Balance of power shifting back to NFC

Posted Jan. 15, 2010 @ 8:21 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

Now that the wild-card games are in the books, perhaps it is time to get serious. The three rematches of Week 17 opponents were nobody's fault, but they certainly didn't lend themselves to very compelling football the second time around. Green Bay and Arizona put on a show after the Packers showered the Cardinals with gifts early and begged them to run away and hide and the Cards chose not to. But I think we all expected that matchup to be the best of the bunch; we just thought one of those clubs might play a little defense, too. At the end of the weekend, even the Ravens-Patriots game — the only one that wasn't an instant turnaround — was a real yawner. So what, if anything, did we learn?

I have suspected for some time now that 2009 may be remembered as the season in which the pendulum swung back to the NFC as the dominant conference. That two of the AFC's four division champs couldn't even put up a fight against a pair of wild cards that didn't punch their playoff tickets until the season's final Sunday speaks volumes. I have nothing but respect for what the Jets and Ravens have accomplished, but should one or both get past Indianapolis and/or San Diego, do they really look like Super Bowl teams to you?

On the other hand, only the Eagles disappointed among the NFC's entrants. And in their case, while they were clearly inferior to the Cowboys, one has to wonder how the epidemic of injuries to their defense and offensive line impacted their play at the end of the year. After what we've seen all season long, it is easy to imagine any one of the Saints, Vikings, Cowboys or Cardinals winning the Super Bowl in South Florida, or one very soon after, while only the Chargers and Colts appear Super Bowl-ready in the AFC, and I have my doubts about the Colts.

Indianapolis barely got by the Ravens on the fourth Sunday in November in Baltimore, needing a 25-yard Matt Stover field goal with just about seven minutes left in the game to hold on to a 17-15 win. But can the Colts' defense — without Bob Sanders, Tyjuan Hagler, Marlin Jackson and more — stop Ray Rice again, and if they do, are they ready for the Chargers, who've knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons? In fact, while the Colts have the longest streak in the league entering their eighth straight playoffs vs. the Ravens, Indianapolis is just 7-6 during that span in the postseason and 3-6 not including its '06 Super Bowl run.

What the AFC does have going for it this year is that while the Jets' defense will offer a stern test, it is easy to envision the Chargers playing with anybody right now and hard to imagine them not getting to the Super Bowl. On the NFC side, one can argue that any of the four teams left might be Super and might be favored against any club the AFC might send to challenge them, and it appears the Cowboys' visit to Minnesota could be the best matchup of these playoffs.

Dallas is a team I've badly underrated to this point, but after its second straight blasting of the Eagles and with the confidence and swagger they're playing with, the 'Boys appear capable of going anywhere and beating anybody. Still, as hot as their defense is right now, is it ready for a Vikings team that has scored 74 points in its last six quarters? The Vikes are a bit of a puzzle after playing so poorly at Arizona, Carolina and in the first half at Chicago. But they're home vs. Dallas and humming on all cylinders again. If they get Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield healthy and get to stay at home throughout these playoffs, they'll be an extremely difficult out.

Which brings me to the Saints, the one team that can make the Vikings travel to claim a Super Bowl berth. Wrapping up November with a Monday-night thrashing of the Patriots, they looked like the best team in the NFL at 11-0. But they lost their last three games and should have lost their last five, and it's hard to imagine their defense stopping any of the remaining NFC clubs. Can they handle the "Jekyll and Hyde" Cardinals if Dr. Jekyll shows up? I don't think so, and I don't see the Cards going into Minnesota or Dallas to claim a repeat Super Bowl appearance.

So while I hope the divisional playoffs will be a lot more competitive than wild-card weekend was, it seems clear to me that Dallas-Minnesota is the game to really watch. 


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