NFC Playoff Preview

The NFC playoff field is wide open. The Packers are rightly favorites given they have the bye week, home field, and the best quarterback in the league this year. But the field is deep and I wouldn’t be shocked if any team outside of the Eagles emerged from the fray. Just as every other team has shown flashes of dominance this year, every team has shown moments of vulnerability as well.

The Packers defense can be beaten with a strong ground game and Rodgers can be disrupted by a lightning-quick pass rush. Several NFC teams fit this mold, so the path won’t be easy. The Bucs, Cowboys, Rams, Cardinals, and 49ers all boast balance between offense and defense, big-play ability, and strong quarterback play of their own. With fast play and aggressiveness we could see some fun shoot-outs and wire-to-wire games. But predicting specific results will come down to matchups.

The parity on this side of the bracket also means the path to the Super Bowl is unclear. The lowest seed will head to Lambeau in the Divisional Round, but even assuming the Eagles do not upset Tampa Bay, that could reasonably be the 49ers, Cardinals, or Rams. All three are capable of springing the upset. If the Packers win, weather in Lambeau is an obvious factor and teams will likely need to be balanced. But if not, the road to the Super Bowl could go through Tampa Bay or Dallas, which could open things up for pass-heavy teams. With four very viable contenders and two more capable of making a run, this should be fun.

Team-by-Team Breakdowns

#1 Green Bay Packers

Off: 2nd (+0.64)
20th (-0.07)
Net: 7th

Outlook: It’s been over 20 years since an NFL regular season MVP won the Super Bowl. But that’s not predictive; it’s just an interesting stat that Rodgers and co. want to change this season. Rodgers has been surgical for two years running now after a lull in his career in which he seemed almost disinterested. The Packers have dealt with injuries all year and appear to be getting healthy at the right time, but their strong finish masks what has been only a good – not great – season. They are beatable up front on defense and have squeaked by in several victories that could have gone the other way. Even with all the changes, the offensive line has performed well and their ability to both run and pass effectively has kept the engine running. But they haven’t played a lot of great defenses and their worst offensive performances have come against teams that can stop the run and pressure the quarterback with their defensive line. With Rodgers at the helm, they can win any game. But the NFC boasts a lot of bad matchups for the Packers and they will likely have to play better defensively to make it to the Super Bowl.

Chance to Win NFC: 32.77% (+205)
DK: (+160)
FD: (+170)
MGM: (+165)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

#2 Tampa Bay Bucs

Off: 3rd (+0.64)
11th (+0.13)
Net: 3rd

Outlook: Returning their entire Super Bowl roster, the Bucs were appropriately favorites to come out of the NFC. And when fully healthy they showed they were the best team in the NFC. But their offense relies on relentless downfield throwing by Brady, and there are genuine concerns that the losses of Godwin and Antonio Brown are material. In the one game Brady had to play without these two and Evans, the Bucs scored zero points. That’s a problem. On defense they’ve had injuries disrupting the rotation and hope to get healthy this week. Their once formidable front has been average against the run this year and will need to return to form to stop the Eagles’ solid rushing attack and get enough pressure on the other NFC quarterbacks. But it just feels like the Bucs were waiting for the playoffs all year and with arguably the league’s best offensive line (and defensive line when healthy), they could easily repeat as NFC Champions.

Chance to Win NFC: 25.12% (+298)
DK: (+350)
FD: (+330)
MGM: (+340)
SharpClarke Position: Bullish

#3 Dallas Cowboys

Off: 8th (+0.32)
Def: 3rd (+0.39)
Net: 4th

Outlook: After a blistering start on offense (+1.00 Adj. Rating first six games), the Cowboys really struggled to find their rhythm down the stretch outside of a blow-up game against a Covid-depleted Washington team. But we know what they are capable of when the offensive line is healthy, and it hasn’t been fully healthy in weeks. It looks like the whole crew will be back in full force for the playoffs and that’s good news. But the real story here is the defense. Micah Parsons headlines an aggressive defense that relentlessly pressures the quarterback, ranking 4th in pressure rate and forcing a league-high 34 turnovers. Turnovers can be fluky in a vacuum, but not when they result from consistent pressure. The playoffs present a challenge because some of their projected opponents, in particular the Packers, simply take care of the ball. They will need to stop the run more effectively and get off the field on third down to give their offense a chance to get in rhythm. More than most teams, the Cowboys have a high variance of outcomes. They legitimately have the talent and balance to win the Super Bowl. But unfortunately they drew an extremely tough matchup in the Wild Card round against a San Francisco team that can run the ball and offset defensive aggressiveness. They could be bounced in the first round.

