The 'Eye Test Report' for each NFL playoff team - NFC Edition

1/1/14 in NFL   |   aizazrasheed   |   9 respect

With great sorrow and a depressed mood, I announce unto thee, that the glorious 17 weeks that adorn the NFL season and bring joy and happiness to football addicts all over the world is over. I have already received calls from my friends commiserating the conclusion and they wanted to make sure that I am doing okay. While I am sad that my Sundays will have to take a new meaning, I am extremely excited for my Seahawks who were able to clinch the much-coveted home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They are in prime position to make a run at a championship and possibly face the Broncos who also have home field advantage in the AFC. 
 
Standing in their respective ways are 10 other teams who are in the tournament and what recent history has told us is that each one of them have the same chance to go all the way. All these teams are extremely talented and very dangerous and they did enough during the season to warrant a playoff spot.  Pundits all over the NFL landscape are looking at stats and recent records to predict who will lift the Lombardi. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I am going to predict how each team will do from the perspective of my eyes or as they call it the Eye test. I have the NFL Sunday Package and a large capacity DVR so I was able to see almost all the games all season long. More specifically I saw all the games that had the 12 playoff teams playing. I don’t dissect the game the way Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hodge would do but I have seen enough football from these teams to study their tendencies and trends that have highlighted their respective strengths and weaknesses. So here it is – My Eye Test Playoff Team’s Profiles. This article will list the NFC teams and the follow up article will highlight the AFC teams.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to inform the readers that I am a Seahawks homer and my love for the team and fascination for Russell Wilson is very well documented. However I have always tried to be as unbiased as I can and back my arguments with facts. Of all the 12 teams in the tournament, Seattle clearly has the best defense, bar none. Even in their “lean” phase from Week 14 to Week 17, where they went 2-2 and lost a home game, their defense was not only good, it was dominant. They allowed a league low 45 points in their last 4 games. This included a shutout on the road at the site of the Superbowl against the Giants. Their front four has stepped up in each and every game. They have stuffed the run and rushed the passer with great efficiency. Even with the loss of KJ Wright, the Linebackers have dominated the middle of the field. The Legion of Boom despite the absence of the starting and backup corner have shut down receivers for most part and led the league in interceptions. Byron Maxwell has been a revelation. On all levels, Seattle’s defense has been just extraordinary.   
Going into week 14, Seattle probably had the best Special teams in the league as well. The play slipped a little bit at crucial points in the last couple of weeks; it can still be regarded as one of the best.
 
The one major concern has been the play of the Quarterback. What I noticed that since the third quarter at Candlestick in week 14, teams just started to pressure him more and make him uncomfortable. What he started doing was to rely more on the big plays rather than keep the chains moving. The team in each of the last 4 games did not stress enough on Marshawn Lynch and the running game and had Wilson throwing far too often. Going into week 17, Lynch was becoming a non-factor. In the game against Rams, the Hawks did the wise thing of not abandoning the run and kept at it and finally they were able to get some consistent runs from him. Russell Wilson tried to put too much on his shoulder and realized his folly. Play at the receiver position has been bad. They have not been able to get separation from man to man corners and have not been able to come down with big catches. I think the bye week will help rest the players and have the QB and the receiver get on the same page. I am not overly concerned but this unit has to step up and play much better if they want to go deep into the playoffs.
 
CAROLINA PANTHERS
 
Seattle won a very close game at Carolina in week 1 by a margin of 12-7 and people starting to worry about the offense in Seattle. What no one realized was that slowly Ron Rivera had put together one of the most ferocious front seven in the league. Rivera was a defensive player on the 85 Bears team that stream rolled offenses on the way to a Lombardi trophy. He had a talented QB but average offensive weapons and he realized that if he has to save his job he needs his defense to do that for him. Hardy, Johnson, Kuechly and Davis played remarkable football down the stretch and Panther were able to win 11 of their last 12 games. Their defense is great and they need to win the first game at home to play in the NFC Championship. They are not as good as the Hawks but they are very close. They will not allow a lot of points and that will keep them in each and every game.
 
Special teams in Carolina are okay. They have had good plays here and there but largely it has been the defense that has put them in good field positions rather than the stellar play of the special teams. In the playoffs, this might be a factor but since their defense will be good, it might not a big issue after all.
 
