Written by Aydan Koyles
After the longest regular season in NFL history, we have finally reached the best time of the NFL season: the playoffs. We spend most of the season discussing who deserves to make the postseason and now we finally know exactly which teams are in. There are a few surprises but also several teams that everyone knew would be here. So lets breakdown the seven teams from the NFC who will fight for the chance to play in Superbowl LVI on February 13.
In this preview, I will take a look at how each team got to this point and who the team MVP was. Finally, I will estimate the ceiling for each team by sorting them into the following categories: SB contender, Conference Championship contender, or Just Happy to Be Here. The teams will be listed in order of seeding and I will also include their chances to win the Superbowl based on FiveThirtyEight’s ELO projections.
- Green Bay Packers(13–4)
Superbowl Odds: 27%
How they got here: After week 1, it didn’t even remotely look like Green Bay would be in this spot. Both the offense and the defense were dreadful as the Packers were demolished 38–3 by the Saints. According to rbsdm.com, in week 1 the Packers posted an offensive EPA/play of -0.366 which was worst in the league. In addition, they posted a defensive EPA/play allowed of 0.274, fourth worst that week. But since that abysmal performance, the Packers offense has become the league’s most efficient posting an EPA/play of 0.173 since week 2, 0.03 higher than second place. And the defense has stabilized as well, posting an EPA/play allowed of -0.007, good for 15th in the league over that timespan. Aaron Rodgers has put himself squarely in the MVP conversation(more on that in a bit) for a second consecutive season with the help of superstar wideout Davante Adams. The rushing attack has also been solid behind the play of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon as the Packers have posted the sixth-best EPA/play on rushing attempts. All of this led the Packers to a 14–3/13–4 record and home field advantage through the NFC playoffs.
Team MVP: Aaron Rodgers. How could it be anyone else? The likely NFL MVP this season has been phenomenal, posting a league-best QBR of 67.8 while also adding in 35 TDs to only 4 INTs. He continues to make mind-boggling throws like this one:
Or this one:
Rodgers’ ability to read defenses and take the right risks has led to his impressive interception percentage (0.8%, leading the league for the fourth straight year). He is also pacing the league in DVOA and is among league leaders in several other categories. This team goes as Rodgers goes (see: 13–7 loss to Kansas City that Rodgers missed).
Ceiling: Superbowl contender. Green Bay has the most efficient offense in the league, an elite QB, and a solid-enough defense to push for the 5th Superbowl title in franchise history. Plus, no one wants to play at Lambeau in January. The Packers are my pick out of the NFC.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers(13–4)
Superbowl Odds: 13%
How they got here: This team is one of the least-surprising to see here. The defending Superbowl champs brought back almost every piece of last year’s roster in an effort to ‘run it back’. Despite much worse injury luck than last season (decimated secondary, loss of Chris Godwin) and the Antonio Brown fiasco in week 17, the Bucs find themselves as division champs at 13–4. While the loss of Godwin hurt the offense, the Bucs still have plenty of depth and having Tom Brady at QB sure helps a lot. The offense is tied for second in EPA/play and leads the league in DVOA. Brady has been unreal at 44, with 40+ TDs and over 5000 yards. The defense hasn’t been quite as good as last year’s unit, but still finished sixth in EPA/play allowed (despite numerous injuries across the board). Although the team may look a bit different this postseason, the Bucs are still a dangerous opponent led by the greatest QB of all time.
Team MVP: Tom Brady. No surprises here, as Brady continues to defy our expectations. (insert stats after season). Despite losing almost every important target he has (and in spite of being down late to the Jets!), Brady still managed to lead a long comeback drive to win the game on a beautiful throw to Cyril Grayson, Jr.:
Brady’s ability to find the open man and fit the ball in tight windows has long been part of his success. As long as he continues to make throws like this one, the Bucs will have a fighting chance.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contenders. Brady elevates this team to another level, but the Bucs cannot sustain the vast injuries they have suffered. Add in a potential NFC title game in Green Bay, and it will be an uphill battle to repeat.
3. Dallas Cowboys(12–5)
Superbowl Odds: 7%
How they got here: The Cowboys came into this season with lower expectations than in recent years, as many were picking Washington to compete with them for the division. However, Dallas quickly wiped away that notion by starting the season with a competitive loss to the defending champion Buccaneers followed by six straight wins. And while the narrative around Dallas in recent years has been a strong offense that can’t quite lift up a bottom-tier defense, the defense made major strides this season. Under first-year DC Dan Quinn, the Cowboys defense jumped from 23rd in defensive DVOA to first this season. This turnaround led the Cowboys to a fairly smooth season (minus a few rough patches) and their first division title since 2018. Though the offense was impressive for most of the season, it faltered down the stretch and the defense was able to carry Dallas to 12 wins. The emergence of rookie Micah Parsons and a strong performance from the defensive line propelled Dallas despite struggling offensively down the stretch to give Dallas a home playoff game this season.
Team MVP: Micah Parsons. While many will wonder why superstars like Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott don’t take this spot, no one player has meant more to Dallas’ success this season than rookie LB Micah Parsons. A first round pick from Penn State, Parsons immediately became an impact player and has developed into one of the most versatile defensive players in the game of football. His ability to rush the passer, fit the run and drop into coverage gives Dallas an all-around star who should run away with the DROY award this season. His diverse skill set is on full display in each of these highlights:
He can line up anywhere in the formation and attack from every angle. Offenses cannot plan for him because he is so versatile. Parsons emergence has spurred the dramatic shift in Dallas’ defense and helped them finish first in EPA/play allowed.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contenders. If you had asked me this five or six weeks ago I would have been tempted to label them as Superbowl contenders. But while the defense has continued to be stifling, the offense as sputtered as the run game disappeared and Dak Prescott looks less than 100%. While the offense could definitely switch it back on, I need to see it first.
