Here's a prediction: This is going to be the greatest playoffs in NFC history, featuring one high-flying game after another. Look for wild swings in games, at least a couple of big comebacks and no safe leads.
Who wins the conference? You'll see my pick at the end, but let me say right now: I have no confidence in that pick, no real belief that it's going to be right and I urge you not to bet a single dollar based on my opinion. If I'm right, I will readily admit that it was little more than a football version of Russian Roulette that allowed me to be correct.
Wow, that's some expert commentary, huh? At any rate, here are five thoughts heading into this year's NFC playoffs:
1. Is this the greatest collection of quarterbacks ever assembled in one conference's postseason?
The quick and emphatic answer is yes, certainly since the NFL expanded the playoffs to six teams in each conference in 1990. With Drew Brees(notes) of the New Orleans Saints, Brett Favre(notes) of the Minnesota Vikings, Tony Romo(notes) of the Dallas Cowboys, Donovan McNabb(notes) of the Philadelphia Eagles, Kurt Warner(notes) of the Arizona Cardinals and Aaron Rodgers(notes) of the Green Bay Packers, you're talking about at least three guys who have a chance (at this point in their careers) to go to the Hall of Fame. Romo and Rodgers have a long way to go to catch up with the others, but they are coming off strong seasons. The bottom line is this: None of those teams has a truly weak sister at quarterback and all of them lean heavily on those quarterbacks to run their offense. This is fun stuff.
2. That said, can any team in the NFC be trusted to play well every week?
The simple answer to this is no, and that's partly because these teams are so dependent on throwing the ball that they're subject to huge peaks and valleys. Philadelphia is a prime example. In the Week 16 game at home against Denver, the Eagles looked dominant in the first half, let the game get close, finally won 30-27 and then followed that up with a horrendous game against Dallas on Sunday. The Cowboys, with all of their offensive talent, were limited to seven points each in consecutive November games. New Orleans started the season 13-0, including a huge victory over New England at home, then stumbled down the stretch and lost its last three. Minnesota was playing great, then lost three of four before its big win over the New York Giants on Sunday.
3. OK, that would seem to indicate that the best defense would have a huge edge
Specifically, the team with the best pass rush is the one to really watch. That means Dallas is the team that should do some real damage now that it has Jay Ratliff(notes) and Anthony Spencer(notes) playing so well as complements to outstanding pass rusher DeMarcus Ware(notes). During the final three games, the Cowboys have finally put together the type of stifling pass rush that everyone expected. As a result, they have, for the time being, shaken themselves of their late-season woes under coach Wade Phillips. That said, Minnesota and Philadelphia can be great in the pass rush. They just do it a little differently than Dallas.
4. Let's get away from the technical stuff for the moment. What could be the best moment in the NFC playoffs?
There are a lot of fun places in the NFL, but there is something a little different about New Orleans. The atmosphere is like chasing four Red Bulls with a Lo-Carb Monster. In the increasingly corporate style of the NFL, New Orleans is like an oasis. People are drinking, smoking, partying and generally having a great time … three days before the game even starts. Walking the streets from the French Quarter to the Superdome is one of the coolest experiences in the league. The frenzy is palpable. Considering that the Saints have never hosted a conference title game in their history (let alone go to a Super Bowl), this experience would be off the chain. And, after all the hell this city went through after Hurricane Katrina, it would be well-deserved.
5. Who is under the most pressure in the NFC playoffs?
There are some usual suspects here. Favre obviously put a lot on the line to go to Minnesota, turning his back on Green Bay in the process. McNabb is facing his collection of critics. Still, there's one man who jumps ahead of those two great quarterbacks. The widely held belief around the NFL is that Dallas coach Wade Phillips has to make at least the NFC championship game in order to save his job. During the past three games, Phillips has done everything he possibly could to put himself in the best position after the team was teetering early in December.
NFC champ: New Orleans (again, this is really shaky).