Written by Marc Sessler, Around the NFL Writer
We’ve arrived at the doorstep of the games that matter most.
The playoffs are here, and this year’s flock of NFC contenders are a glorious gaggle of powerful teams dotted with watchable stars. Each of these clubs are laced with positive traits, but also quirks that render them vulnerable.
In a conference tournament that’s truly up for grabs, let’s take a look at what makes these playoff teams tick, shall we? Teams below are arranged according to how they’re seeded.
NOTE: Be sure to check back Thursday for a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each playoff team in the AFC.
1) Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
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▹ Playoffs first-look: Scariest team left
Strength: The offense is compromised by the loss of quarterback Carson Wentz, but the Eagles held their own on defense over the past two weeks after giving up 434 yards passing to Eli Manning in Week 15. No team this season generated a higher disruption rate (the combination of pressures and run stuffs divided by defensive snaps), and no defense was stingier against the run. Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Chris Long anchor a front line with the power to wreck game plans and rattle quarterbacks. The Eagles will need this side of the ball to play pristine football week after week for any shot at the Super Bowl.
Weakness: Philly’s weakness? It’s what used to be the club’s unquestioned core power: the quarterback position. Losing Wentz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 14 stripped the Eagles of their beating heart and one of the game’s most promising young stars. Backup Nick Foles was exposed on Christmas against Oakland and was downright awful last Sunday against the Cowboys before giving way to third-stringer Nate Sudfeld. It really shows in Philly’s vertical air game, too, with Foles sporting a 2.1 passer rating on deep throws — small sample size noted — while Wentz produced a 94.9 mark before the injury. Eagles fans went from watching Wentz operate as a cannon-armed, pre-snap magician with next-level mobility and Brett Favre-level derring-do to wondering if the postseason might be a one-and-done affair with Foles at the controls.
2) Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Strength: Where do we begin? You can point to the team’s star-studded offense, Minnesota’s ability to overcome key injuries or the franchise’s rock-solid, slump-proof and resourceful coaching staff, led by Mike Zimmer. It all starts with the defense, though, which has held teams to under 20 points in a whopping 12 games. If the pass rush hasn’t quite been itself over the past two weeks, the Vikings still have reliable, Pro Bowl-level talent at every level. Beyond the team’s nasty front seven, the back end of this unit — led by cover man Xavier Rhodes and sensational safety Harrison Smith — has the raw power to frustrate a high-flying team like the Rams in January.
Weakness: I don’t see an overt weakness on this roster. Don’t tell me this year’s Case Keenum isn’t a Super Bowl quarterback, either, because he’s done nothing but magnify the play of his skill-position players. When Keenum ran into trouble in a Week 14 loss to the Panthers, his six sacks charted back to a banged-up offensive line currently missing left guard Nick Easton, who went on injured reserve on Dec. 26. The line can’t suffer any more setbacks. I’d also be concerned that tight end Kyle Rudolph came out of Sunday’s win over Chicago in a walking boot. Finally, we need to see Everson Griffen return to his pass-rushing heights from a couple of months ago, but chalk this up as nitpicking. This is the NFL’s most complete team, with a roster that thrashed the Rams in November.
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