NFC Divisional Round: This Could be the Year of the Underdog
It is entirely possible that BOTH of the NFC’s top seeds could lose at home despite their gaudy records as well as week’s rest and that a rubber match between NFC South teams New Orleans and Atlanta will determine the conference’s representative in the Super Bowl.
First, a disclaimer: Until MVP candidate and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a devastating knee injury on a meaningless play against the L.A. Rams, Philly would have all but guaranteed a spot in the Super Bowl.
Wentz was poised to be the new Tom Brady, passing the torch to a new generation but a torn ACL ended his season along with the Eagles hopes at a championship.
Saturday: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles – 4:35 PM ET
It’s difficult to recall the last time that the top conference seed was an underdog but that’s what the Eagles are as they open the postseason at home this afternoon.
Due to the loss of Wentz and backup Nick Foles’ poor play in the games since the likely MVP went down, points will be at a premium for Philadelphia because it’s hard to see their backup getting the job done.
Compounding the Eagles’ offensive woes is the running back by committee approach that generally translates into – if you have multiple running backs, you don’t have a running back.
Aging LeGarrette Blount is technically the top guy but Philly also swung a trade for disappointing Miami Dolphins back Jay Ajayi who has failed to impress after the change of locations.
Hey, lets’ face it – on a team that depended on a star quarterback throwing the rock all over the field, the running game was not exactly a priority. If the Eagles are to move on to the NFC Championship, they will need their backs to shoulder the load.
Fortunately for Philly, they have a good defense with a fearsome pass rush and the home crowd should be a factor as long as the Eagles don’t fall behind early.
Their opponents are the battle-tested Atlanta Falcons who look to continue their late-season surge after whipping up on the Rams last week in the Wild Card game.
Quarterback Matt Ryan leads a multi-faceted offensive attack and has possibly the best receiver in the NFL – Julio Jones – as his top target. The Falcons utilize a two-back attack that actually works and is led by Devonte Freeman with speedy Tevin Coleman being an elusive big play threat.
The Falcons defense should be more than up to the task of shutting down an impotent Philadelphia offense and as long as the Eagles’ pass rush doesn’t pound Ryan to a pulp, Atlanta will be one step closer to redemption for their epic Super Bowl choke against the Patriots.
Sunday: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings – 4:40 PM ET
This could be the game to watch this weekend. The Vikings shocked just about everyone with a 13-3 record this season, even after losing rookie sensation running back Dalvin Cook early in the year.
Minnesota’s bread and butter is defense and there is no team in the playoffs who matches up in this category. They are strong against both the run and the pass and are two wins away from being the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The offense is led by the surprising quarterback Case Keenum who after replacing constantly injured Sam Bradford, put together a career year with 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He is helped by one of the most underrated receiving corps in the NFL as well as running back Latavius Murray whose career has been rejuvenated after he replaced Cook.
Sunday’s opponent will the always dangerous New Orleans Saints whose prolific offense is led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees but he will be challenged by the Vikings defense. The teams met way back in week one with Minnesota springing the upset 29-19 and launching their amazing run.
If the Saints are to emerge with the win they will need far more from running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara who were held in check by the Carolina Panthers last week and it is essential that they take some of the pressure off Brees or he will be devoured by the new purple people eaters.
The key will probably come down to Keenum’s lack of playoff experience and whether he can continue his great play now that each game is an elimination match. Brees has that experience and that gives New Orleans a slight edge in this one.
If the Saints are able to prevail, they could face their hated division rivals Atlanta for the third time this season.
The winners will meet in the NFC Championship game next Sunday at 6:40 PM ET.
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