At long last, the 2021 NFL Playoffs are here, albeit a week later than what we’re accustomed to seeing. The San Francisco 49ers locked in the NFC’s sixth — and final available — seed when Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford’s overtime pass fell into rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas’ hands.
The 49ers are back in the postseason for the second time in three seasons and are one of the AFC’s seven teams. San Francisco, the No. 6 seed, joins the No. 1 Green Bay Packers, No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 3 Dallas Cowboys, No. 4 Rams, No. 5 Arizona Cardinals, and No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles among the NFC franchises gunning for a spot in Super Bowl 56.
Of those seven teams, which is the best — or, depending on your outlook, the scariest — entering this year’s postseason? For this list, we have factored in everything from the quarterback situation to what the team’s injury report looked like after Week 18. Although a team’s final record and overall seeding played a role in where it might have ranked, the No. 7 seed is not automatically the worst team, and the No. 1 seed is not automatically the top team.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the NFC’s best and scariest teams stack up as follows:
7. Arizona Cardinals (11-6, No. 5 seed)
Remember when the Cardinals almost entered November with an undefeated record? Yes, that happened.
Arizona opened the season with seven straight wins and even held a 10-2 record on Dec. 5. However, the Cardinals lost four of their final five games — including on the road to the woeful Detroit Lions and at home to the 6-10 Seattle Seahawks — and went from pursuing the NFC’s No. 1 seed to reaching the playoffs as a wild-card team.
Some might suggest a team limping into the playoffs means it’s due for a Super Bowl run. We don’t buy that idea, at least not with these Cardinals. If the team that took the field over the last month shows up in the Wild Card Round, Cardinals fans might want to find something else to watch on Monday night.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8, No. 7 seed)
In theory, the 9-8 Eagles shouldn’t rank higher than the 11-6 Cardinals. However, that’s where the disclaimer about factoring in everything comes into play. The once-3-6 Eagles caught fire in the season’s second half, winning six of seven games and only losing to the New York Giants during that stretch en route to clinching a Wild Card Round spot.
Although a Week 18 loss to Dallas wasn’t pretty, the Eagles get somewhat of a pass because they rested several starters, including Pro Bowl quarterback Jalen Hurts. Don’t expect the hot streak to save them from Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, especially on the road. Tampa won, 28-22, on Thursday, Oct. 14.
5. Los Angeles Rams (12-5, No. 4 seed)
Much like the Cardinals, the Rams once resembled one of the NFL’s top teams — and by once, we mean in early December. However, while the Cardinals started losing, the Rams kept winning, albeit in spite of Stafford’s turnovers.
After only throwing nine interceptions in the Rams’ first 13 games, Stafford had eight passes picked off in the season’s final four weeks. Los Angeles has no shortage of talent, but it’s hard to win with a turnover-prone gunslinger. Then again, the Rams are playing the Cardinals, so they should at least reach the Divisional Round for the third time in Sean McVay’s five seasons.
4. San Francisco 49ers (10-7, No. 6 seed)
San Francisco is the best of the NFC’s three wild-card teams; that much is clear. But are the 49ers good enough to shock Dallas on the road?
When a team enters the postseason having won seven of nine with one of the NFL’s top young weapons in Deebo Samuel, we’re willing to take that chance. The South Carolina product finished his third season with 365 rushing yards, 1,405 receiving yards, and 1,770 yards from scrimmage.
If the 49ers get the best of Samuel and star tight end George Kittle (71 catches for 910 yards and six touchdowns), don’t be surprised to see Kyle Shanahan’s team in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
3. Dallas Cowboys (12-5, No. 3 seed)
The 2021 Cowboys have been a strange team at times, but they do have one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in Dak Prescott. However, concerns still exist about running back Ezekiel Elliott and what he’ll bring to the franchise’s latest pursuit of a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Don’t let Elliott’s 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns fool you into thinking he had a terrific season. His 58.9 yards per game marked the lowest output of his career, and he looked older than his 26 years (and, as of publication, 173 days) at points this year. Elliott only rushed for 100 yards in Weeks 4 and 5 and is best suited for working in a two-back system with Tony Pollard.
Still, the Cowboys might be the most exciting NFC team in this year’s playoffs, especially on defense. Dallas will need the young superstar duo of pass-rusher Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs to play like seasoned veterans if it hopes to earn a Super Bowl ring.
2. Green Bay Packers (13-4, No. 1 seed)
Green Bay is the No. 1 seed, and it has the league’s best quarterback. You’re free to feel however you want about Aaron Rodgers after his recent rants and attempts at sharing COVID-19 misinformation, but you have to admit he’s still a frightening opponent. When he wasn’t sharing misinformation, he still had an MVP-caliber season (4,115 yards, 37 touchdowns, and four interceptions in 16 starts).
Time will tell if this year proves to be Rodgers’ swan song in Green Bay, especially if the Packers don’t win the Super Bowl. For now, they should be considered a legitimate threat to jubilantly hold the Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4, No. 2 seed)
The Buccaneers have dealt with injuries, COVID-19 breakouts, and Antonio Brown drama. If the Packers win in the NFC Divisional Round, Tampa Bay is guaranteed to play for a Super Bowl berth at Lambeau Field later this month, assuming it makes it that far.
Luckily for the Buccaneers, they still have Brady on their side. If there’s any quarterback who can carry his team to a Super Bowl appearance on his lonesome, it’s the 44-year-old chasing his eighth ring.