It’s playoff time for the 2015 NFL season, with this Sunday seeing the wildcard round matches taking place. So what team should be the considered the favourite to go and win Super Bowl 50? Well, here our writers make a case for each team, starting with the NFC.
Complete Carolina are the team to beat
by Pete Halifax
Carolina have had one of the most extraordinary seasons in their history, and have to be the favourites going into the playoffs. Cam Newton has matured into a solid MVP candidate who can take on defenses with both his arm and his legs, and has managed to get by without his major receiving threat from last year, Kelvin Benjamin. Ted Ginn Jr. has come through, and Greg Olsen has been his usual dependable self. Jonathan Stewart has enjoyed a season without having to share the spotlight with DeAngelo Williams. All of this was beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Panthers fans at the start of the season, who were expecting to pound their way to at best a 10 – 6 record, on the back of, primarily, a solid defense. Which brings us to the defense. We expected Luke Kuechly to have a good, if not great year, and he has duly obliged. Kawann Short has had a great season at DT, but the real story is Josh Norman. In a year where Seattle’s secondary has become the Legion of Whom? Norman has staked a claim to being the best cornerback in the league. Carolina’s D was expected to carry them to whatever record they ended up with, yet in combination with the Offense, they’ve become truly great. All round, the Panthers have a claim to being the most complete team in the league, with Special Teams and coaching also being top notch. This makes them the team for the NFC to fear, and when, not if, they make it to the Super Bowl in February, the AFC contender had better be afraid too.
Arizona Cardinals – the number 1 ranked offense and the number 1 team in the NFL
by Charlie Anderson
In my opinion the Cardinals are the team that everyone should be worried about facing this year in the playoffs; Carlson Palmer has been playing at an all-pro level, the defense has been balling out week-to-week, and they’ve actually got a half-decent running game this season. To evidence this, whichever team comes to Arizona is going to have to try and stop the 1st ranked offense in the league, and be able to compete with a top 10 defense before they get to the championship game; and from the teams playing in the wild card rounds, I can’t see a team that will be able to keep up. However, the main reason for them being the team to fear has to be the fact that they are a team with purpose; they lost safety Tyrann Matheiu playing against the Eagles with a torn ACL, and they’ve just come off a thumping from the Seahawks in Week 17. They’re a team that’s going to be licking its wounds and looking to deliver a beat-down on whichever team comes to the University of Phoenix stadium in the divisional round. The Cardinals are also a team with coaches that have been in this situation before; head coach Bruce Arians has coached Super Bowl winning teams such as the Steelers, and knows exactly how much preparation will be needed to ensure his team will get through the divisional round to the NFC Championship Game. On top of this, James Bettcher, defensive coordinator, has developed a top 10 defense against both the pass and the run. So I’d like to wish good luck to whichever team takes on the Cardinals, but I definitely believe they won’t walk out with a win.
A mix of youth and experience is the Vikings formula to winning
by Tom Parry-Jones
A home game in the wildcard round is a significant advantage for the Vikings, who have only lost twice at TCF Bank Stadium this season, albeit to the Packers in Week 11 and the Seahawks in Week 13. The latter result would suggest that the Vikings’ playoff run might end at the first hurdle, but on that occasion the team was missing three players considered among the biggest Pro Bowl snubs this season: DT Linval Joseph, LB Anthony Barr and S Harrison Smith. Joseph was even touted by head coach Mike Zimmer as one of the best nose tackles he has ever worked with. But those three are just the tip of the iceberg on the Vikings defense, with the defensive line rounded off by quality pass rushers in Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Sharrif Floyd, a linebacking corps featuring the likes of Chad Greenway and rookie Eric Kendricks, and Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and the evergreen Terence Newman in the defensive backfield. A defining feature of Vikings in 2015 has been their offensive flexibility. In their two games before playing the Packers, against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, the won using different approaches with the ball. Against the Bears, QB Teddy Bridgewater threw for four touchdowns and ran for another, becoming the first Viking to achieve such a feat since the first regular season game in franchise history. Meanwhile, against the Giants, RB Adrian Peterson proved why he’s a shoe-in for a bust in Canton with his seventh game with 100 yards rushing this season, despite being the wrong side of 30. Add to that a receiving corps of Stefon Diggs, Mike Wallace and Jarius Wright, plus tight end Kyle Rudolph, and you have a recipe for a team that could make a viable run to Super Bowl 50.
