A year ago, with two games left in the season, we asked a simple question: Which team would you rather see the Falcons face in their first game of the NFL playoffs – Green Bay or New Orleans? About 1,500 votes later, the Packers were a landslide pick by a two-to-one margin.
So here we are again. The Falcons will not be the NFC’s No. 1 seed this year. Assuming they make the playoffs, they probably will be the No. 5 seed (wild card team with the best record). That would match them against the No. 4 seed (division winner with the fourth-best record), which will be the East Division champion.
Here are the current playoff standings in the NFC:
1. Green Bay (13-1, North). Bye.
2. New Orleans (11-3, South). Bye.
3. San Francisco (10-3, West).
4. Dallas (8-6, East).
5. Atlanta (9-5, wildcard-1).
6. Detroit (9-5, wildcard-2).
Currently out: Seattle (7-7, wild card), Chicago (7-7, wild card), N.Y. Giants (7-7, East), Arizona (7-7, wild card), Philadelphia (6-8, East).
Here are possible teams they could meet in the first round, in order of probability:
• Dallas (8-6, East): The Cowboys would be the Falcons’ opponent if the playoffs opened today. The Cowboys have the No. 6 offense in the league (yards and scoring), but, like the Falcons, their pass defense is suspect. So it probably would be a high-scoring game. (The Cowboys won the last meeting, 37-21, in 2009.)
• New York Giants (7-7, East): Notwithstanding that the Giants are only four years removed from a Super Bowl, they’re fizzling now — 1-5 since a 6-2 start. Similar to Dallas, they have fallen apart defensively and Eli Manning threw three interceptions in a 23-10 loss to Washington (5-9) on Sunday. It’s New York, on the road and in the cold. But the Falcons would take this match-up. (The Giants won the last meeting, 34-31, in overtime in 2009.)
• New Orleans (11-3, South): The Saints would have to drop back into the No. 3 seed and the Falcons to the sixth seed for this to happen. Falcons-Saints games generally are unpredictable and, of late, high scoring. New Orleans’ defense has issues, but the way Drew Brees is playing right now, it’s not a good match-up. (The Saints won the last meeting, 26-23, in overtime this season.)
• San Francisco (10-3, West): This game only happens if the 49ers remain in the three seed and the Falcons drop to the sixth seed. Despite the long trip, it would be a good match-up for the Falcons because the 49ers’ offensive strength (running) is the Falcons’ defensive strength. (The Falcons won the last meeting, 16-13, in 2010.)
• Philadelphia (6-8, East): By the longest of shots, the Eagles can still make the playoffs. To win the East (via tiebreakers), Philly would need to win its last two games (at Dallas, home against Washington), have Dallas lose its last two games (Philadelphia, at N.Y. Giants) and the Giants lose to the Jets but beat Dallas. Is it likely to happen? No. But if the Eagles get in, they would be a scary team to face. (The Falcons won the last meeting, 35-31, this season.)
Because the Giants and Cowboys are the two most plausible opponents, I’m listing only those two in the poll. But you’re certainly welcome to comment on any of the possibilities.
And let’s try to be right this time.
By Jeff Schultz