Topsy-turvy NFC playoff field: 5 newcomers plus Falcons
FILE - In this Dec. 31, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles (9) throws a pass over Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence (90) during the first half of an NFL football game in Philadelphia. The Eagles earned the top seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2004. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)
By Arnie Stapleton, Associated Press
In the topsy-turvy NFC playoffs, only the Falcons return from last year, and they sneaked in as the sixth and final team. They narrowly avoided the same fate as the Cowboys, Seahawks, Packers, Giants and Lions — all sitting this one out.
The top five seeds are newcomers, led by the Eagles. They are going with a backup quarterback and are making their first trip to the postseason party since 2013. The Vikings are back after a year away, hoping to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in its home stadium .
The five new teams went a combined 32-48 in 2016 but 59-21 this season, providing hope to all those franchises and fans who are already preparing for free agency and the draft.
The field features just two Super Bowl winners, the Rams at the turn of the century when they were based in St. Louis, and the Saints in 2010, when they upset the Colts and Peyton Manning.
The Rams, in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, host the Falcons on Saturday in the showcase of wild-card weekend. The Saints, who ended a four-year playoff drought, host the Panthers on Sunday.
Strength and weakness of each team:
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-3). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 15 to Oakland in 1981 and Super Bowl 39 to New England in 2005.
Hope: The Eagles have the NFL's third-ranked rushing offense with three productive backs: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. They'll have to rely on them more to take pressure off QB Nick Foles and a passing attack that has struggled since second-year sensation Carson Wentz tore his left ACL in December, a major blow to the Eagles' bounce-back season.
Nope: Foles isn't Wentz, who was a leading MVP candidate when he got hurt. But the offense still has plenty of pop and talent, and Foles has the ability to get on a roll. He needs to develop more chemistry with receivers during the bye, be more consistent and avoid mistakes. Otherwise, the Eagles could fall into the trap that befell the Cowboys last year when Dallas became the first No. 1 seed not to reach the Super Bowl since 2013.
The Dope: "We've got some good work the last couple of weeks with Nick, and we'll go back and evaluate all of that. We have to get better in the run game. That helps any quarterback obviously, so we have to get better there. Then just taking a look at what his strengths are, strengths and weaknesses. Everything at this time of the year now becomes magnified even more going into the postseason." — coach Doug Pederson.
2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-3). No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 4 to Kansas City in 1970, Super Bowl 8 to Miami in 1974, Super Bowl 9 to Pittsburgh in 1975 and Super Bowl 11 to Oakland in 1977.
Hope: The defense, with all due respect to QB Case Keenum and the job he's done. The Vikings ranked second in the league in both fewest rushing yards and fewest passing yards allowed, so there's not really a one preferred way to attack them. No team gave up fewer points, either. With Pro Bowl picks at each of the three position groups yet a selfless attitude that's kept individual players from chasing splashy plays or padding statistics at the expense of the scheme, coach Mike Zimmer's unit will be a challenge for any opposing QB, especially in Minnesota at raucous U.S. Bank Stadium.
Nope: There aren't many culprits, but Kai Forbath will certainly be a person of interest. Vikings fans still wince thinking about stunningly missed field goals by Gary Anderson (1998) and Blair Walsh (2015) that cost their team seemingly certain postseason victories. Forbath has been better than his predecessor Walsh, but he has missed eight extra points in 23 games with the Vikings. He also missed five of 15 field goals over the last seven games of this season.
The Dope: "Guys have to understand that you have an opportunity here to do some great things and you have to take advantage of that opportunity. If you don't, you'll probably regret it for the rest of your life." — DE Brian Robison.
3. LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, beat Tennessee 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, while based in St. Louis.
Hope: The NFL's most surprising comeback story shows few signs of ending prematurely. L.A. has the talent and smarts on both sides of the ball, with the league's highest-scoring offense led by QB Jared Goff and MVP hopeful RB Todd Gurley. The Wade Phillips-led defense remains a strength with DT Aaron Donald disrupting offenses weekly. Rookie coach Sean McVay has outsmarted his older foes with impressive regularity.
Nope: They can't act like they've been here before, because they haven't. Only six Rams have any playoff experience whatsoever, easily the fewest in the current field. McVay, Goff, Gurley and Donald have never been under the postseason spotlight, where every mistake is magnified. So the big question is whether they'll continue to thrive under pressure or crater.
The Dope: "There is a lot of value in experience. This is a very humbling business. ... You try to learn from the experiences that you do have and not try to repeat the same mistakes twice. But I think, for a younger team, we've demonstrated a maturity throughout the course of the year." — McVay, who was born 20 days after the Rams last hosted a playoff game in Southern California on Jan. 4, 1986.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 44, beat Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010.
Hope: Although Brees passed for his fewest yards (4,334) since joining the Saints in 2006, he was as efficient as ever, setting a single-season record with his 72 percent completion rate. And Brees didn't need to throw as much because the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara combined for 1,852 yards rushing. They also performed well as receivers, particularly on screens, each gaining more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Nope: Although the defense made remarkable strides this season — particularly in sacks and interceptions — injuries have added up over the course of the season. They lost a productive starter at each level of the unit: defensive end Alex Okafor, middle linebacker A.J. Klein and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The Dope: "It's been a long season. We've had our ups and downs at times. We've shown ourselves what is possible. Obviously, you play the regular season to give yourself an opportunity to get into the tournament and that's where we are now." — Brees.
5. CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 38 to New England in 2004 and Super Bowl 50 to Denver in 2016.
Hope: They have one of the league's best defenses behind LB Luke Kuechly, LB Thomas Davis and DE Julius Peppers. They also have more playoff experience than any team in the NFC playoffs — by a wide margin — and a versatile former league MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton . Carolina has three times run for more than 200 yards in a game this season, and that bodes well for the playoffs where the ground game is magnified.
Nope: Despite an 11-5 record in the toughest division in football, the Panthers don't match up well against first-round foe New Orleans and could be one and done. The Saints beat them twice in the regular season by a combined score of 65-34. If Carolina can get by the wild-card round, it has the potential to make a deep run. But the pressure will be on Newton to perform because Carolina's wide receivers aren't going to scare anyone.
The Dope: "We all know what they say about pressure, that it does one of two things. We're hoping to shine like diamonds on Sunday." — Newton.
6. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 33 to Denver in 1999 and Super Bowl 51 to New England in 2017.
Hope: Improved defense provides better balance to a team motivated by last year's Super Bowl defeat. The Falcons were top 10 in scoring defense and total defense for first time since 1998 Super Bowl season. Defense boasts young, athletic playmakers, including LB Vic Beasley Jr., the 2016 NFL sacks leader, LB Deion Jones, LB De'Vondre Campbell and S Keanu Neal. Offense still has explosive potential with QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Devonta Freeman.
Nope: Offense took huge step back after leading league in scoring last season. Ryan's regression makes 2016 MVP season look like outlier in his career. Freeman and RB Tevin Coleman each missed time with concussions and offensive line is missing LG Andy Levitre, who was placed on IR this week with a triceps injury.
The Dope: "You spend the last 20 weeks gaining a lot and now you get to test that, where your brotherhood is, where your game's at. We know the easy road's not for us. That's the hard road, and we like those opportunities. We understand you have to earn them, and we've done that." — coach Dan Quinn.
AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Steve Reed, Charles Odum and Brett Martel contributed.