2013 NFC Playoff Predictions

By: J. Scott Smith

My AFC predictions illustrated how top-heavy the AFC appears to be with perennially playoff favorites: Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, and Pittsburgh Steelers. I have less confidence in selecting NFC playoff teams as I could see all of my division winners possibly missing the playoffs.  My previous article using ESPN’s preseason power rankings illustrated the volatility of NFL playoff teams during the past five seasons. Here are the averages for the five year period:

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 5.6
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 3.8
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2.6

Using these five season averages as a guide, I’m going to select 6 teams ranked preseason 1-10, 4 teams from 11-21, and 2 teams from 22-32.  For the NFC, I’m going to give a cursory preview of each division before selecting my playoff teams. First, though, let’s take a look at the matchups for each division.

2013 NFC Division Matchups

Division

AFC Opponent

NFC Opponent

NFC East

AFC West

NFC North

NFC South

AFC East

NFC West

NFC North

AFC North

NFC East

NFC West

AFC South

NFC South

NFC West

I could see any of these four teams making the playoffs.  All four teams have good coaches, but I think all four quarterbacks have question marks. I haven’t seen a large enough sample from Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson to buy wholesale on their future success.  Jeff Fisher is probably a top-5 coach in the NFL, but this is a make or break year for Sam Bradford.  I think Carson Palmer will thrive in Bruce Arians’s offense, but can they keep him upright?

NFC East

I could see any of these four teams winning the division.  The problem with these teams is that there is no seemingly great team. How will RGIII and Mike Shanahan co-exist this season? Over/Under 13 games for RGIII? Will Chip Kelly be the NFL’s next Jim Harbaugh or Steve Spurrier? Is this the year Tom Coughlin finally gets fired or is it Eli Manning’s third Superbowl? Meanwhile, in Dallas, this season is likely the last chance for Jason Garrett to show he is the right man to coach the Cowboys.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons were one play away from the Superbowl, but they have questions on offensive line, defensive line, and at corner.  Can Sean Payton and Drew Brees regain their previous offensive magic? Will it be enough to overcome the league’s worst defense? Does anyone know what Tampa Bay will do? Coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman could both be out of a job by year’s end. Carolina still believes that Cam Newton is a franchise quarterback, but his window may be closing.

NFC North

The Green Bay Packers might be the best team in the NFC with the best quarterback, but their defense has to improve.  Jay Cutler’s life as a starting quarterback in the NFL rests on his performance with the Bears this season.  Can Christian Ponder make the jump from average to good quarterback and repeat the Vikings’ playoff run?  Does Jim Schwartz even know what day it is?

With that, here are my picks:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

Atlanta Falcons (South winner)

4

2

San Francisco 49ers (West winner)

2

3

Green Bay Packers (North winner)

5

4

Washington Redskins (East winner)

11

5

Detroit Lions (wild card)

24

6

New Orleans Saints (wild card)

14

Atlanta Falcons (Preseason Rank #4): Homer alert!  The Falcons were one play away from the Superbowl last season and brought back most of their starters on offense.  Steven Jackson represents a significant upgrade from Michael Turner at running back and Osi Umenyiora should help the Falcons pass rush.  Yet, the Falcons aren’t without concerns, questions about the offensive line, two rookie corners, and whether Kroy Biermann will get to the quarterback this season.  Still, the Falcons possess the offensive talent to be the NFL’s most explosive offense.  The Falcons are matched up against the weak AFC East and the strong NFC West. Luckily for the Falcons, their games against New England and Seattle are at home, but have two difficult strength of schedule games: at Green Bay Week 14 and home against the Redskins in Week 15.  I see the loaded NFC teams beating each other up, which results in the Falcons taking the top seed at 12-4.

San Francisco 49ers (#2): The 49ers were one series of good play calling away from beating the Ravens in the Superbowl and return as perennial playoff contenders.  I think quarterback Colin Kaepernick has question marks about being the starter from Week 1 and how the offense will perform without WR Michael Crabtree.  But I like the 49ers because their offensive and defensive lines are dominating and coach Jim Harbaugh is a winner. The 49ers are matched up against the weak AFC South and the decent NFC South.  The strength of schedule games are difficult: Week 1 at home against the Packers and Week 12 at Washington.  Still I see the 49ers as the class of the NFC West, finishing 11-5.