4. Los Angeles Rams(12–5)
Superbowl Odds: 4%
How they got here: We all know about how much draft capital the Rams have given up to bring superstars to LA. Starting with the addition of Jalen Ramsey a few years ago, they continued that trend by picking up Matthew Stafford in the offseason and Von Miller at the trade deadline. And it seems like those moves have paid off. After laboring with Jared Goff as his QB for 4 seasons, Sean McVay finally has a QB he can trust in Stafford. Stafford has opened up the playbook for McVay and the results have been mostly positive. There have been several hiccups, but a late season surge has seen them jump the Cardinals and take the division title. The defense has regressed from last year’s success but is still a top 10 unit in DVOA and EPA/play allowed. At 13–4, the Rams look primed to make a run to another Superbowl, this time equipped with an elite QB that might be the difference between winning and losing.
Team MVP: Cooper Kupp. As amazing as Stafford has been, he has shown inconsistencies in recent weeks and has thrown 15 interceptions this season (second worst in the league). Kupp, Stafford’s favorite target this year, has kept both Stafford and the rest of the offense afloat amid Stafford’s struggles. (Finish paragraph after Rams game is complete). Kupp knows how to find the open spaces in the defense and gives Stafford a reliable, sure-handed target that can burn defenses deep or take chunks at a time. A potential OPOY winner, Kupp has earned the title of elite receiver with the help of an upgrade at QB.
Ceiling: Superbowl contender. Late season struggles from Stafford and the offense throw up red flags, but this team still has a star-laden roster with the ability to compete with the best teams in the league. The Packers are still my pick, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rams playing a home game at Superbowl LVI.
5. Arizona Cardinals(11–6)
Superbowl Odds: 0.8%
How they got here: The Cardinals raced out to a 7–0 start as Kyler Murray was playing at an MVP level and the defense outperformed every expectation. Things have slowed down as they finished their last 10 games just 5–5. Murray has dealt with injuries, the defense lost JJ Watt (who may return soon) and suddenly they had lost the division to the Rams. This team still showed a lot of potential in wins over the Rams, 49ers (twice) and Titans. When the offense and defense are both performing at their peaks, this team is tough to beat.
Team MVP: Kyler Murray. This one was a little more difficult to figure out. While Murray has been great when he’s played, he’s been injured a lot. Of course, so have many of the other impact performers for Arizona(Rodney Hudson, JJ Watt, etc.). So the award goes to Murray. Though he has slowed down since his electric start, his ability to move the pocket and make plays out of structure is incredibly invaluable to the Cardinals’ offense. His escapability and agility help him to create something from nothing.The Cardinals couldn’t be where they are now without his ability.
Ceiling: Just Happy to Be Here. This could easily be upgraded to Conference Championship contender based on the full potential of this team. The return of JJ Watt would be incredibly beneficial to this defense. However, from what I’ve seen in the last few months, this team will struggle to win playoff games.
6. San Francisco 49ers(10–7)
Superbowl Odds: 2%
How they got here: The 49ers have been an interesting team this year. They entered the year with high expectations but had a very up and down year. But a late season surge led to a 10–7 record and a playoff berth. Using a combination of Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo and a solid run game despite multiple injuries led to a solid offensive season, and the defense was pretty solid against the run (2nd in DVOA). The pass defense struggled throughout the season but overall this team has been pretty good across the board, finishing seventh in total DVOA. Kyle Shanahan faced some early criticism for some of his decisions but ultimately pulled the offense together and led the team to the playoffs.
Team MVP: Deebo Samuel. Is there anything he can’t do? He finished with 1310 receiving yards, 320 rushing yards and even threw a touchdown pass. His versatility is incredible. He’s always able to find the open space and his abilities as a runner have developed to the point where he has served as the primary runner in a few games. His abilities have provided San Francisco with an offensive force and kept this team afloat despite the many injuries they have dealt with.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contender. This one was difficult because I don’t know how much I trust this team. They have the pieces to compete and I can see them making the conference championship game but the pass defense is suspect and could be what stops this team’s progress.
7. Philadelphia Eagles(9–8)
Superbowl Odds: 0.4%
How they got here: This one is pretty simple. The Eagles have used a dominating rushing attack to succeed this season. After some early experimentation with the playcalling by first-year coach Nick Sirianni, he finally settled on a winning formula. With the development of Jalen Hurts as a runner, a committee approach at running back and a spectacular run blocking offensive line the Eagles have run over most of their recent opponents. the passing game has also developed fairly well with the success of Dallas Goedert and Devonta Smith. They have developed a nice balance and while the defense isn’t spectacular they have done enough to help the Eagles win.
Team MVP: Jalen Hurts. Hurts certainly hasn’t been perfect and he is very unpolished as a passer, but he does exactly what he needs to within the Eagles’ system. His ability to run opens more lanes for running backs and creates more space in the downfield passing game. He has had his ups and downs, but Hurts abilities have opened up the Eagles offense and led them to the playoffs in a season where expectations were fairly low.
Ceiling: Just Happy to Be Here. The Eagles have been a great story this season and their running game is an exciting shift from the pass-heavy schemes we see in the NFL today, but they just don’t have the firepower or a solid enough defense to hang with the best in the NFC. While an upset or two isn’t out of the question, this team is a year or two early.