Senior writer jclombardi previews playoffs picture.
Five of the six NFC teams in playoffs can legitimately claim shot at conference title: One word best describes an NFC playoff race in which the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints got in as a wild-card team and the Seattle Seahawks became the first division champion with a losing record in NFL history: Unpredictable. The Atlanta Falcons clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 13-3 record and are favored to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium. But none of the NFC playoff qualifiers could be characterized as dominant and five of the six teams probably have a legitimate chance to win the NFC title. “Our football team is very confident that we can be successful against any of the other five teams in the playoff race,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “But this time of year, it would be foolish to even attempt to get in front of yourself. We’re fully focused on Philadelphia.” The Packers (10-6) are the sixth-seeded team and face the third-seeded Eagles (10-6) at Lincoln Financial Field at 3:30 p.m. Sunday. In the other NFC wild-card game, the West Division champion Seahawks play host to the Saints (11-5) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Falcons and second-seeded Chicago Bears (11-5) have first-round byes. If the Packers beat the Eagles, they will face Atlanta in the divisional round at 7 p.m. Jan. 15 in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons are 20-4 under coach Mike Smith and beat the Packers, 20-17, on Nov. 28. But the Falcons aren’t invincible at home. On Dec. 27, the Saints beat them, 17-14, at the Georgia Dome. “I don’t want to say it’s wide open,” McCarthy said. “But we feel very confident with our chances.” The Packers beat the Eagles in Week 1, 27-20, and split with the Bears, losing the first game, 20-17, on Sept. 27 and winning the rematch, 10-3, at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Green Bay has not faced the Saints or Seahawks this season. “I think we’re dangerous,” said Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop. “When we’re hitting on all cylinders, I don’t think anybody can beat us. We can beat anybody if we play Packer football for four quarters. If we put it together I think we can take it all the way.”
Packers counting on defense to lead way in playoffs: Packers coach Mike McCarthy, with his team about to begin preparations for Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia, coming clean about his belief that the key to making a Super Bowl run is defense. Maybe it’s because he knows that stopping Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will be critical to advancing beyond the first round. Or maybe it’s because he has seen how coordinator Dom Capers’ defense finished the season with a dominating six-sack, two-interception performance in Sunday’s 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears and has kept the Packers in game after game this season while the offense has been on the inconsistent side. Whatever the reason, McCarthy, the former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator who as a head coach has the Packers in the playoffs for the third time in the last four years, claimed that his team will need its defense to perform to make a title run.“I think it’s important for your team to be noted for great defense,” McCarthy said. “That’s always been the goal in my tenure here, and I think we definitely have reached that.” The Packers finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 15.0 points per game. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (14.5 ppg) were more stingy. Six times this season, the defense has held an opponent under 10 points, including the Oct. 31 road shutout of the New York Jets. “I think that speaks volumes of the improvement we’ve made from last year to this year,” McCarthy said. “Because I think defenses do win championships. Your offense and your quarterback obviously play a big part in that, and you can carry it over to special teams. You have to have all three phases, but it starts with defense. I’ve always looked at defense as the thermostat. When you have a great defense, they keep you in games week in and week out, and it’s the responsibility of the offense to score more points than the opponent.” The second edition of Capers’ defense appears to be more complete. The pass rush has been strong, led by Matthews (13½ sacks) on the outside and Raji (6½) on the interior. If they get Jenkins (seven sacks) back after missing the last four games because of a calf injury, it should be that much better. But Capers also has found other rushers like fill-in OLB Walden, who had two sacks against the Bears. “If you can learn anything from last year, I think we were the hottest team in the NFL and came out and gave up 51 points or something along those lines,” Matthews said. “That’s not indicative of our defense and of our team. So if we can learn anything, it’s to keep this rolling, we can’t back off. We earned the right to be in (the playoffs). Now it’s about taking it to the next step and winning the first game.”