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NFC Playoff Preview

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Because he played at Boston College, mostly keeps his mouth shut and never mistreated a dog, Matt Ryan flies under the radar. His passes do not. Everyone is noticing.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, the third overall selection in the 2008 NFL draft, helped lead his team to the best record in the NFC through 14 games. In that time, he threw for 3,321 yards and 25 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He also had a great running game for support, with Michael Turner rushing for 1,256 yards – best in the conference.

What really mattered, though, were the Falcons’ eight-game winning streak and their 12-2 record before Christmas.

The best team in the NFC? Maybe.

Be assured,  however, that the more dynamic Philadelphia Eagles, with electric stars Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, won’t be easy to keep out of the Super Bowl.

Let’s take a closer look at the NFC:

THE FALCONS

You might remember opening day at Heinz Field where the Steelers, without Roethlisberger, needed overtime to beat the Falcons.

From there, the Falcons won 12 of their next 13 games. Their only other loss: To the Eagles, 31-17, on Oct. 17.

If there is a weakness on the Falcons, it’s their pass defense, which is 20th in the NFL, allowing an average of 226.8 yards per game.

If any team can take advantage of a leaky secondary, it’s the Eagles, with Vick and Jackson. But the Eagles are 21st in pass defense (227.1).

What are we to make of all these numbers? Look for a high-scoring, high-flying NFC Championship game between two birds of a feather.

THE EAGLES

When a team trails, 31-10, in the fourth quarter and manages to win by returning a punt for a touchdown on the last play of the game, you have to wonder whether a championship is its destiny.

Vick authored one of the great comeback stories in the history of the NFL this season. He spent 21 months in jail on dog-fighting charges in 2007 and 2008, and he wasn’t sure if he would ever play again.

Vick had an image problem last year, and the Eagles were the only team to take a chance and sign him. Even Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie questioned the move when coach Andy Reid first mentioned it.

After massaging his name and convincing the general public and football fans he had changed, Vick seized the starting job from Kevin Kolb this year.

Today, with the most dangerous pairs of arms and legs in the league, he looks like the league MVP – or a serious candidate to win the honor.

The Eagles have a defense that suffered several significant injuries and remained a work in progress as the playoffs approached, but Vick continually came up with big plays to counter most problems. He threw for 2,755 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first 11 games, but his ability to run away from defenders (613 yards, eight touchdowns) sets him apart.

No greater evidence surfaced than in the Eagles’ 10th victory on Dec. 19 when they scored 28 points in the final 7:28 to beat the New York Giants, 38-31. The final points on the final play came from Jackson’s 65-yard punt return, the only time in NFL history a game ended that way.

Jackson may be the second-greatest quick strike threat in the league (after Vick). With only two games left in the season, he had an average of 22.8 yards per reception. But if you double-team Jackson, Vick can throw to Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek and usually find success.

This team certainly sounds like the top Super Bowl contender in the NFC.

THE SAINTS

Quarterback Drew Brees gives the defending champions the opportunity to win a shootout with either the Eagles or Falcons, or both, if necessary. Plus, the confidence gained by beating the Indianapolis Colts in last year’s Super Bowl can’t be minimized. The Saints know what it feels like to manufacture a successful playoff run.

But the Saints have issues on defense (doesn’t everyone in the NFC?) after allowing 30 points each in losses to the Arizona Cardinals, Browns and Ravens and 27 to the Falcons.

Entering the playoffs as a wild card may not hurt the Saints. They won five of their first seven road games.

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