NFC Playoff preview: First Round

#6 Philadelphia Eagles
Things looked gloomy for the Eagles after a 13-13 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals in week 11. In the end, that tie (and Tampa Bay’s collapse) helped the Eagles leapfrog the three 9-7 teams in the NFC to land the final playoff spot. The funny thing is the Eagles are a good team, and maybe even the best team in the NFL. The Eagles are top five in Yards per Game allowed, Rushing and Passing Yards allowed and Points Allowed per Game. We saw how effective the Eagle defense last week as it slammed the door on the Cowboys with two fumble recovery returns for touchdowns.

OFFENSE:The Eagles rank 9th in yards per game and 6th in Passing Yards per Game and Points Scored per Game. However, the Eagles are only 22nd in the league running the ball. 22nd!? With Brian Westbrook? The problem is the Eagles line is not a power running line. The Eagles only converted 55% of their 3rd or 4th and short opportunities this season, next to last in the league. The passing game success is a testament to the ability of the Eagles coaching staff to create specific mismatches and Donovan McNabb’s execution after the snap. I was listening to KNBR the other day and it was brought up that McNabb was running more than in the past and that has contributed to the overall success of the team. The However, McNabb had his second lowest rushing total of his career, 147 yards, in 2008. His lowest was in 2005, 55 yards, when he only played in nine games due to injury. McNabb’s mobility is not being wasted it’s just being used to avoid sacks and pick up passing yards in the air instead of QB rushing yards on the ground. McNabb is only getting sacked on 4.3% of drop backs which is the sixth best in the league.

The Eagles rode Jim Johnson’s defense the last month of the season. They only allowed three touchdowns over the last month of the season. With Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown able to play man coverage effectively, Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell are free to ball hawk and support the run when needed. Recovering fumbles is luck, but forcing fumbles is a skill and Dawkins was second in the league this season with six. The strength of the secondary is balanced on the defensive line with Trent Cole and Juqua Parker creating concern for opposing offensive lines. In the middle, Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson do a good job of clogging up the running lanes. Jim Johnson is known for his blitzing and Philadelphia is sacking opposing QBs on 8.4% of drop backs, fourth best in the league.

#3 Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings season didn’t start as planned. The team lost three of its first four games including blowing a 15-0 lead at home to the Colts in week two. Minnesota went on to win nine of twelve and locked up the NFC North title with a nice win over the New York Giants last week. It’s no secret that the two weapons the Vikings rely on are its defensive line and its running back.

On offense, it’s all about Adrian Peterson, your 2008 NFL rushing title holder with 1760 yards. Adrian Peterson has helped the offense get beyond the limitations of its quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson or Gus Frerotte. Peterson’s one blemish was his league leading nine fumbles and you can bet the Eagles are very aware of this stat. At wide receiver, Bernard Berrian has created a downfield threat to keep opposing defenses honest, but has yet to find a groove with Tavaris Jackson. In five games with Jackson as a starter Berrian has 10 receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns while he has 38 receptions for 786 yards and five touchdowns with Frerotte under center. The hidden playmaker on offense is break out tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(Vi-SAN-tee SHANK-oh) – learn how to pronounce it because you’ll be hearing it a lot over the next few years. The Vikings will run pass plays to isolate Shiancoe in formations designed to trick the defense into guessing run.

The Vikings are first in rush defense this year because of the Williams Wall. Pat Williams and Kevin Williams clog up multiple offensive linemen, making it tough to run on them and the attention they require frees up Jared Allen to attack the QB. The Vikings are 4th in the league with 45 sacks and Jared Allen has almost a third of them with 14.5. Opposing offenses are forced to pick a poison. Shifting a blocker to account for Allen often leads to Kevin Williams or Chad Greenway finding a way into the backfield. The Vikings were second in league in stopping power runs (3rd and 4thdown short yardage runs) and sixth in the league in stuffs (basically, runs that don’t help you pick up first downs.) The passing defense ranks in the bottom third in the league, but part of that has to do with the Vikings ability to stop the run and teams giving up running the ball and trying to attack them through the air. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin are both solid cover men with Madieu Williams and Darren Sharper providing adequate pass and rush support. Don’t let the passing stats fool you because the Viking defense is sacking opposing QBs on 9% of drop backs, second best in the league. If you want to attack the Viking through the air, you better protect your quarterback.

Philadelphia-Minnesota Matchup

Vikings on offense: You better believe Jim Johnson is going to blitz Tarvaris Jackson like crazy, from every direction, pretty much the whole game. Brad Childress knows this and will do his best to run misdirections, play actions and screen passes to try and beat the aggressive Eagle rush. Childress will run off tackle a lot to get AP into the open field and to try and slow the Eagle defensive ends. Tarvaris Jackson will need to keep his cool under pressure and take care of the ball while using his legs to improvise when needed. Besides Berrian, the Vikings don’t have a deep threat, so expect a lot of man coverage from Samuel and Brown with Brian Dawkins or Quintin Mikell shadowing Peterson and ripping at the ball on each tackle.

Eagles on offense:
The Eagles don’t have a power running game, so don’t expect them to attack the Williams Wall on the ground. I expect draw plays, shovel passes, swings and screens to Westbrook and Buckhalter to confuse and tire out the Viking front seven out. McNabb likes to spread the ball around in the air. During the season the Eagles had only one game with less than seven players catching a pass. I anticipate Andy Reid using a three tiered attack to exploit matchups. Since the Vikings don’t defend the TE well, Brent Celek and LJ Smith will be targeted often as the defense plays Westbrook and Buckhalter short and DeSean Jackson and Hank Baskett deep.

