Craig: Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2014 - 10:06 PM

After another topsy-turvy NFL regular season, it would not be outrageous to picture any of the 12 postseason teams emerging as the Super Bowl champion.

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San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates hugs quarterback Philip Rivers after the Chargers made the playoffs with a 27-24 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi )

Photo: Lenny Ignelzi, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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Vikings fans resigned to a lengthy rebuilding project might want to take a peek at this year’s 12-team playoff field.

For the 17th time in 18 years, the NFL heads into wild-card weekend with at least five new playoff teams from the year before.

So welcome back to the postseason Carolina, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Kansas City and San Diego. Their combined record in 2012: 27-53. Their combined record in 2013: 53-27. Somewhere, Pete Rozelle is smiling.

Wait. There’s more.

One quarter of this year’s playoff field — Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Diego — were in the Vikings’ cleats a year ago this week. Coming off losing seasons, they had just fired their head coaches and were starting over. And of the three, only the Chargers, with Philip Rivers, had a franchise quarterback in place when the bloodletting began.

Turnarounds like that aren’t unusual. In fact, this is the seventh consecutive year in which at least one NFL team has reached the postseason the year after firing its head coach.

Of course, the hatchet swings the other way, too. The Vikings, Redskins, Falcons, Texans and defending Super Bowl champion Ravens failed to return to the playoffs this year. Their combined record a year ago: 55-25. This year: 22-57-1, with the Vikings, Redskins and Texans starting over with new head coaches.

Looking at this year’s playoff field, strong arguments could be made for any one of the 12 teams.

San Diego, the team with the worst record (9-7) and turnover differential (minus-4), has won an AFC-best four consecutive games and is peaking the way the 2010 Packers and 2005 Steelers did when they won the Super Bowl as No. 6 seeds. Meanwhile, the team with the worst overall record, NFC North champion Green Bay (8-7-1), has at least one home game and the return of Aaron Rodgers’ health.

In the NFC, the sixth-seeded Saints are 0-3 on the road against playoff teams, but they still have Drew Brees. The fifth-seeded 49ers are 12-4 with an NFL-best six-game winning streak. The third-seeded Eagles have a quarterback, Nick Foles, with no playoff experience, but he also has won seven of eight games and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-2. The second-seeded Panthers also have a quarterback, Cam Newton, making his playoff debut, but Carolina’s scoring defense ranks No. 2 in the NFL (15.1).

In the AFC, the fifth-seeded Chiefs are 0-5 against the other five playoff teams, but they have a conference-best plus-18 in turnover differential. The fourth-seeded Colts experienced a midseason slump, but their 4-2 record against playoff teams includes victories over both No. 1 seeds. The third-seeded Bengals have gone one-and-done in back-to-back playoff appearances, but they are 4-0 against playoff teams this year. And the second-seeded Patriots have the worst third-down defense (42.2) of any playoff team, but they also have three B’s in their favor: a bye, a Brady and a Belichick.

That leaves only the two No. 1 seeds, Denver in the AFC and Seattle in the NFC.

Denver has the league’s first 600-point (606) offense and a record-setting, soon-to-be five-time league MVP quarterback in Peyton Manning. But the Broncos also have the No. 22 scoring defense (24.9) and Manning’s 9-11 postseason record. In 12 trips to the postseason, Manning has gone one-and-done eight times, including five times at home. So beware.

As good as Manning and the Broncos are offensively, Seattle seems to be the safer bet to seize home-field advantage and win its first Super Bowl.

For a chart in today’s Star Tribune, 13 categories were weighed in an effort to judge each conference’s playoff teams in the two most important elements of the 21st century NFL: Passing the ball and defending the pass.

The Seahawks ranked No. 1 in six categories in the NFC. They were dominant in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.82), defensive passer rating (63.4), passer rating differential (plus-37.8), interception differential (plus-19), turnover differential (plus-20) and red-zone defense (41.5 touchdown percentage). And, oh yeah, they also rank No. 1 in the league in scoring defense (14.4).

 

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribue.com

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