THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Friday, January 5, 2018
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-3)
No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 15 to Oakland in 1981 and Super Bowl 39 to New England in 2005.
Hope: The Eagles have the NFL's third-ranked rushing offence with three productive backs: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. They'll have to rely on them more to take pressure off QB Nick Foles and a passing attack that has struggled since second-year sensation Carson Wentz tore his left ACL in December.
Nope: Foles isn't Wentz, who was a leading MVP candidate when he got hurt. But the offence still has plenty of pop and talent, and Foles has the ability to get on a roll. He needs to develop more chemistry with receivers during the bye, be more consistent and avoid mistakes.
2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-3)
No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 4 to Kansas City in 1970, Super Bowl 8 to Miami in 1974, Super Bowl 9 to Pittsburgh in 1975 and Super Bowl 11 to Oakland in 1977.
Hope: The defence, with all due respect to QB Case Keenum and the job he's done. The Vikings ranked second in the league in both fewest rushing yards and fewest passing yards allowed, so there's not really a one preferred way to attack them. No team gave up fewer points, either.
Nope: There aren't many culprits, but Kai Forbath will certainly be a person of interest. Vikings fans still wince thinking about stunningly missed field goals by Gary Anderson (1998) and Blair Walsh (2015) that cost their team seemingly certain postseason victories. Forbath has been better than his predecessor Walsh, but he has missed eight extra points in 23 games with the Vikings.
3. LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-5)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, beat Tennessee 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, while based in St. Louis.
Hope: The NFL's most surprising comeback story shows few signs of ending prematurely. L.A. has the talent and smarts on both sides of the ball, with the league's highest-scoring offence led by QB Jared Goff and MVP hopeful RB Todd Gurley. The Wade Phillips-led defence remains a strength with DT Aaron Donald disrupting offences weekly. Rookie coach Sean McVay has outsmarted his older foes with impressive regularity.
Nope: They can't act like they've been here before, because they haven't. Only six Rams have any playoff experience whatsoever, easily the fewest in the current field. McVay, Goff, Gurley and Donald have never been under the post-season spotlight, where every mistake is magnified. So the big question is whether they'll continue to thrive under pressure or crater.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 44, beat Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010.
Hope: Although Drew Brees passed for his fewest yards (4,334) since joining the Saints in 2006, he was as efficient as ever, setting a single-season record with his 72-per-cent completion rate. And Brees didn't need to throw as much because the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara combined for 1,852 yards rushing.
They also performed well as receivers, particularly on screens, each gaining more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Nope: Although the defence made remarkable strides this season - particularly in sacks and interceptions - injuries have added up over the course of the season. They lost a productive starter at each level of the unit: defensive end Alex Okafor, middle linebacker A.J. Klein and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.
5. CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5)
No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 38 to New England in 2004 and Super Bowl 50 to Denver in 2016.
Hope: They have one of the league's best defences behind LB Luke Kuechly, LB Thomas Davis and DE Julius Peppers. They also have more playoff experience than any team in the NFC playoffs - by a wide margin - and a versatile former league MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton. Carolina has three times run for more than 200 yards in a game this season.
Nope: Despite an 11-5 record in the toughest division in football, the Panthers don't match up well against first-round foe New Orleans and could be one and done. The Saints beat them twice in the regular season by a combined score of 65-34. If Carolina can get by the wild-card round, it has the potential to make a deep run.
6. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6)
No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 33 to Denver in 1999 and Super Bowl 51 to New England in 2017.
Hope: Improved defence provides better balance to a team motivated by last year's Super Bowl defeat. The Falcons were top 10 in scoring defence and total defence for first time since 1998 Super Bowl season.
Defence boasts young, athletic playmakers, including LB Vic Beasley Jr., the 2016 NFL sacks leader, LB Deion Jones, LB De'Vondre Campbell and S Keanu Neal. Offence still has explosive potential.
Nope: Offence took huge step back after leading league in scoring last season. Ryan's regression makes 2016 MVP season look like outlier in his career. Freeman and RB Tevin Coleman each missed time with concussions and offensive line is missing LG Andy Levitre, who was placed on IR this week with a triceps injury.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles will have to rely on the NFL's third-ranked rushing offence with three productive backs.