NFC playoff Q&A: Anything's possible
After the Seahawks' wild-card win, the Falcons and Bears should be on guard
The Seattle Seahawks' 41-36 win over the New Orleans Saints should have reminded us of something that makes the NFL playoffs so special: Anything truly is possible. Boasting a 7-9 regular-season record, the Seahawks were easily the worst postseason participant in league history, a squad so unimpressive that they were 10-point underdogs heading into that contest. Yet they're the team that's advancing to the next round instead of the defending Super Bowl champs. Their survival alone makes it that much harder to determine how this postseason will shake out in the NFC.
The key to Seattle's success? An unwavering belief that the regular season no longer matters and that a lack of respect isn't the best motivating force at this time of year.
"We don't do any of that," said head coach Pete Carroll when asked if he pumps his team up by citing its long list of doubters. "We have to do what we do and we don't use outside stuff to motivate [the players]. It's a great standard to live by because we're not going to be intimidated by anybody we play."
Because Seattle has now muddled the playoff picture, it's time to examine 10 questions that might help us make sense of the NFC as the divisional playoff round ensues:
1. Can the Seahawks pull off an upset for the second straight week?
Don't bet on it. It's one thing to create some postseason magic when you're playing at home. It's a whole different ball game when you're talking about finding a comfort zone in somebody else's house. What can't be forgotten in Seattle's win is that the Seahawks started slowly and fell behind by 10 points early. Try doing that at Chicago in January. The game could be over before the Seahawks ever know what's happened. And please don't talk about the confidence Seattle gained by winning in Chicago earlier this season. The Bears surely remember that loss, as well.
2. Can the Packers pull off an upset for the second straight week?
Yes. Just as Seattle is facing a rematch with Chicago, the Packers are going against a Falcons team that beat them 20-17 in the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28. This time around, you have to like what the Packers have going. Their defense contained Michael Vick and the Eagles' dynamic offense in Sunday's win over Philadelphia. They found a rookie running back (James Starks) to give their offense a lift on the ground. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers got his first playoff win while proving once again why he's one of the best at his position. Even with all the injuries they've faced, the Packers keep finding ways to win tough games. There's no reason to think they can't continue that trend at Atlanta.
3. Which team will be more prone to a letdown coming off a first-round bye?
Atlanta. You have to figure that Chicago will be more ready to capitalize on its first playoff game. The Bears haven't sniffed the postseason since reaching the Super Bowl during the 2006 season and there are still enough veterans in the locker room who understand how precious this current opportunity is. Atlanta is a different story. The Falcons' late-season home loss to New Orleans was a little disconcerting and a game in the cozy confines of the Georgia Dome isn't nearly as foreboding for Green Bay as one played in Chicago's potentially frigid Solider Field.
4. What kind of impact will Julius Peppers have in his first playoff game with the Bears?
He should be on a mission. Peppers was noticeably quiet in Chicago's regular-season loss to Seattle (two tackles, no sacks), but plenty of Bears defenders credit him for upgrading the defense this year. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, in particular, said Peppers forces teams to use two or three blockers on him on nearly every play. The Seahawks might have to use a similar strategy to keep Peppers under control this weekend. He didn't post the kind of sack totals he has in previous years (he had eight), but he forced three fumbles and picked off two passes. If Seattle can't find a way to account for him, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will be in for a long day.
5. How critical is Michael Jenkins to the Falcons' chances of advancing?
Very critical. Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White led the NFL with 115 receptions and Atlanta often has relied on Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez to ease the pressure on him. But at some point Jenkins will have to make some key plays on Saturday. It's just impossible to think Green Bay will allow White to tear it apart (he was held to five catches for 49 yards in the first meeting). Even though Jenkins hasn't lived up to the expectations that came with being a first-round pick in the 2004 draft, he has been a solid target for quarterback Matt Ryan (41 receptions, 505 yards this season). Just don't be surprised if he sees more balls coming his way Saturday.
6. Which Matt Hasselbeck will show up in the divisional round?
It's likely that Hasselbeck won't be nearly as impressive against Chicago as he was in the win over New Orleans (22-for-35, 272 yards, four touchdowns and one interception). First off, he has never been that stellar in the postseason. He also won't be facing a Saints defense that was primed to be torched on big plays (the Seahawks believed all week that they could capitalize on the constant blitzing and man coverage used by New Orleans). Finally, it's not as though Hasselbeck has been consistent all season. He has been hindered by a hip/buttocks injury and he committed a mind-boggling 13 turnovers during a four-game stretch late in the year. Sure, Hasselbeck proved that he's still a gamer this past Saturday. But he's going to be far more mortal this coming weekend.
7. Can James Starks continue to be as impressive as he was against Philadelphia?
It's hard to know with first-year players, but Starks looked like a man who was just getting started against the Eagles. His 123 rushing yards was a Packers postseason rookie record and his presence alone means the Packers' offense just became more dangerous. When Green Bay has a decent running threat, the play-action opportunities for Aaron Rodgers increase tenfold. Granted, we're talking about a player who had gained only 101 yards in three games heading into the postseason. But Starks also didn't wilt during his first test under the hottest of spotlights. The confidence he gained from that performance will mean plenty when he faces the Falcons' defense this weekend.
8. Which matchup will be the most intriguing in the Seahawks-Bears game?
The Seattle defensive front versus the Chicago offensive line. The most noteworthy statistic in that first meeting was the six sacks Seattle tallied. The Seahawks constantly harassed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler -- who had been sacked nine times two weeks earlier by the Giants -- and that pressure led to one of his worst games of the season. The Seahawks will need a similar effort from their front seven to create problems for the Bears' offense.
9. Which matchup will be the most intriguing in the Packers-Falcons game?
The Packers' secondary versus the Falcons' receivers. Atlanta has two Pro Bowlers (White and Gonzalez) while Green Bay will counter with two of its own (cornerback Charles Woodson and free safety Nick Collins). But the man the Falcons should be equally concerned with is fourth-year cornerback Tramon Williams. With six interceptions, he played well enough to go to Hawaii this year and he clinched Sunday's win over Philadelphia with a pick of Michael Vick in the end zone. If the Falcons go at him once too often, he probably will make them regret it.
10. Which two teams are going to advance to the NFC Championship Game?
Because Green Bay eliminated my pick for NFC champs, the Packers deserve to be considered the most likely team to reach the conference title game. It's also tough to bet against the Bears at home during this time of year. They're too hungry and they know many doubters have questioned their legitimacy all season. So expect a third meeting between Green Bay and Chicago for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. You'll get a prediction on who comes out of that potential matchup a week from now.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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