Prediction: The Eagles have a lot of positive buzz right now and look to be a tough foe, even on the road. Both defenses are upper echelon type defenses, especially at sacking the QB, but the balanced attack of the Eagle offense and better player at the QB position will be enough for the Eagles to punch their ticket to the Meadowlands next week.
Philadelphia 23 – Minnesota 17

# 5 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons made all the right moves in the off season and went from 4-12 and scarred by the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino messes to 11-5 with the Offensive Rookie of the Year at quarterback, the NFL’s second leading rusher, the a receiver in the top four in yards and possible coach of the year candidate.

OFFENSE: The Falcons like to pass down the field then run in the red zone. Michael Turner got 15 of his 17 TDs inside the red zone while Matt Ryan threw about half of his TDs from outside the red zone. Speaking of the Offensive ROY, he should be buying Roddy White a Rolex or a Hummer or something else nice really soon. White accounted for one third of Ryan’s completions, 40% of his passing yards and almost half of his touchdown passes. Michael Turner ended up as the leading ball carrier this season with 376 carries, but he maintained a solid 4.5 yard per carry average. Jerious Norwood is effective when he’s in the back field and can break big plays rushing or catching the ball. Don’t expect to see much TE work unless they are used to keep defenses honest in coverage.

DEFENSE: The Falcon defense played “bend but don’t break” most of the season. Atlanta finished in the bottom half in both passing and rushing yards allowed, but they were 11th in points allowed. The defense gets pressure on the QB, John Abraham finished third in the league with 16.5 sacks. Abraham’s sack total was a double edge sword. Opposing offenses had significantly greater success running right at Abraham than at any other Falcon defensive lineman. The Atlanta corners are young and often exposed. None of the top four corners on the roster has been in the league for more than 3 seasons. Starting safety Lawyer Milloy hurt his back and missed last week’s game, but plans to play this week. The Falcons linebackers have not played well despite their apparent talent. The two safeties each have more solo tackles than any linebacker. The Falcons defense gives up too many 10+ yard carries, but luckily they play Arizona this round.

#4 Arizona Cardinals
The season started with The Resurrection of Kurt Warner Tour. Warner had seven 300+ yard passing games this season including a stretch of five games in a row. The Cardinals can score points, but the defense also gives up a lot of points. In 11 of 16 games, the Cardinals gave up at least 20 points. The Cardinals finished 4th in Yards per Game, 2nd in passing yardage and 3rd in points per game. The outrageous passing attack camouflaged the last ranked rushing attack and porous pass defense. The Cardinals also played much better at home than they did on the road. Arizona scores 30 ppg at home which makes up for their pedestrian scoring defense at The University of Phoenix stadium which allowing 21 ppg. The numbers are basically reversed on the road (giving up 30 ppg and scoring only 21 ppg).

OFFENSE: Kurt Warner’s rebirth as potential MVP is due to the receiving weapons at his disposal. Three Cardinal wide receivers had more than 75 receptions and 1000 yards. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin both had more than 10 touchdowns a piece which accounted for 2/3 of Warner’s total. Warner was able to stay upright at a top ten rate this season and only fumbled twice. The flip side to the impressive air attack was the lack of any sort of rushing attack. The offensive line preformed well below average at creating space in the running game and they weren’t helped by their running backs who lacked break away speed. You won’t see much from the TE in this offense, it’s a three- or four-wide shotgun set most of the time. The over/under in this game is 51.5, for reason.

DEFENSE: The Arizona defense didn’t have a player with more than 5 sacks and the lack of QB pressure exposed the weakness in the secondary. The Cardinals were middle of the pack defending opponents #2 receivers, but in the bottom of the league at defending all other receivers including 28th against #1 receivers. Teams have been attacking rookie corner Dominique Rodger-Cromartie and it’s tough to say if his stats are representative of his talent or the result of a high volume of passes in his direction. Bertrand Berry and Darnell Dockett are the big dogs on the defensive line, but they are struggling stopping the run this year and as a result Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle are forced to make more tackles that should be made by linebackers or linemen.

Atlanta-Arizona Matchup

Falcons on offense: The Falcons love to run up the middle with Michael Turner. They ran 44% of the time up the middle, not reaching over 17% in any other direction. The Cardinals struggle to defend the run up the middle so I expect the Falcons to pound the ball up the middle and follow those runs with throws by Matt Ryan to Roddy White whenever possible. The Falcons will want to get on the board early and then control the clock with Turner after that.

Cardinals on offense: The Cardinals will spread the field and manufacture mismatches on whichever corner they feel like attacking, probably Chevis Jackson or Brent Grimes. The Cardinals like to move Boldin around and get him the ball on crossing patterns close to the line of scrimmage and let him run after the catch. When defenses start cheating up on Boldin, Warner will throw deep passes down the seam to Breaston. They will try an neutralize John Abraham’s pass rush by running off tackle at him and they will also utilize screen and swing passes to his side, probably to JJ Arrington who works well out of the backfield. Larry Fitzgerald is a beast and Atlanta will be spread thin trying to decide who to double and who to leave open.

Prediction: This matchup has all the looks of a shoot out. Both teams have efficient passing attacks, but flawed defenses, especially in the secondary. Arizona plays well at home and will be hosting its first playoff game since…ever. They will need to play from ahead to succeed because they’ll have trouble coming from behind once Atlanta starts playing ball control. Arizona has a shot because its best weapons, the receivers, match up with Atlanta’s greatest weakness, the inexperienced secondary. Each team will want to win the toss and receive to set the tone of the game. It could be a slug fest where the team who throws the last punch wins. In the end, Atlanta’s running game will be too strong for Arizona’s defense and the Falcons will be able to control the clock once they get the lead.
Atlanta 34 – Arizona 30