Top-heavy NFC playoff field may be league’s deepest ever

The NFC playoffs will include one of the decade’s most disappointing teams and all-time depth. Either underachiever Dallas (7-7) or Philadelphia (7-7), who meet Sunday, will claim the NFC East title and mandated No. 4 seed. The rest of the NFC field could include five teams with at least 12 wins, which would be a first in NFL history. 

This is not the best race in the 50-year existence of the AFC and NFC, but the prospect of such a top-heavy field makes this one of the most compelling Super Bowl pursuits ever.

The powerhouse five include the Vikings (10-4), Packers (11-3), 49ers (11-3), Seahawks (11-3) and Saints (11-3). If Minnesota wins Monday night against Green Bay, none of the heavyweights will be locked into a seed going into Week 17. Final-week games pair 49ers-Seahawks, Packers-Lions, Saints-Panthers and Bears-Vikings. No AFC or NFC team has booked a Super Bowl berth without a bye since 2012, further raising the stakes for these final regular-season contests. 

Each of the top five NFC squads will have a realistic chance to reach Super Bowl LIV. Each ranks top nine in DVOA, and should the Cowboys beat the Eagles, their No. 8 DVOA placement will add intrigue to this equation. (An interesting aside: Seven- or eight-win playoff teams are 4-1 in home playoff games since the 2002 realignment.) 

This year’s NFC aristocracy has not relied on the get-rich-quick blueprint the conference’s best teams have used since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement reshaped roster-building. The Saints-Packers-Seahawks-49ers-Vikings group contains zero starting quarterbacks on rookie contracts. If the Eagles join the power five in the playoffs, the final six NFC teams will have a franchise-QB salary on their books.

Last season, four of the conference’s six playoff payrolls were built on quarterbacks on rookie deals. In six of the first eight years since this CBA was ratified, multiple NFC playoff teams took advantage of those cost-controlled salaries to book postseason slots. Five of the eight NFC Super Bowl representatives under this CBA made it there with rookie-deal quarterbacks and the veteran supporting casts they accommodate.

The conference’s only 2010s playoff bracket filled with franchise quarterback prices, 2016, happened before the position’s wages spiked. The market metamorphosis from 2017-19 made it more difficult to build around veteran passers, but these NFC playoffs will feature five salaries between $25-$35 million. Seattle’s Russell Wilson ($35M average annual value) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($33.5M) will be the first $30M-per-year quarterbacks to make the playoffs. Though that tax bracket has only existed for two years, this is a promising development for teams who soon must pay their signal-callers the going rate.

Four of these five teams rely on rookie-deal running backs, with members of the stacked 2017 class (Alvin Kamara, Saints; Aaron Jones, Packers; Chris Carson, Seahawks; Dalvin Cook, Vikings) helping complement these quarterback contracts. Four of the five boast offensive lines that rank in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ chief run-blocking metric (adjusted line yards); Seattle lags just behind at No. 16.

This championship pursuit might not register on the level of some of the conference’s storied 1980s playoff fields and does not bring the prestige of the Cowboys-49ers-Packers 1990s seasons. But three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks –- Rodgers, Wilson and New Orleans’ Drew Brees –- are locked into this bracket, and Bovada gives three teams better than plus-300 odds of winning the conference. Las Vegas, interestingly, has the Cowboys above the Vikings in the Super Bowl odds hierarchy. Brees and Rodgers both making the playoffs for the first time since 2013 further enhances the January slate’s appeal.

At the least, this is the most captivating NFC field since 2011, when the Packers, 49ers and Saints each won at least 13 games and the 9-7 Giants won it all with a scorching-hot playoff stretch. That sextet included no-hopers (the Falcons and Lions); this one will be deeper. 

With each heavyweight not reliant on a rookie-deal quarterback, greater sustainability may exist. Of course, impediments loom. Brees will turn 41 next month; the 49ers have mega-extensions due for tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, both Pro Bowlers. High-priced defenders populate the Vikings’ cap sheet. Minnesota, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay are projected to be among the bottom 10 in 2020 cap space. Seattle leads this pack in cap room by a wide margin, with at least $66 million. But extensions for some of their young defenders will come due starting next year.

As the Rams’ performance and payroll issues show, non-Patriots long-term dominance is not guaranteed. Even if some of these blueprints involve steps back in 2020, the 2019 season will go down as a roster-building turning point and may feature classic playoff games.
The NFC champion’s matchup with one of the AFC’s flashier quarterbacks (Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes or Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson) would provide a good indicator of where the league is going. And, of course, the Patriots’ Tom Brady could make it back to the Super Bowl again.

Regardless, the five weeks leading up to the championship game will double as a historic stretch -– one that may end up rivaling some of the NFC’s revered races from a generation ago.

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