The Obstructed NFC Wild Card Preview

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NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 01: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates a touchdown during the second quarter of a game against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Wild Card is among us this coming weekend.  It has a true southern flair (right now it can be said for pro and college with Georgia and Alabama as well) so it is a good time to be in the south for football.  We have 3 NFC South teams (and if you count Jacksonville and Tennessee, it is really a party going on) battling it out on the weekend.  Two of them, obviously, are battling each other for the 3rd time this year.  So you have two division foes in New Orleans and Carolina battle it out while you have the defending NFC Champion Falcons travel to LA to face the upstart and offensive minded Los Angeles Rams Saturday night.

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FALCONS AT RAMS, 8:15, SATURDAY:  This is intriguing as some have said the winner of this may end up being the NFC representative for the Super Bowl.  The Rams have a potent offense with running back and MVP candidate Todd Gurley leading the way as well as having some explosive playmakers at the receiving spot.  Atlanta, having really sneaking in with inconsistencies, many are thinking perhaps the best football is yet to come on the offensive side AND maybe the toughest 6th seed since the 2010 Packers when they won the whole thing.

Falcons win if:

  1.  They play smart on the offensive side.  Atlanta got in the playoffs not because of the offense, who was consistently inconsistent this year but by the defense.  The offense has to cut out the nonsensical mistakes of dropping passes, porous communications, inopportune turnovers, dumb holding penalties where it had no impact on the play outcome, and just “off-the-mark” passes.  Even the last 3 regular season wins against rivals New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Carolina, they were very inept on the offensive side and the defense bailed them out time and time again.  This time the offense has to set the tone from beginning to end and make plays and be smart, something they haven’t done all year.
  2. They stop Gurley.  The defense, as I mentioned, has been very good-to-great this year.  However, the run defense at times has been shaky though the last few weeks stopped the running backs in New Orleans and a Stewart-less Carolina squad.  The Falcons can make the Rams one-dimensional and get Gurley out of the game and have the defense play well (if Trufant can not get burnt like he did by New Orleans) against the pass like they have, they will be in EXCELLENT shape.
  3. Eliminate the penalties.  Simply put, this is what has killed Atlanta all year and I am pointing at two guys mostly on the line: Ryan Schraeder and Jake Matthews.  Ever since his concussion in Week 2 vs. Green Bay, Schraeder has not been anywhere to what he was last year.  And Matthews may be the worst lineman the Falcons have especially given Wes Schweitzer’s constant improvement over the season and makes some of the worst inopportune, drive-killing penalties possible.

Rams win if:

  1. They stop Atlanta’s ground attack: Los Angeles has been abysmal against the run this year.  While Freeman has battled injury and at times consistency, he and Tevin Coleman are one of the strongest 1-2 RB duos in the NFL.  And if they struggle against those two, it may be a long day and also keep the Rams defense exposed to big play-action plays by Atlanta.  While the Falcons deep ball pass isn’t like it was in 2016, it is still something to be very scared about, if they find their groove.
  2. They jump on Atlanta early and often: It is a hard thing to do against the Falcons, even this year.  Aside from the Patriots game and Saints game, Atlanta led in every game this year and they led in 13 of the 16 games at some point in the 4th quarter.  The Patriots and Saints game however, the Falcons were increasingly frustrated and took them out of their game. If they let Atlanta hang around, it will be a problem for the Rams as you have to figure the experience the Falcons have will just take over.
  3. They keep Atlanta from finding the end zone: the Falcons have gone back to those teams from 2011-2015 where they would get into FG territory and then just sputter out and have to settle for FG’s.  It worked with the inconsistent Carolina offense last weekend, but when it comes to playing shootout with teams like the Saints and Patriots, it won’t work.  The Rams hope to be that kind of team Saturday.  They keep Atlanta kicking FG’s while the Rams score TD’s, it will be a rematch with Minnesota next week.

