clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Here's how each NFC team can make the Super Bowl ... even Washington!

New, comments

The Panthers, Cardinals and Seahawks are the class of the NFC, but only one can go to the Super Bowl and three other teams are capable of playing Cinderella.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2016 NFL Playoff Guide

After back-to-back years of the Seattle Seahawks winning the No. 1 seed and blazing through the rest of the NFC to advance to the Super Bowl, the postseason field looks different to begin 2016.

Two teams ran away from the rest of the NFC in 2015, and the Seahawks weren't one. But late season losses for the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals showed the top two aren't invincible and some late season hot streaks for the other teams hitting the playoffs, including the Seahawks, make for an intriguing race in the NFC.

Oddsmakers have made one thing clear: There are three teams expected to contend for a trip to the Super Bowl in the NFC and three underdogs playing the role of Cinderella. But earning the Lombardi Trophy as a Wild Card team is a tradition set by the New York Giants and Packers.

While the field doesn't include the Giants this January, the Seahawks are plenty capable of winning from No. 6 and players like Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins wouldn't mind ruining the paths of some teams that think they're Super Bowl bound.

Here's why each NFC team has as good of a chance as any at earning a trip to the Super Bowl and here's the fatal flaw for each that could hold them back:

Carolina Panthers (15-1)

How they got here: Cam Newton passes, Cam Newton runs, Cam Newton dances, some more Cam Newton runs. Also, the defense is stacked at every level. Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly are Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Kawann Short is a mountain up front.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: Because they've lost just one game all year and the rest of the league hast yet to figure out how to stop Newton. The talented defense, mentioned above, finished the regular season as the No. 2 unit in the league, according to Football Outsiders. The bye week should also help Ted Ginn Jr. get his legs back. The combo of Cam and that rushing attack plus the stout defense makes the Panthers extremely dangerous.

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: Newton does have a sloppy performance every now and then, and the offense can be contained. Carolina won't lose to any of the NFC's weaker playoff teams (Washington, Minnesota, Green Bay) but Arizona and Seattle can both match the Panthers.

Prediction: The Panthers' season of destiny continues and home-field advantage helps them knock off the Cardinals in the NFC Championship.

Arizona Cardinals (14-2)

How they got here: By riding a bunch of discarded veterans and an old-timer of a coach who all turn out to have more left in the tank than anyone else thought.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: You know what the Cardinals' record is over the last two years in games Carson Palmer starts? 19-3. If he hadn't torn up his knee last season the Cardinals could very well be the reigning champs. Palmer is healthy now and leading an offense that's one of the league's best. Arizona has weapons everywhere, and Palmer, under the guidance of head coach Bruce Arians, loves taking shots. That defense, No. 3 in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, ain't bad either.

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: There's a clear top tier in the NFC -- the Panthers, Seahawks and Cardinals. Any one of those teams could win the Super Bowl. Since they're the No. 2 seed, Arizona will likely have to go through two of those squads. That hurts the odds.

Prediction: The Cardinals take care of business at home -- where they're 13-3 over the last two years -- but then lose to the Panthers the following week on the road.

Minnesota Vikings (11-5)

How they got here: Teddy Bridgewater didn't screw up much and the offense rode Adrian Peterson, while the defense kept teams off the scoreboard. They also took care of business against the easy games on the schedule, with four of the team's five losses coming against playoff teams.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: The Vikings are built for cold weather and playoff football. Adrian Peterson will get a healthy dose of touches this time against the Seahawks after complaining about his eight carries in the first meeting against Seattle. If he can get things going and the defense can keep teams off the scoreboard, like it has for most of the year, the Vikings could be trouble.

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: Blowout losses to the Seahawks and Packers in the back half of the regular season aren't easy to forget and showed the Vikings lack the firepower to stay with teams capable of scoring. Bridgewater finished with fewer than 200 passing yards in nine of his 16 starts in 2015 and averaged less than one touchdown per game. That's not going to cut it.

Prediction: The Vikings meet the same fate against the Seahawks that they did in early December. Bridgewater is outgunned by Russell Wilson and the score is never really close.

Washington (9-7)

How they got here: A four-game winning streak to end the year vaulted Washington past a field of NFC East teams that was absolutely terrible. Leading the way was Kirk Cousins who threw 11 touchdowns in the last three games of the year with no interceptions.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: Mowing through Washington would've looked easy a month ago, but Cousins is a killer on a hot streak right now. Joe Flacco once showed what a quarterback in a groove can do in the playoffs and Washington's hopes ride on Cousins staying in top form.

Kirk

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: Washington played a grand total of three games against teams that finished with winning records and lost all three by at least two touchdowns. While Cousins ate up some of the worst pass defenses, all five of the other NFC playoff teams are in the top 12 in pass defense.

Prediction: The Packers will force Washington to win without a prolific performance from Cousins and that is something the team hasn't proven all year. Late season momentum is flushed away and it ends up being a one-and-done for a team that still has plenty of building to do.

Green Bay Packers (10-6)

How they got here: A great start to the year followed by a terrible finish with only a 30-13 win over the Vikings in Week 11 to hang their hat on.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: Even in a down year for Aaron Rodgers, he's still Aaron Rodgers. And with a pass defense that has held opposing quarterbacks to an 80.1 rating, the Packers could still provide trouble for any team it can bait into a shootout. That's exactly the formula it will take to beat Washington and could also work against a team like the Panthers, who came dangerously close to losing to Green Bay earlier in the year.

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: The formula for beating the Packers was exposed in November and teams used it over and over down the stretch. Run the ball and put pressure on Rodgers. Green Bay hasn't held an opposing team under 100 rushing yards since it beat the Vikings and that will mean the end for the Packers.

Prediction: The Packers match up well against Washington, but advancing to play the Panthers or Cardinals means the end of the road is on the horizon for Green Bay.

Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

How they got here: By leading in the fourth quarter of all but one game this season, but finally managing to win those games in the back half of the schedule. The defense is still elite, the Seahawks can still run the ball and now Russell Wilson is an absolute killer under center.

Why they'll make the Super Bowl: The Seahawks showed their true colors in a 36-6 dismantling of the Cardinals in Week 17. Maybe Arizona didn't have much to play for, but the game showed exactly why every other NFC team should be quivering in their boots at the thought of playing Seattle, although every team can be thankful they don't have to travel to CenturyLink Field.

Why they won't make the Super Bowl: The Seahawks just can't do much on offense if they can't run the ball and it's anyone's guess how Marshawn Lynch will look in his return to the lineup. Christine Michael has been good in relief of Thomas Rawls, but the injuries at running back come back to haunt the Seahawks like they did in Week 16 and when the running room isn't there, the Seattle offense is beat by a team that manages to find it themselves.

Prediction: The Seahawks run through the Vikings, but playing the Panthers at home ends with the same kind of heartbreak that the first meeting did. Seattle just can't catch breaks this year and Carolina catches all of them.

* * *

SB Nation presents: Predictions for the 2015 NFL awards