Green Bay Packers (#5): The Packers possess the NFL’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and one of its best offensive head coaches in Mike McCarthy.  What more do I really need to say?  The Packers are matched up against the manageable NFC East and AFC North.  Their strength of schedule games are both difficult: on the road at San Francisco in Week 1 and home against the Atlanta Falcons Week 14. Still, I see the Packers are the class of the NFC North and winning the division at 11-5.

Washington Redskins (#11): I originally had the New York Giants winning the division, but their injuries have made me lose confidence in them.  The Redskins have a brutal schedule, with five primetime games and strength of schedule games at home against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12 and at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15.  Yet, I’m betting on RGIII and Mike Shanahan to have enough help from a healthier defense to win the NFC East at 9-7.

Detroit Lions (#24): Each year there seems to be a team that makes the playoffs where you don’t believe in the quarterback, the coach, or both. Last season it was the Minnesota Vikings, who coming off of a 3-13 2011 season, went 10-6 with coach Leslie Frasier and quarterback Christian Ponder. The Lions represent this year’s Vikings, as I don’t believe in Jim Schwartz or Matthew Stafford, but I do believe in Calvin Johnson and the athletic talent they have on defense. The Lions face the manageable NFC East and AFC North, where going 4-4 is certainly possible.  Their strength of schedule games are both winnable: at Arizona in Week 2 and home against the Buccaneers in Week 12.  I see an amazing recovery season for the Lions at 10-6.

New Orleans Saints (#14): The Saints went 7-9 last season amidst intense scrutiny from the Bountygate scandal, which clouded their entire season.  Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season and I have to believe the Saints feel relieved that they are able to just focus on football now.  If the Indianapolis Colts were emotionally lifted by head coach Chuck Pagano’s fight against cancer, the Saints were emotionally deflated by the absence of Sean Payton.  The Saints are matched up against the difficult NFC West and the manageable AFC East, where going 5-3 is possible.  Their strength of schedule games are both winnable: at Chicago Week 5 and home against the Cowboys in Week 10.  Drew Brees reuniting with Sean Payton will add three wins for the Saints this season, gaining a Wild Card spot at 10-6.

Notable Teams Out of the Playoffs:

Seattle Seahawks (Preseason Rank #1): I feel like I’m the only guy that doesn’t believe in the Seahawks and Russell Wilson.  He had an incredible rookie season, but I think the injury to Percy Harvin is going to have a bigger impact than others have suggested.  The general argument is “they won without him last year, he’s just an addition.”  I’d counter with, “that was last year, when Seattle wasn’t on anyone’s radar, now they’re the team to beat.”  Winning when you’re supposed to win is much more difficult than when you’re viewed as an average team.  Their strength of schedule games are manageable: at home against the Vikings in Week 11 and on the road at the New York Giants in Week 15.  Yet, I see the Seahawks just missing the playoffs at 9-7.

New York Giants (#12): The Giants have been decimated by injuries and the season hasn’t even started. I’ve always weary of teams that somehow catch the injury bug and can’t ever seem to overcome it. The Giants are matched up against the manageable NFC North and AFC West, but the injuries are too much for Eli Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin to overcome.  The Giants miss the playoffs for a second season in a row at 7-9.

Chicago Bears (#13): I’m not exactly sure how they are ranked this high to begin with. The Bears have an aging defense, a new coach, and a quarterback in whom no one seems to believe, including the Bears who did not give Jay Cutler a contract extension. In my opinion, Marc Trestman represents a greater coaching experiment than Chip Kelly because we’ve recently seen college coaches (Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and Pete Carroll in Seattle) be successful in the NFL.  How the CFL will translate into the NFL appears to be a bigger question for me.  Unfortunately for the Bears, I seem them taking a significant step backwards going 5-11 this season.

The NFC is wide-open this season and who knows if I’ll even get half of these predictions right. But my analysis of ESPN’s preseason power rankings forced me to select teams I would not have otherwise (looking your way Lions). With the first Sunday upon us, all we truly know is that two teams will likely emerge as this season’s Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings. If you can predict which two, you should probably ask Nate Silver for a job.