So here’s how the last day of 2017 went in the NFC: The Eagles lost to Dallas, the Saints lost to last-place Tampa Bay, the Panthers could have won the NFC South but they lost, and the Rams, who we wrote the other day were trying to lose to end up with the No. 4 seed, did lose to the 49ers, but still ended up with the No. 3 seed!
The only playoff teams in the NFC that won in Week 17 were the Vikings, who locked up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, and the Falcons, who won big over the Panthers to secure the final spot in the playoffs they would have earned anyway, because Seattle lost to the Arizona Cardinals.
Here’s what matters: The Eagles will host the first game of the Divisional playoff round on Saturday, Jan.13 at 4:35 p.m. (broadcast on NBC).
The Patriots will host the Saturday night game, while the Steelers host their Divisional round game Sunday at 1:05 p.m., just before the Vikings host the final game of that round. If the Eagles offense plays the way it did the last two weeks, their playoff season will end as quickly as possible, thanks to the NFL scheduling.
And yet, the Birds did earn a first-round bye, so they will be sitting at home this weekend warming their toes by the fire while the Rams host the Falcons Saturday night, immediately following the worst playoff game of this or perhaps any NFL season, Andy Reid’s Chiefs hosting Marcus Mariota’s Tennessee Titans in Kansas City at 4:35 p.m. on Jan. 6.
Sunday’s Wild Card round will pit the Bills against the Jaguars in another game nobody thought they ever needed to see, Sunday, Jan. 7 at 1:05 p.m., immediately preceding a game that could have been for the NFC championship given how good both the Panthers and Saints can play when at their best.
As horrible as the AFC games might be, Falcons at Rams and Panthers at Saints set up to be as good a first round as the NFC has seen in some time. The only team the Eagles can’t face is the Rams, the one team we thought was angling the hardest to set up a second-round rematch with the Birds.
If the defending NFC champions Falcons beat the Rams, the Eagles will know their opponent Saturday night. If the Rams win at home, the Eagles will face the winner of the Panthers and Saints.
Here’s a quick look at those three teams.
No. 6 seed: Atlanta Falcons
- Record: 10-6
- Points per game: 22.1 (15th)
- Points allowed per game: 19.7 (8th)
The Falcons are not the same team that went to the Super Bowl last year, and without his offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach, Matt Ryan did not have an MVP season in 2017. And yet, the Falcons won three of their last four games and six of their final eight, including wins against the Saints, Panthers and Seahawks, to reach the playoffs.
The Falcons’ offense was middle-of-the-pack this season in terms of points, but they did finish eighth in total yards, eighth in passing yards and 13th in rushing yards, which is impressive considering all their top players didn’t break out until the second half of the season.
Their defense was a top-10 unit, but did give up more than 318 yards per game, including more than 104 rushing yards (9th) and 214 passing yards (12th). If the Eagles have a shot to win in the second round, they should hope the Falcons use their playoff experience to pull off a pretty big upset in Los Angeles.
No. 5 seed: Carolina Panthers
- Record: 11-5
- Points per game: 22.7 (12th)
- Points allowed per game: 20.4 (11th)
The Eagles already beat the Panthers, their signature win of the 2017 season. But that game was on a Thursday night early in the year and Cam Newton hadn’t really broken out yet. Newton is still prone to mistakes, throwing 22 touchdowns but 16 interceptions, while fumbling nine times, though only losing one. But Newton threw for more than 3,300 yards this season and ran for another 754 yards and six touchdowns, leading the Panthers in rushing by nearly 75 yards.
As Cam goes, so go the Panthers. They averaged 323.7 yards per game (19th) and just 192.3 passing yards (28th), but did rack up 131.4 (4th) on the ground. The defense was middle of the pack in points, but gave up 317 yards per game (7th) and just 88.1 (3rd) on the ground per game.
If Carson Wentz was still playing this might be the team the Eagles would want to face the most. The Eagles have the No.1 rush defense and No. 3 rush offense in the NFL. But with Foles under center they will have to run the ball more, and facing Carolina’s defense stacking the box is not a favorable matchup. Still, defensively having to face Newton could be better than either alternative.
No. 4 seed: New Orleans Saints
- Record: 11-5
- Points per game: 28.0 (4th)
- Points allowed per game: 20.4 (10th)
The Saints and Panthers allowed the same amount of points per game this season, but Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense scored 28 per game, the fourth best in the NFL. The Eagles, for what it’s worth now, were third.
But here’s what should scare Eagles fans about the Saints: Despite losing in Week 17 to drop their record to just 4-4 on the road, the Saints offense is built to kill you in multiple ways. They have two Pro Bowl running backs and a Hall of Fame quarterback. They finished the regular season averaging 391.2 yards per game, second-best in the NFL, and they pass for nearly 262 (5th) and run for nearly 130 (5th). The offensive balance is remarkable, and they can mix up schemes to get both running backs involved in multiple ways.
Mark Ingram rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 scores, catching 58 passes for another 416 yards, fourth best on the team. Rookie Alvin Kamara had 728 yards rushing and eight scores, while catching 81 passes for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Oh, and they had a 1,200-yard receiver in Michael Thomas.
Of the teams the Eagles could face, the Saints defense, at least statistically, is perhaps the weakest. They ranked 17th in yards, including 15th in passing yards and 16th in rushing yards. But they were a top-10 scoring defense, so they bent a lot but didn’t break.
Given the way the last two weeks have gone, none of these matchups should favor the Eagles. The good news, at least they won’t have to face both the Rams and the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl. The bad news, they might not get a chance to face either.