MY TAKE:  As I mentioned before, this 6th seed Falcons team if they can figure out to play smart on offense is one of the most deadly 6th seeds we’ve seen in a while.  The one thing I do remember that some did forget was Atlanta stepped up their game in the playoffs last year.  Yes, of course that was at home, and this is away now.  But the tenacity of the defense in the Carolina game when they needed a big game was reminiscent of the Seattle/Green Bay games last year in January and if the offense can match that, even in Los Angeles, I don’t know if the Rams can handle that vast wealth of experience the Falcons have.  But homefield does mean something……I have to go with Atlanta here because of the experience and the Falcons defense has done very well against the offensive squads of the Patriots, Vikings, and Saints this year.  FALCONS 27, RAMS 20

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CAROLINA PANTHERS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS, 4:40, SUNDAY:  An NFC South match-up in the playoffs as the Panthers and Saints fight it out to see who advances.  New Orleans won both match-ups in the season by double digits, which gave them the tiebreak in the NFC South.  It is hard to win 3 times against the same team in the same season.  However, it is also hard to think the Panthers can just turn up the juice after last week’s debacle in Atlanta and go to a place like the Superdome that can unhinge any road team.

Panthers win if:

  1. Cam Newton stays zeroed in and focused the entire time.  I mentioned in my previous post that Cam is the most bipolar QB in the NFL and how last week showed.  The biggest concern I have is did Cam possibly lose his offensive teammates last week when he was yelling at the entire offense from McCaffrey to Funchess to Olsen, to whoever he could see despite overthrowing, under-throwing and just completely missing his targets.  And as the game was getting out of reach it looked like he & Olsen were chippy towards each other.  After that little event it looked like Cam threw in the towel.  Going to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta when it is packed is one thing.  But going to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans is vastly different where that homefield is unmatched by mostly any team in the NFL.
  2. They keep it close or at least get an early lead on New Orleans.  Back to the homefield bit.  If the Saints are behind early, it could at least take some wind out of the fans.  That would be enough to give Cam and the Panthers in a rhythm.
  3. They keep tabs on Alvin Kamara.  Hard thing to do.  However, they need to take a page out of their divisional rival Atlanta’s hands and make sure somebody is on him the whole time and confuse Brees.  Carolina’s run D is stout, but what kills teams with Kamara is his receiving ability out of the backfield, which is tops (yes, way better than Christian McCaffrey).  But if Kamara has a big day, the Panthers will be in for a long day.

Saints win if:

  1. Jump to a big early lead on Carolina.  For what I said on the Panthers keys to winning.  Carolina is not a team that likes to play behind nor does Cam like to play behind.  It frustrates him.  And with the crowd noise that is going to be on average of 110 db for most of the game (from all likelihoods), he may get unhinged early and then have the Panthers offensive players get into a bickering mood like they were last Sunday.
  2. Brees does his thing: if there is one QB on an NFC team that is still alive in the playoffs that I would take, without question it is Drew Brees.  Even over Matt Ryan.  The guy has the veteran presence and can get that needed 3rd down or that play to keep drives alive.  He isn’t Tom Brady, but who is?  But Brees can pick apart any defense in all reality and given the run game of Ingram and Kamara, he is just as dangerous and a lot of pressure is off his shoulders.  Because of that, it is why I think the Saints have to be one of the NFC favorites this playoff.
  3. The defense doesn’t lose any key players by injury.  The Saints defense, along with the run game has been vastly improved.  However, they aren’t really a completely stout defense, but far better than years past.  That said, they cannot afford key injuries.  When AJ Klein, Kenny Vaccaro, and Marshon Lattimore were dinged up, teams took advantage and hurt New Orleans (notably Washington and the Rams).  Vaccaro is hurt and perhaps it did show a little bit in the loss to Tampa Bay in the final week.  The Saints can’t afford any more injuries to a defense that is solid all around, but very thin after their first string.

MY TAKE:  An oddity was that Carolina was poor last year because of Cam Newton’s horrendous play.  He did not improve and you can make an argument he went backwards once again (fewer passing yards in 2 extra games), only 3 more TD’s than last year and 2 more INT’s than last year.  His QB rating was slightly higher this year but the ESPN Total QB rating was far lower.  The Panthers won 11 games however, thanks to their defense coming up big in games.  However, if the Panthers are going to win Sunday, Cam has to play like 2015 Cam.  However, the last two years Cam has looked like a bottom-third QB in the league and it seems like nothing will get him going.  I think New Orleans takes a big lead and if Carolina starts off slow, it will be downhill very, very quick for the Panthers.  And honestly, there may be questions if Cam is the right guy for the job for Carolina if the Saints win decisively, and I think they will.  SAINTS 34, PANTHERS 10

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