The Offense has not played well at all in the last 3-4 weeks. They have largely been outplayed in the first half but the defense was able to keep them in the games long enough to have Cam Newton go on a game winning drive.  It happened in Miami, at home against the Saints and in week 17 at Atlanta. They do not have a good receiver and with the injury to Steve Smith might be a big blow to them in the playoffs. The pressure of the playoffs on Newton might be a factor as well and we don’t know how he would perform. So for me Panthers are not as strong on offense and that might be their downfall in the playoffs.
 
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES:
 
Chip Kelly revolutionized that college game. Offenses all over the college, landscape has his imprint all over.  He took over an average team that was last in their division a year ago and propelled them to the top of the division and a home playoff game.  The biggest weakness in this team has been their defense. They were unable to stop the run and their corners were atrocious in the first half of the season. However once the team moved from Vick to Foles, the team started playing from the front in most of the games and that gave their defense the extra spark they needed.  Even an average defense can play much better when they make other teams one-dimensional. To their credit, the play has improved by leaps and bounds but it still is a work in progress. They will play better with the lead but would wilt if the teams keep running the ball on them. The linebackers and the back 4 are not that good to keep the elite receivers in check and might give a lot of points to a team like the Saints who throw all over the park. 
 
Chip Kelly is a field position believer and he knows the importance of short fields and how they equate to points. They have a good return and kickoff teams and they use their players like DeSean Jackson very well to score points. However I am really concerned about the special teams while kicking and punting to the other team. They are prone to give big plays and TDs on special teams and that can be crucial in the playoffs. I think it is a wash but I will be concerned. 
 
Nick Foles in any other season and with a full complement of 16 games would be a clear MVP. As it is his 27 TDs and 2 interceptions is an exceptional record for a second year QB. Chip Kelly transformed his play and used the exceptional running game from McCoy to force defenses into giving big plays. Foles responded with accurate throws downfield and that turned into big TDs for the receivers and tight ends.  Eagles might have the best weapons on offense in the NFC. Their O line play has been exceptional and McCoy has been a superstar. I rank their offense as the best in the NFC of the teams in the playoffs. 
 
GREEN BAY PACKERS
 
Green Bay sneaked into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record. They lost Aaron Rodgers in Week 8 but got him in time to throw the game winning TD in week 17 and propel them to the playoffs. Green Bay should feel very confident going into the playoffs but what they should not feel confident is the play of their defense.
They were torched in their last playoff game against the Niners. They are not any better in my opinion this year.  In fact they might now be worse since they will not have Clay Matthews in the mix. Their run defense is just atrocious and their pass defense is not any better. AJ Hawk and Clay were the only saving grace and with Clay not playing in this game offenses can plan for Hawk and take advantage of the back end. The DBs have been just ordinary. Sam Shields and Truman William who were once considered stars have been torched on a regular basis. This is the last season for Dom Capers in Green Bay and hopefully he can elevate the play of his players otherwise it will be a third straight exit for the Packers from the playoffs.
 
Mika Hyde has been the best pick that the Packers have made in the last two years. He has been a great player on returns and kickoffs. Randall Cobb is healthy again and he will be used as a kickoff return man while Hide will be used for Punt returns. I think the Packers can count on the special teams to give Aaron Rodgers a short field and that will be huge for the Packers.
 
Rodgers has already played an elimination game in Week 17 on his return and play another one on Sunday. He was very rusty and ineffective in the first half but did get his rhythm back in the second half. He has all his receivers healthy and he has Lacey who might be the offensive Rookie of the year. Rodgers is the best QB in the game and he is healthy. He is very dangerous and can score a lot of points at home and on the road. He will be the X-factor in the Packers playoff run and the team will go as much he can take them. More possessions for Rodgers will translate to points and more points will result in Green Bay going deeper into the playoffs.
 
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
 
Saints have two teams. The Superdome Saints and the Road Saints. 8-0 For the former and 3-5 for the latter. 18 more points at home than on the road and breakdowns galore on the road. Embarrassing losses at Seattle and Rams highlighted their ineffectiveness on the road. Loss at Panthers in Week 16 meant road games throughout their playoffs, unless they face the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. When Sean Payton came back from the suspension, the first move he made was to hire Rob Ryan who was foolishly released by the Cowboys. The team had great 3-4 players and Rob Ryan harnessed their talents into a top 15 defenses. They have an improved pass rush and very good linebacker play. However Ryan by nature is an aggressive coach and sometimes it is his downfall. They have played well in the back end but now with the loss of Vicarro at Free Safety, they are not going to be as effective. On the road without the noise and the lead, I am not sure if their defense is going to hold against an offense like the Eagles. Big Question marks for me.
 
