Sport Editor Alex Alton examines the recent trials and tribulations of West Ham United both on and off the fieldWritten by alexalton1 on 18th March 2018
NFL Post-Season Preview- Part 2: NFC
In the second instalment of his NFL post-season previews, James Law focusses on the NFC
The National Football Conference is represented by 6 more teams, and I find it far more intriguing and entertaining speculating on who might get the NFC’s Super Bowl spot. There are just so many variables to take into account. There are teams that just squeezed into the playoff picture who could make a genuine run for the biggest prize of them all, and the overall quality of this conference just seems that bit better than the AFC. I’m pretty sure that right now, all of these teams could beat the Bills and the Titans at least.
These are the teams who will be vying for a coveted place in the Superbowl.
6th Seed: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were tipped by many to have yet another stormer of a season after their Super Bowl run and subsequent Super Bowl collapse to the New England Patriots. That didn’t quite happen as planned. They didn’t lose any of their major star performers, and finished the season quite strongly with a 10-6 record, only one win away from their 2016 regular season record. However, it just wasn’t the same. Julio Jones, one of the best wide receivers in the league, just couldn’t be the difference when it counted quite enough, although that may partly be due to opposing defences putting a great deal of resources towards shutting him down. Quarterback Matt Ryan had a down year too, and I would attribute this to the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who left the Falcons in the offseason to become the San Francisco 49ers head coach. Replacement Steve Sarkeesian obviously knew the offence and continued with reasonable success, but the Atlanta offence in 2017 was not the terrifying juggernaut that it was the previous year.
This season, half of the Atlanta Falcons’ losses came at the hands of NFC playoff teams. This has me worried for their hopes in the playoffs, as (obviously) these are the teams they’ll come up against. These players have been through this before, though, and will be fired up for vindication after famously blowing a 28-3 lead in last year’s Super Bowl. If Julio Jones can come up with the kind of play that made him the league’s best last season, there is no defence that can stop him, and I feel that the LA Rams is a decent matchup for the Falcons’ wild card round. Both teams are offensive-minded and dynamic, so the Falcons will hope that their team can succeed in that battle before getting revenge on one of the teams that bested them earlier on in the season.
5th Seed: Carolina Panthers
Back in the playoffs. Having been the worst team in the NFC South in 2016, the Panthers secured a wild card spot with a record of 11-5 in the strongest division in football based on teams making the playoffs. They will have to overcome division champions the New Orleans Saints to come through the wild card game, however. The Saints have been a problem for the Panthers this season, beating quarterback Cam Newton’s team both times they played in 2017. The main issue during the regular season has been Newton’s passing game – only twice has he eclipsed the 300 yard mark in a game, and he is 27th in the league in passing yards per game.
The Carolina defence has stood strong though, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, and Newton’s dual-threat ability as a hugely powerful runner with the ball helps mitigate the lack of a passing game. As well as this, the Panthers were missing tight end Greg Olsen for much of the year, and with such an important target missing, the passing game was bound to suffer. He is back for the playoffs though, and the Panthers will be hungry for revenge against Drew Brees’ Saints. They can beat anyone when they’re up to it, as evidenced by their week 4 victory over the Patriots, and week 14 defeat of the defensive monsters in Minnesota. When Cam Newton is passing well, he can dismantle teams with ease, as there is no way to deal with a QB with such a potent dual threat. The Panthers will hope that the Cam of the 2015 regular season shows up, and their playoffs will be very enjoyable indeed.
“This season, half of the Atlanta Falcons’ losses came at the hands of NFC playoff teams
4th Seed: New Orleans Saints
The Saints will always have a shot, with one of the best quarterbacks to play the game, Drew Brees, leading the charge. Following a slow start to the year, the Saints picked themselves up, with a historically weak defence beginning to hold offences and obtain turnovers, led by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. This increased defensive production allowed the offence to shine even more, and breakout rookie running back Alvin Kamara joined up with pro bowler Mark Ingram to create a deadly backfield pairing, removing a lot of the Saints’ reliance on Brees seen in recent seasons.
Brees’ numbers have been down this season, in passing yards and touchdowns, but that is due to the aforementioned boosts in other areas of the team. His efficiency is actually higher than his last few seasons, and still has the ability to take on more of a workload and carry the team if he needs to. I have a good feeling about the Saints – they have all the pieces needed to make a good run for the Super Bowl, as they did back in 2010. No other NFC team has a Super Bowl winning quarterback, so could we potentially see a Brady-Brees OAP Super Bowl?