Chance to Win NFC: 14.68% (+581)
DK: (+600)
FD: (+550)
MGM: (+600)
SharpClarke Position: Neutral

#4 Los Angeles Rams

Off: 5th (+0.47)
Def: 5th (+0.21)
Net: 5th

Outlook: The Rams also came out of the gate firing (+1.05 offensive Adj. Rating in first 8 games) but struggled down the stretch after losing Robert Woods and seeing declining offensive line play. Stafford also made a handful of key mistakes that ended up being extremely costly, which he will have to avoid in the playoffs. But their defense trended up towards the end of the year, bringing much-needed balance to the team and helping reduce the pressure on the offense. Every year come playoff time, the teams that have made a habit of passing downfield successfully have an advantage. The Rams were built for a Super Bowl run, not to succeed in the regular season. Now it’s prove-it time. They gave away significant assets to put this team together, and I think it’s going to take some surprise production from either Odell Beckham, Jr., Van Jefferson, or Cam Akers to make it happen. Like the Cowboys, the Rams have a wide range of likely outcomes that includes a Super Bowl victory and a Wild Card exit.

Chance to Win NFC: 15.05% (+564)
DK: (+450)
FD: (+470)
MGM: (+600)
SharpClarke Position: Neutral

#5 Arizona Cardinals

Off: 11th (+0.19)
Def: 15th (+0.03)
Net: 13th

Outlook: I lost a lot of money earlier this season betting against the Cardinals. They got a lot of credit for wins that I thought involved some good fortune on high-leverage plays and I did not think their success was sustainable. But they have so much talent that they kept it up much longer than I anticipated. Now, the shine is off. The cracks have revealed themselves and they are being priced appropriately by the market. Without Hopkins, Murray lacks a go-to player and tries to do too much on his own. This won’t cut it against playoff competition. They do have an aggressive defense that is capable of big stops and forcing turnovers, so if they can get the ground game going to take the pressure off Murray, they have a chance to win some games. And if they are ever down only one score, Murray’s scrambling ability on third and fourth down gives them a chance no matter what. But sustained playoff success ultimately requires two things that I think the Cardinals lack: sustained success passing on timing routes from the pocket, and strong coaching. I still do not believe in Kliff Kingsbury or Kyler Murray as a pocket passer. So I will not be backing the Cardinals to make a deep run.

Chance to Win NFC: 3.98% (+2413)
DK: (+1200)
FD: (+1200)
MGM: (+1100)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

#6 San Francisco 49ers

Off: 10th (+0.27)
Def: 9th (+0.15)
Net: 8th

Outlook: While several other NFC contenders started hot but faded down the stretch, the 49ers finished the season heading markedly in the right direction. Jimmy Garoppolo remains an underrated, albeit somewhat inconsistent, quarterback because people focus on his worst moments and ignore his success. When the season was on the line, he drove 88 yards in 90 seconds with no timeouts and delivered an overtime win to get here. A game manager can’t do that. But if Trent Williams comes back, he doesn’t even need to be much more than a game manager. With Kittle, Deebo, and Williams healthy, this offense is a machine. They consistently deliver explosive plays in the pass game and run game, and are particularly effective with the lead. Their banged-up secondary is a liability but they can pressure the quarterback to at least mitigate this weakness. I anticipate high-scoring games when they can get ahead early and wins if they can win both trenches. The Cowboys will be a tough test, but a potential rematch against Green Bay is actually favorable for them. If you’re looking for a sleeper to emerge from the NFC, look no further.

Chance to Win NFC: 6.79% (+1373)
DK: (+1000)
FD: (+1200)
MGM: (+1100)
SharpClarke Position: Bullish

#7 Philadelphia Eagles

Off: 12th (+0.17)
Def: 24th (-0.13)
Net: 18th

Outlook: The Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams this season, losing by an average of 13.3 points and by at least 6 points in each game. But they are here because they went 9-2 against non-playoff teams, often when they were impacted by Covid and injuries. Their offense is drastically more successful when they can run the ball and their defense excels against the run, putting it all on opposing quarterbacks. Against bad quarterbacks, that’s a great thing. But against the league’s best quarterbacks, they got burned. That’s why the Eagles have such dramatic splits this season. In five games against the best QBs they faced (Brady, Mahomes, Dak, Herbert, and Carr) they averaged a -1.27 defensive adjusted rating, which is relative performance to other defenses against those teams. That would be dead last in the NFL. But despite this gloomy outlook, the Eagles are not dead in the water. They legitimately have a strong offensive line and a creative and versatile run game that actually excels against good run defenses. Jalen Hurts can make plays. They will need to play their best football right out of the gate, but if they can keep games competitive and control the line of scrimmage, they will have a chance in any given game, even if a real playoff run is far-fetched.

Chance to Win NFC: 1.61% (+6111)
DK: (+3000)
FD: (+2800)
MGM: (+3000)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

SharpClarke Prediction

Wild Card

#2 TB over #7 PHI, 28-9
#6 SF over #3 DAL, 34-31
#4 LAR over #5 ARI, 28-24

Divisional Round

#6 SF over #1 GB, 28-27
#2 TB over #4 LAR, 24-17

NFC Championship

#2 TB over #6 SF, 26-20

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