Darren Sproles has been their most effective player besides Brees. His screen game, end-arounds add so many dimensions to the offense but it is his return game that results in good field position for the Saints.  On the defensive side, the special teams are average. They have a solid unit and it is one of their strengths. However in the cold in Philly, I am not sure if the players can hold up to hits and avoid fumbles.  So it is a factor to look out for on Saturday when the Saints face off against the Eagles.
 
The most surprising things for me vis-à-vis the Saints this season has been their poor play on offense on the road. Drew Brees is a great QB but his play is so much different in the Superdome versus on the road. He has looked very rattled and unsettled on the road even in the early part of the season. He has forced throws and has wilted under pressure that was not even there sometimes. His last three games on the road have been one of the three worst games that Brees has ever put on tape. The issue with the Saints is that when Brees does not play well, the whole team shrinks and underperforms. I don’t see the confidence that he needs to beat the Eagles at home.  Jimmy Graham never really recovered from a midseason injury and did not want to do extra to jeopardize his contract status in 2014. Colston is a declining player and Stills and other receivers have not stepped up, especially on the road. Mark Ingram has shown signs of improvement but I am not sure if that is going to be enough. I have some serious concerns about Saints’ ability to keep us with the Eagles next week.
 
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
           
The Niners had a very strange season. They suffered some bad losses in the middle of the season but their last 8 games coincided with Crabtree and Mannigham coming back. Colin Kaepernick really struggled but his play improved when he got his weapons back. The team ended on a 7 game winning streak. Coming into this season, the defense was one of their biggest assets. They did not play up to par and lost Aldon Smith for 5 games in midseason.  This team did not do well in his absence and lost some crucial road games and two games at home to playoff teams. However in the last six games of the year, their defense has played really well. Their front seven especially the linebackers are playing at a very high level and the Aldon-Justin Smith Combo is back to its menacing best. They have kept their team in close games down the stretch and saved their season in Week 16 when Bowman intercepted Matt Ryan for a game-sealing pick six. That loss coupled with a loss in Arizona in week 17 would have kicked them out of the tournament.  So their defense is going to be key in progressing forward. The only issue is that in week 17, they lost a key member Carlos Rogers to injury. His status is still unknown. Even with him in the lineup, they had given up plays in the secondary. They are going to face Aaron Rodgers and one of the best receiving Corps in the league. If the Niners give up a lot of points, it will be on big plays.
 
On special teams, they are very solid. Their kicker ahs been perfect this season and their punter is still one of the best. LaMichael James has given them great field position and on the defensive side, they have done really well limiting returns both on kickoffs and punts. In Green Bay in one week, field position will be paramount and the outcome might depend largely on the productivity of the special teams. I still feel it is one of their assets.
 
On offense, Colin Kaepernick began the season with a near perfect rating. However his play in the subsequent weeks was not good at all, to a point where people started questioning if they let the wrong guy leave. He had not thrown a touchdown pass to anyone except Boldin or Davis till week 10 when he got his receivers back. Boldin has been a great addition to this team and has bailed out Colin many a times during this season. However aggressive corners like Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson have limited his plays. Frank Gore’s play has been inconsistent but that has to do with the O line play. They had one of the best lines in the league for the last two years but this year the paly has suffered considerably due to age and injuries. However the offense has come up aces at key points during the last leg of the season. They have not exploded but made enough plays to win all those games. I am not as sold on their offense as most of the pundits are but if their defense keeps it close, then the offense will do enough to win. 
 
Here are my overall ratings for all three phases for the NFC teams:
 
Defense:
 
  1. Seattle Seahawks
  2. Carolina Panthers
  3. San Francisco 49ers
  4. New Orleans Saints
  5. Green Bay Packers
  6. Philadelphia Eagles
 
Special Teams:
 
  1. San Francisco 49ers
  2. Philadelphia Eagles
  3. Green Bay Packers
  4. Seattle Seahawks
  5. New Orleans Saints
  6. Carolina Panthers
 
Offense:
 
  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Green Bay Packers
  4. San Francisco 49ers
  5. Seattle Seahawks
  6. Carolina Panthers
I will post my predictions later in the week.  So follow me and find out when I break down each game and predict the winners.
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