3rd Seed: Los Angeles Rams
The biggest turnaround of the season, the Los Angeles Rams and new head coach Sean McVay shocked the NFL when it turned out that Jared Goff can actually throw the ball to his receivers. This is largely attributed to McVay’s new system, and I can go along with that. Todd Gurley was never going to have two consecutive down years and led the league in yards from scrimmage, and the Rams struck that all-important balance between their passing and running games to get a record of 11-5. The Rams are a young, exciting team with players hungry for success and to prove themselves, which is a blessing, but also a cause for concern.
They are lacking in playoff experience, but will feel confident bringing a fully-rested group of starters having effectively thrown their final week matchup against San Francisco. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald should put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, as this season no offensive line has been able to deal with his power and speed, and this could be the key factor in all of their matchups. Rams fans will hope that their youth and energy can translate into the postseason, and McVay’s entertaining and electrifying offence will be great viewing for us at home. They’ll have to get past the NFC’s defending champions, the Atlanta Falcons, but will not be as fearful as they would’ve been last year. The Rams are a team on the rise, seizing the NFC West from the Seattle Seahawks. Even if they are unable to make it all the way through this playoff run, this team should be on the rise for years to come, with the players gaining that irreplaceable playoff experience for the future.
“The Vikings are very well-placed to do well in the NFC’s side of the playoffs
2nd Seed: Minnesota Vikings
Case Keenum, in the 2016 season, was quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams during their abysmal 4-12 season. This season, he led the Minnesota Vikings to being the NFC’s second-best team. With Jared Goff occupying the third spot, many blame both of these players’ failings on former Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. To those people, I say yes, you are exactly right. Keenum is a prime example of how a good system can win out over individual talent. Don’t get me wrong, he has played by far the best football of his career, and maybe he is actually really good and has fooled us all along, but the Vikings have clicked amazingly this season. Head Coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive mastermind, and the Vikings’ defence has always been fantastic – this season they were the stingiest scoring defence in the entire league. This allowed the offence to play with less pressure, and in the 15 games Keenum played, he was able to utilise his many offensive weapons to great effect, including a massive season for the former undrafted free agent Adam Thielen.
The Vikings are among my favourites to win the NFC, and unless they have to play the Eagles, they will not need to play another game away from home as they are hosting the Super Bowl this year. No team has ever won the Super Bowl in their own stadium, but the Vikings will fancy themselves to do it. They have held two great NFC playoff offences – Atlanta and LA – to under 10 points this season, and if they can turn up like that in the big upcoming games, there is no reason they can’t make it all the way through. As 2nd seed, the Vikings also get a first round bye, which means they can sit at home watching the Rams, Saints and Panthers beat each other up, then play one of them at home. Travelling to Philadelphia is always tough, but without their star quarterback, the Vikings would likely go into that potential NFC Championship match as favourites. I think that the toughest obstacle for the Vikings will be the Saints. The Saints defence can cause Case Keenum issues and force him to throw interceptions. The Vikings haven’t been particularly strong turnover-wise, they have relied on grinding opposing offences to a halt, so if a team can pull out some big plays, they could be blown wide open, as Cam Newton did in week 14. Despite these potential problems, though, I do think the Vikings are very well-placed to do well in the NFC’s side of the playoffs, and they will be confident that they can stop any offence that comes their way.
1st Seed: Philadelphia Eagles
It’s a weird situation here. The Eagles are many people’s least favourite to win the NFC, despite being first seed and guaranteed to play all of their games at home. This is entirely down to one man: Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ second-year quarterback had a ridiculous season, and was in the running for MVP due to his consistent production and ability to make the important plays when it mattered. His injury in week 14 shocked the Eagles. They were already playoff bound, but had to rely on backup Nick Foles. As backup QBs go, he is one of the more ‘proven’ ones, with a number of successful seasons under his belt at the Eagles. In 2013, he threw 27 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, and even played a playoff game after that season, narrowly falling to New Orleans in his only appearance. The rest of the Eagles team have been brilliant all season, with a top-5 defence and a powerful running game, spearheaded by LeGarrette Blount but with the addition via trade of Londoner Jay Ajayi, who can be relied on to take a significant workload in the playoffs in the absence of Wentz.
The absence of Wentz, though, is still so hard to overlook. He was playing the best out of any QB in the league, and without their main piece, they have had a decidedly average end of the season. Nick Foles was far from tested, only having to beat the meek Oakland Raiders and the pitiful New York Giants. That’s the main thing – Foles is a really good backup quarterback, but he is still a backup. Thrust into the team at late notice, he didn’t have the advantage that the likes of Case Keenum had for the Vikings, he couldn’t make the team his own. Obviously so much talent is present on that Philadelphia team that they could make me look very silly indeed, and I do want them to succeed (mostly because Jay Ajayi seems lovely and he’s from London), but I can’t see them getting past the in-form, dynamic sides in the NFC.