With the NFL postseason down to eight teams, here’s a breakdown of the four NFC playoff teams remaining, looking at their strengths and weaknesses, as reflected by the film grades handed out at Pro Football Focus. We then measure each team against their betting odds to win the Super Bowl.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (#1 SEED): We know it all begins with defense in the Pacific Northwest, and the PFF film grades back up the Seahawk reputation. They have highly productive players at all three levels of defense. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril collapse both ends of the pocket from their defensive end spots. K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin lead a solid and mostly unknown linebacker corps, although one that is better against the run than against the pass.
Any weaknesses from the linebackers in pass coverage are more than offset by the elite secondary, with Richard Sherman locking up the best opposing receiver, and Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at the safeties. There’s just no good way to attack this Seattle defense.
Offensively is a different story. For a team with a physical reputation, the Seahawks’ offensive line isn’t very good, either in run blocking or in pass protection. Marshawn Lynch covers for a lot of ills in the former and it makes you wonder what Beast Mode might do if he had even an above-average O-Line in front of him. Russell Wilson’s mobility and improvisational skill cover for the problems in pass protection.
Odds To Win Super Bowl: 5-2—A bad offensive line and mediocre receivers make it tough to bet Seattle at these kind of prohibitive odds, especially when the final game will be on a neutral site in Arizona where they’ll probably have to score a lot more points. In any case, 5-2 favorites are never a good bet and it makes more sense to go game-by-game. Seattle is (-11) on Saturday night against Carolina. That’s still a few too many points for me.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (#2 SEED): The huge year for Aaron Rodgers, one that presumably will end with him winning his second MVP award, was triggered by significant improvement in the pass-protection ability of the Green Bay offensive front. Across the board, the Packer front five grades out well in pass-blocking. Giving Rodgers time to find Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb is almost unfair.
T.J. Lang at guard is the best of a group that is also at least competent, if not spectacular in run-blocking, something that’s enabled Eddie Lacy to get a head of steam going and Green Bay has their best offensive balance since the stretch drive of the 2010 season—a year that saw them win the Super Bowl.
Defensively, Green Bay has good pass rushers, in Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels and Julius Peppers. But they don’t defend the run well at any point across the front seven, and the secondary is leaky.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 6-1—The price is right, but it would be better if the Packers were in the AFC, where a prospective meeting with the Seahawks would take place on a neutral site, rather than up in Seattle. Still, you don’t get decent odds without a significant challenge and Green Bay would be worth a flyer at 6-1. Also, to bet on the moneyline this Sunday against Dallas at (-260). I don’t know if the Packers will cover the six-point spread they’re favored by in that game, but so long as Rodgers is healthy, I’d be pretty surprised if they actually lost the game in Lambeau Field.
DALLAS COWBOYS (#3 SEED): Tony Romo has played at an MVP level for much of the season, getting the ball to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, but the foundation for the Dallas success was built early on the year on Demarco Murray running the ball behind what has turned into one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Across the trenches, the Cowboy lineman do everything extremely well. The protect Romo and they clear holes for Murray, and for that reason they’ll be difficult for any defense to slow down.
Defensively, the outlook isn’t as bright. Dallas does have some good pass rushers in Jerome Mincey and Tyrone Crawford, but the secondary—save corner Orlando Scandrick—isn’t very good and the linebacking corps is average at best.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 7-1—If these coming three rounds were all on neutral sites, Dallas would be a good buy here. But they have to win at Green Bay, and presumably at Seattle, arguably the two best homefield advantages in football. I know Dallas already won in Seattle this year and they’re 8-0 on the road, but in an odd way that’s problem. What are the odds a team really goes 10-0 on the road and sweeps a pair at Century Field? I suppose where this bet could make sense is if you pair it up with Green Bay at 6-1 and just take your chances with the winner of Sunday’s game going forward.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (#4 SEED): It’s very difficult to take Carolina seriously at this level. I know they’ve won five in a row, but this is still a team that got in by finishing 7-8-1 and “winning” the NFC South. Then they got to face the Arizona Cardinals, playing with a third-string quarterback and completely unproven running backs last week. In short, Carolina’s done nothing to prove they belong.
Cam Newton has had a nice season, but he’s had to carry the offense on his back. If nothing else, the defense, led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker, is strong at all three levels. From this point forward, the hope for the Panthers has to be keeping games close with their defense and letting Cam pull a rabbit out of his hat late.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 25-1—I suppose stranger things have happened, and these odds aren’t bad for a hot team with a really good defense and talented quarterback. I wouldn’t take them—it’s going to end with a torn-up ticket in any event, but if you wanted to, I can see the argument.
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