Kirk Cousins and co will make you ‘like that’ in the playoffs
by Edd Hodsdon
After the Robert Griffin III debacle in the offseason, Washington turned to Kirk Cousins to right the ship. He delivered, leading the Redskins to their first division title since RG3’s electrifying rookie year in 2012. Cousins has brought stability to the quarterback position and fits Jay Gruden’s system better than RG3. Since Week 9’s infamous “You like that?!” comeback against Tampa Bay, Cousins has thrown 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Cousins’ 69.5% completion rate also leads all starters. He also has a great unit of skill players around him. After returning from injury, deep threat DeSean Jackson had six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. Tight end Jordan Reed is proving to be a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses, averaging 111 yards per game over the last three weeks with five touchdowns in that span. After the focus of the offense shifted to Cousins, the run game has also been much better now that it’s a complimentary piece rather than the foundation of Washington’s identity on offense. Washington open the playoffs with a home game in the wild card round, and face the flawed Green Bay Packers in a best-case scenario. The Redskins have are 6-2 at home. Cousins has averaged 271.3 yards per game and has thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions at FedEx Field. Add the fact that Washington’s defense has played well recently after a down stretch in the middle of the season, and they could stifle the Packers’ struggling offense. The defense provides a good complement to the offense instead of costing the Redskins games, especially against the run, which could prove crucial when they have to face the Packers tandem of Eddy Lacy and James Starks.
Rodgers will guide the Packers back to the Super Bowl
by David Pruett
Two Words – Aaron Rodgers. Is there anything else needed? Rodgers is the consensus best player at the most important position in the league and, at crunch time, the best perform the best. Of the six quarterbacks in the playoffs, only two, Rodgers and Russell Wilson, have led their teams to Super Bowl titles. Further than that, the other four quarterbacks have just one career playoff win between them. Ignore the hype about how poor the Packers have been for the last month – the playoffs are a completely different animal. Playoff experience is vital and, outside of the Seahawks, no team has more of it than Green Bay. If Eddie Lacy gets hot and McCarthy can get the play-action game going to help out the Packer receivers be sure that Aaron Rodgers will put the ball where it needs to be to help the team put up points. With Bakhtiari and Bulaga back at the tackle spots for the playoffs, the Packers problems could easily disappear. Another thing to consider in Green Bay – form is temporary, class is permanent. Although we haven’t seen much this season from defensive stars like Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers both of those players possess game-changing abilities and could take over a game. With Mike Daniels doing such a good job inside at the defensive tackle spot, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Matthews get more looks in his more traditional outside linebacker spot, putting pressure on opposing QBs. By finishing with the 5th seed, the Pack will open with the Washington Redskins and the unproven Kirk Cousins in the wildcard round, and a win there would send confidence rocketing. Nobody would want to face a buoyed-up Packers team.
Don’t sleep on Seattle
by David Venables
So the omen’s aren’t great for six seeds winning the Super Bowl. In fact, only two teams have ever won the Super Bowl from the sixth seed, the last being the Green Bay Packers in 2010. But has there been a team to be feared from the six seed like the Seattle Seahawks? I think not. Firstly, they have a proven coaching and playing set up, used to playing in the big dance. After all, this team is pretty much still intact from the team that won Super Bowl 48 two years ago, and made it back to the Super Bowl last year, a game that they arguably should have won. Head coach Pete Carroll knows exactly how tough the playoffs can be, but can coach his team adeptly through the tricky spots (who can forget their stunning comeback in the NFC Championship game last year against the Packers?!). With a proven coaching staff and players used to playing in the big-time, the Seahawks have the street-smarts to advance deep into the playoffs again on that alone. Then there’s the state of the team. Though they started slowly, and had a minor blip against the St. Louis Rams a couple of weeks ago, the Seahawks having been playing like the team to beat in the NFL over the past month or so. If that needed proving any further, they handed a thorough beating to the number 2 seed, Arizona, on the Sunday just gone, a team that many had down as their Super Bowl favourite. A few opinions may have certainly changed after that performance, where Russell Wilson continued his late surge to be included in the MVP debate. His last seven games saw him post a passer rating of 145.1, and has the highest passer rating in the pocket of 118.6 on the season. Not bad for a quarterback more recognised for extending plays with his legs. Oh, and there’s the small matter of getting running back Marshawn Lynch back for the game against the Vikings. Suddenly, the Seahawks are getting notoriety for their offense. After covering all that, we haven’t even mentioned the fabled Legion of Boom yet. Yes, they’ve had a bit of an off year, but they still lead the NFL for fewest points allowed over the season, for the fourth consecutive year. Heck, even Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald struggled against Richard Sherman on Sunday, and they have the number 1 offense in the league. If Kam Chancellor can come back healthy, and there’s no indication he won’t after missing the game against the Cardinals, then his pairing with Earl Thomas at the safety position will provide the hard hitting spine of the Seahawks secondary. Take it from me, the Seahawks are the true team to watch in the playoffs, and don’t say I didn’t tell you when they make it back to the Super Bowl for a third consecutive season.