Carson Wentz injury makes it difficult for Eagles
LA Rams genuine contenders under Sean McVay
Record v playoff teams 2-1
Leading passer C Wentz (inj) 3,296, N Foles 537
Leading rushers L Blount 766, J Ajayi 408, C Clement 321
Leading receivers Z Ertz 824, A Jeffery 789, N Agholor 768
Positives For much of the season the Eagles looked a major force, winning games through their smothering defence and dominant offensive line, allowing second-season quarterback Carson Wentz time to pick off opposing defences. Running back Jay Ajayi was acquired in a mid-season trade to give them an embarrassment of riches.
Negatives Wentz suffered a season-ending injury while clinching the NFC East title in Week 14. While back-up Nick Foles threw four TD passes the next week, the two displays that followed were shaky, and their defence also seemed to take a backward step.
The Eagles are far from finished without Wentz and they won all their home games except for the last, in which they rested several starters. But they won’t have any easy games in a strong NFC field and it’s no surprise that one firm makes them only joint-third favourites to win the conference.
Record v playoff teams 3-2
Leading passer C Keenum 3,547
Leading rushers L Murray 842, J McKinnon 570, D Cook (inj) 354
Leading receivers A Thielen 1,276, S Diggs 849, K Rudolph 532
Positives The Vikings won 11 of their last 12 games and didn’t allow their season to be derailed by early injuries to QB Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Their impressive defence conceded 20 or more points only four times.
Negatives They have lost their only two playoff games since 2009. QB Case Keenum has done a great job but has not faced this much pressure in his career.
Verdict A well-coached team, the Vikings have let nothing distract them and this could be their year. The incentive of winning a Super Bowl at home must be massive.
3 Los Angeles Rams
Record v playoff teams 3-2
Leading passer J Goff 3,804
Leading rushers T Gurley 1,305, T Austin 270, M Brown 246
Leading receivers C Kupp 869, T Gurley 788, R Woods 781
Positives One of the good news stories of the year, the vastly-improved Rams are genuine contenders under impressive 31-year-old coach Sean McVay. QB Jared Goff is unrecognisable from the rocky rookie of last season, running back Todd Gurley is a huge threat and they have a hard-hitting defence led by the superb Aaron Donald.
Negatives Their new Californian location will be a pain for the former St Louis franchise if they have to travel cross-country for the next two rounds, as seems likely.
Verdict It’s no surprise that the Rams are fourth favourites for the Super Bowl as they have plenty of top-level young talent. If this isn’t their year, it will be a surprise if they’re not back for another try next season as they look a franchise on the rise.
4 New Orleans
Record v playoff teams 4-4
Leading passer D Brees 4,334
Leading rushers M Ingram 1,124, A Kamara 728
Leading receivers M Thomas 1,245, A Kamara 826, T Ginn 787.
Positives Veteran quarterback Drew Brees still has petrol in the tank and leads an offence refreshed by the sublime skills of rookie running back Alvin Kamara.
Negatives They lost three of their last six games, including two to their playoff rivals and in Week 17, when they thought they needed to win to take the division title. Most of their best work was done at home and they will need to win away to a strong team.
Verdict There is a path to glory for the Saints, who start at home to a team they have beaten twice this season already and could then take on an Eagles side who suddenly are not so imposing. But they were only 4-4 on the road this year and will look more vulnerable as soon as their home advantage runs out.
Record v playoff teams 4-4
Leading passer C Newton 3,302
Leading rushers C Newton 754, J Stewart 680, C McCaffrey 435
Leading receivers D Funchess 840, C McCaffrey 651, K Benjamin 475 (now with Buffalo)
Positives Wins in New England and at home to Minnesota stand out on their record. QB Cam Newton and rookie RB Christian McCaffrey will keep defences on their toes. Tight end Greg Olsen has had five games to get fit after missing much of the season.
Negatives They lost to wildcard opponents New Orleans twice and flopped against Atlanta last week when they had the chance to win the division.
Verdict It’s hard to be too down on the Panthers, who have a number of smart performers in key positions, but they just don’t stand out as an elite package in a tough playoff field.
Record v playoff teams 2-5
Leading passer M Ryan 4,095
Leading rushers D Freeman 865, T Coleman 628, M Ryan 143
Leading receivers J Jones 1,444, M Sanu 703, A Hooper 526
Positives Their offensive weapons are not far short of what they had when they were on the brink of a Super Bowl success last season. They showed guts to finish strongly including last week’s victory over Carolina to get into the playoffs.
Negatives Key men Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman have been dealing with injuries. Their last four defeats have all been to teams they could meet in the playoffs. Six of their ten wins came by six or fewer points.
Verdict The Falcons have shown plenty of spirit to pick themselves up off the floor following their devastating Super Bowl defeat last season. It’s worth remembering that they were good enough to be 28-3 up on New England in the third quarter of a Super Bowl but they haven’t quite hit last season’s standards this time around. The sixth seeding means they’ll have to do it the hard way if they want another shot at the trophy.
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