Neal. Offense still has explosive potential with QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Devonta Freeman.
AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Steve Reed, Charles Odum and Brett Martel contributed.