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No clear favorite in the NFC as the playoffs open

JAIME C. HARRIS | 1/5/2018, 12:59 p.m.
Dissimilar to last year’s NFL postseason, when the Atlanta Falcons emerged as a juggernaut and battered the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 ...
Todd Gurley

Dissimilar to last year’s NFL postseason, when the Atlanta Falcons emerged as a juggernaut and battered the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 in the divisional round, and then crushed the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game, no team is close to being as formidable as that squad, which should have defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl—they were leading 28-9 at the end of the third quarter—but fell victim to senseless play calling by the Falcons coaching staff.

Furthermore, the Packers, Cowboys and Seahawks, winners of the NFC North, East and West divisions, respectively, a season ago would all have been strong representatives for their conferences in the Super Bowl. This season, the four division champions, the Philadelphia Eagles (East), Los Angeles Rams (West), Minnesota Vikings (North) and New Orleans Saints (South) are all solid teams, but none stand out as being decidedly superior to the two wild-card entries, the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. When the playoffs begin this Saturday, the Eagles and Vikings, both 13-3, will have first-round byes by virtue of sharing the best record in the NFC during the regular season.

The Eagles will have home field advantage as long as they remain in the tournament as a result of holding the tie-breaker over the Vikings. They gained the edge based on the common opponents tie-breaker determinant, the opponent being the Panthers. The Eagles defeated the Panthers 28-23 in Week 6, whereas the Vikings lost to the Panthers 31-24 in Week 14.

Saturday at 8:15 p.m., the six-seeded Falcons (10-6) travel to Los Angles to meet the three-seeded Rams (11-5). Rams running back Todd Gurley II had a sensational regular season campaign, rushing for 1,305 yards, second most in the NFL. He is this writer’s pick for league MVP. Gurley is also a dangerous pass catcher and should wreak havoc on a talented but mediocre, inconsistent Falcons defense.

Collectively, the Falcons have been the most enigmatic team in football this season, a Jekyll and Hyde outfit that doesn’t seem mentally prepared to make a deep playoff run.  The pick here is the Rams.

Sunday at 4:40 p.m., the five-seeded Panthers (11-5) will meet up with the four-seeded Saints (11-5) in New Orleans. 

The Saints boast an explosive offensive unit, anchored by future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees and the spectacular running back duo of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Additionally, their defense is markedly improved from last season as rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a major impact player.

The Panthers mirror the Falcons in that they can look like the best team in football on any given day and one of the worst a week later. Quarterback Cam Newton is capable of disrupting the most capable defenses, but the Saints hold an advantage playing at home. The pick here is the Saints.