The challenge of the NFC

Jan 5, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) carries the ball during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers during the 2013 NFC wild card playoff football game at Lambeau Field. Image by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The challenge of the NFC

By Stephen O'Brien, Packers contributor. CREATED Jan 18, 2014

The NFC and the AFC are not exactly mirror images. The two are, in many ways, polar opposites. This has advantages and disadvantages for the Green Bay Packers, but there is one common denominator in the NFC: defense.

Looking at the 2013 NFL playoffs, it is clear to see that there are two very different styles of football being played.

NFC games often become hard fought, defensive games with aggressive defensive stands and frustrated QB's. If you look at the teams that made the playoffs in the NFC, the regular season defensive rankings read like this:
- Seattle Seahawks: 1st
- Carolina Panthers: 2nd
- New Orleans Saints: 4th
- San Francisco 49ers: 5th

The Philadelphia Eagles are the exception at 29th, along with the Packers at 25th.

It is no coincidence that both the Eagles and Packers were eliminated in their first playoff game. So, it is clear that to win in the NFC, you need a tough defense.

The AFC is a different story. The teams to make the playoffs there have a very different defensive record:
- New England Patriots: 26th
- Kansas City Chiefs: 24th
- San Diego Chargers: 23rd
- Indianapolis Colts: 20th
- Denver Broncos: 19th

This time, the exception is the Bengals at 3rd.

It’s quite astonishing the vast contrast between the two conferences. With the Packers heading into the playoffs with the 3rd-best offense, it seems they would have stood a better chance at progressing had they been facing poor defensive opponents like those of the AFC.

This highlights more than ever the need for the Packers to build a strong and aggressive defense.

The future of the NFC lies in the hands of teams that work on their defenses and play a physical and aggressive game. This could be seen in the Panthers-Niners battle where the officials seemed to be throwing more flags than QBs were throwing footballs. It was passionate, aggressive, at times dirty and with a constant sideshow of smack talking and rough housing.

As the dust settles on a season of insane ups-and-downs for the Packers, I have to slowly climb down from my "Capers Out" bandwagon and smell the roses.

To speak ill of a man who modernized the 3-4 defense, led it to four conference championship games and won a championship with it in Green Bay was perhaps premature.  His weapons were limited and the injuries arrived at the most inopportune times. To lose Clay Matthews, Johnny Jolly, Casey Hayward, Sam Shields and Mike Neal at various times of the season was too much.

As much as it is downplayed by coaches in every sport, the players make the team. There are individual performers on a team who make it twice as good by being there through a heightened level of play, work ethic and leadership.

Calvin Johnson makes the Lions offense what it is and Matthew Stafford who he is. Shady McCoy gives the Eagles offense their identity. Darrelle Revis shut down WR's so effectively when he played in New York, QB's deliberately avoided throwing in his direction. So, solely because of him, the rest of his defense had to be exposed to almost every play due to his influence.

Arguably, the injured players for the Packers represented the star playmakers on defense.

The real judgement can be bestowed upon Capers next year after all the injuries are mended, the contract players signed up or let walk and new blood drafted.

How much stock you can put in the draft is up to you. You can count the remaining defensive players drafted in the 2011 draft on one finger, and 2012 defensive intensive draft yielded six straight defensive picks, most of whom ended up injured or performing questionably in 2012.

The Packers need to draft more aggressive, edgy players like Richard Sherman of the Seahawks, players who traditionally would be left on the board due to possible personality mismatches with the ethos of Green Bay.  However, if there is one thing that Ted Thompson does well, it’s moulding players into "Packer People."

All the Packers need is one good draft to become a truly all-star-laden team,  to compliment their Super Bowl winning QB and his offensive weaponry which now includes a devastating one two punch in Eddie Lacy and James Starks.

The future is bright in Green Bay. This Packers team could be gearing up to become a champion.

Read more from Stephen O'Brien of UK Packers (@packers_uk on Twitter) for which he is a co-founder and editor.