NFC Divisional Round Preview: An Uphill Battle for Green Bay
What happens when the unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, with the NFC featuring four teams in the divisional round of the playoffs whose offenses and defenses both rank in the top-12 of the league, we may soon have our answer.
On Saturday, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will be in Arizona to take on Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. On Sunday, the Seahawks meet the Panthers in a showdown of two electrifying mobile quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Cam Newton.
So what does the tale of the tape say for these four NFC heavyweights when they face off this weekend?
Arizona vs. Green Bay
Despite a convincing win over Washington, the Packers come into the University of Phoenix Stadium as seven-point underdogs, according to Vegas.
Rodgers and company face the unenviable tough task of trying to throw the ball against the Cardinals' eighth-ranked passing defense, per our metrics. With All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson likely shadowing James Jones for most of the day, slot wideout Randall Cobb should have some freedom to roam the short-to-intermediate routes. However, this doesn't guarantee success for Cobb in the passing game. He accounted for only 3 receptions for 15 yards when these two teams met back in Week 16.
But despite this underwhelming performance from Cobb just a few weeks ago -- after giving Cobb eight targets and five carries in their wild card game against the Redskins -- the Packers will once again need to involve their best playmaker heavily if they hope to keep up with the Cardinals' seventh-ranked offense.
The Packers will also look for support in the ground game. While the one-two punch of Eddie Lacy and James Starks have averaged an inefficient -0.055 and -0.082 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per attempt on the season, these two are hoping to ride momentum into this contest. Last week against Washington, the duo combined for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns.
At age 36, Palmer is having perhaps the best season of his entire career. Not only has the Cardinals' signal-caller amassed career highs in yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35), but his 0.33 Passing NEP per drop back also ranks him as the second-most efficient quarterback in the league with at least 200 drop backs.
Palmer has had the luxury of throwing to a trio of standout wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. And while Fitzgerald may get most of the attention as the team's primary wideout, it is Floyd and Brown who actually rank inside the top-15 in receiving efficiency this season. However, just as the Packers must contend with Arizona's stifling secondary, the Cardinals, too, have an uphill battle to climb as they go up Green Bay's 10th-ranked passing defense that features Micah Hyde in the secondary and tenacious pass rusher Clay Matthews.
While the Cardinals' high-flying passing offense may garner much of the media attention, Arizona's rushing unit is no slouch. Despite a season-ending injury to lead back Chris Johnson and having Andre Ellington in and out of the lineup with a number of ailments this season, the Cardinals' rushing offense hasn't missed a beat thanks to talented rookie David Johnson.
With a 0.147 Rushing NEP per attempt, Johnson ranks as the most efficient tailback in the league with at least 100 carries this season. And with the Packers' rushing defense ranking just 26th in the league, the rookie tailback should have a field day in his first career playoff game.
While it's never wise to count out a Rodgers-led team in the playoffs -- he did lead the 6 seeded Packers to a Super Bowl title in 2011 -- our projections have the Packers as long shots to defeat the Cardinals this weekend. According to numberFire Live, the Packers hold just a 20% chance to win this contest.
Carolina vs. Seattle
Thanks to an improbable 27-yard missed field goal, this preview is now about the Seahawks -- and not the Vikings -- going up against Carolina, the NFC's 1 seed.
While Russell Wilson has had success this year throwing the ball -- his 0.303 Passing NEP per drop back ranks him as the third most efficient quarterback this season, just behind Palmer -- the Seahawks quarterback has quite a battle ahead of him as he takes on the Panthers' suffocating, second-ranked passing defense this Sunday.
Though Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett rank second and third in the league in receiving efficiency, Seattle might need to get creative to implement Lockett. Baldwin, the slot receiver, should be able to avoid breakout cornerback Josh Norman, who rarely travels to the inside, but Lockett could draw Norman, creating a fun-to-watch matchup on the outside.
Running back Marshawn Lynch's status is once again up in the air, so the team may have to rely on twice-cut Christine Michael to lead the way on the ground. After rushing for his first 100-yard game on 17 carries in Week 17 against the Cardinals, Michael followed that up with a 21-carry, 70-yard day last week against the Vikings. And with Michael finally turning all that potential into production on the field, the Seahawks will look to get what they can out him this weekend against the NFL's 11th-ranked run defense.
Perhaps one of the bigger surprises of the season, the Panthers are 15-1 thanks in large part to potential MVP Cam Newton. Newton finished the year not only as the eighth most efficient passer in the league, but his 0.35 Rushing NEP per carry also led all players with at least 100 rush attempts this season. With Kelvin Benjamin out for the season, tight end Greg Olsen has done nicely operating as Newton's top option in the passing game. With a 0.75 Reception NEP per target, Olsen ranked as the fourth most efficient tight end in the league, just behind Tyler Eifert, Rob Gronkowski, and Gary Barnidge.
With the Panthers taking on the Legion of Boom and their fifth-ranked passing defense, Newton and Olsen will need to be in top form if they want to move the chains on one of the best secondaries in the league.
After missing the final three weeks of the season, lead tailback Jonathan Stewart is expected back to help the ground game against the Seahawks' sixth-ranked rushing defense. Owning an above-average -0.02 Rushing NEP per attempt, Stewart will be a welcome sight for the Panthers this weekend.
Unlike the Packers-Cardinals game, our projections have this game as a much closer contest, with the Panthers opening the game with 58% odds to win.