Key playoff questions for the NFC

Thanks to their first-round byes, the odds are favorable that Brett Favre's Packers will meet Tony Romo's Cowboys in the NFC title game. US Presswire Images

Since league rules prohibit the New England Patriots from being awarded the Super Bowl XLII title by simple acclamation, the NFC half of the playoff bracket will have to be contested. That means some franchise must represent the conference as the designated sacrifice for a Patriots team that seems destined to win a fourth championship in seven years.

A little harsh in characterizing the team that will eventually emerge as the NFC's standard bearer? Yeah, probably so.

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NY Giants at Tampa Bay

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Washington at Seattle
Tennessee at San Diego

But the AFC has captured four straight Super Bowl championships and eight of the past 10, and with the undefeated Patriots leading a powerful six-team contingent into the postseason, the odds are that such superiority will be extended for another year.

It is, at least statistically, a rather average assembly of NFC contenders. While this marks the first time since 2001 that the NFC has two playoff teams (Dallas and Green Bay) with at least 13 victories, the aggregate victories for the six postseason entries -- 64 -- is slightly less than the 64.4 wins that NFC playoff clubs averaged over the past decade.

And none of the four NFC division champions heads into the postseason on a wave of momentum. In fact, the four were a combined 8-8 in December, and only Green Bay (3-1) had a winning mark over the final month of the season. Dallas and Seattle each dropped two of its past three contests, and the Cowboys' offense has struggled. Tampa Bay lost three of its final four outings, including two in a row to conclude the season. Even the Packers were waxed at Chicago in Week 16.

And while the wild-card Giants pushed the Patriots to the limit on Saturday, the reality is that they beat just one team with a winning record this year (Washington in Week 3).

The Redskins may be the hottest NFC team entering the postseason, but they remain a suspect club sparked by a journeyman quarterback with virtually no playoff experience.

Thus, there are plenty of questions surrounding the NFC playoff teams. Here are a few of them:

1. Will a week off and homefield advantage re-energize the Cowboys?

The bye certainly will provide Dallas some time to get injured wide receiver Terrell Owens, who is nursing a high ankle sprain, healthy again. And it might give quarterback Tony Romo additional time to work with wideout Terry Glenn, who missed the entire regular season after a pair of arthroscopic procedures on his right knee, but who should be ready to roll in the playoffs.

Historically, the bye has proven advantageous to NFC teams. The top-seeded NFC franchise advanced to the Super Bowl each of the past three seasons. And three times since the 2002 realignment, both teams with first-round byes eventually met in the conference championship game. In fact, in the past 10 years, the NFC title game has matched the two franchises that enjoyed first-round byes seven times.

Then consider this: The bye teams are 8-2 in their opening playoff contests since 2002 and are an amazing 30-4 since 1990, the year the league implemented the current 12-team postseason format.

More so than in the AFC, the chalk usually holds for bye teams in the NFC, which certainly is a good omen for the Cowboys and the Packers.

2. But if the seeds don't hold to form, how about a possible dark horse?

Because they finished the regular season with an emotional four-game winning streak and seem to be playing with a purpose in memorializing late teammate Sean Taylor, the Redskins would be the obvious pick. But we're going with Seattle, even though the Seahawks struggled to the finish line.

People seem to forget that Seattle played in the Super Bowl just two years ago. And because they are in the Pacific Northwest and rarely on national television, the Seahawks always seem to fly a little below the radar.

Injuries and age have caught up to tailback Shaun Alexander, and Seattle doesn't run the ball as effectively as it did in the past -- always a problem in the playoffs. But quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has quietly enjoyed a terrific season, and the up-tempo Seattle offense is a difficult one to defend if you aren't accustomed to its pace.

Mike Holmgren, who simply decided at mid-season to emphasize the pass more, remains one of the league's best coaches and knows how to prepare a team for the playoffs. Plus, he might have special motivation this season, if it is, as some have speculated, his final go-round before retirement.

The Seattle defense is significantly better than it was a year ago, and end Patrick Kerney has been on a sack rampage in the second half of the campaign.

3. Where does the coaching part of the equation enter into all of this?

Hey, we keep saying the NFL has become the consummate "coaches' league," and we won't back off that claim now. Of the six NFC playoff teams, five have head coaches who are incredibly battle-tested in the postseason. And Holmgren, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Washington's Joe Gibbs all have Super Bowl championships on their head coaching resumes.

Just as mistakes are magnified in the playoffs, coaching experience becomes exponentially more important. That doesn't mean a guy like Green Bay's Mike McCarthy can't take his team deep into the postseason.

But preparing a team for the playoffs, coupled with the one-and-done pressure of a single elimination tournament, is a difficult task. And it helps to have done it before.

4. Anything out of the ordinary that serves as a common denominator for the six teams?

While it isn't pertinent to each of the six NFC playoff teams, it is notable how much mileage several of the clubs got out of backup running backs or tailbacks who were forced into the starting lineup because of injuries.

The leading ground gainers for three of the six teams -- Marion Barber (Dallas), Ryan Grant (Green Bay) and Earnest Graham (Tampa Bay) -- began the season as backups. Grant was an afterthought for a Packers offense that couldn't run the ball the first half of the season, and Graham basically got the Bucs' starting job by default after Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman went down with injuries.

In addition, talented backs such as nominal Dallas starter Julius Jones, Maurice Morris (Seahawks), Ladell Betts (Washington) and Reuben Droughns (Giants) are proven commodities, capable of timely contributions.
And it appears that, after battling injuries early on, Washington starter Clinton Portis is finding his stride.

The old saw that a team has to run the ball well to win in the postseason doesn't hold the way it once did. But it sure helps to have a solid ground attack. The Giants are the only NFC playoff team with a running attack ranked among the NFL's top 10, but all six teams have the ability to balance their offenses with good-enough ground games.

5. Can these teams play defense?

Sure, and even in the New Age NFL, where you've usually got to score to win in the playoffs, defense is crucial.

Each of the six NFC teams ranks statistically in the top half of the league in total defense. Four of the six are top-10 defenses, and the Giants are the league's No. 1 team in terms of sacks.

For the most part, the teams have superb coordinators, and the Bucs' Monte Kiffin and the Redskins' Gregg Williams are among the premier schemers in the game.

Teams that can create pressure in the playoffs, and thus force turnovers, can go far. All of these defenses, at least during stretches of the regular season, demonstrated the ability to make big, game-altering plays.

At some juncture of the playoffs, every defense is going to have to come up with a big stop or take the ball away, and all of the playoff units have the potential to do so.

6. Is it possible to identify one sleeper-type player from each franchise who might make a difference for his team?

If you insist. How about Cowboys right offensive tackle Marc Colombo, who, at some point, is probably going to face a premier pass-rusher such as Michael Strahan, Green Bay's Aaron Kampman or Kerney; Packers No. 3 wide receiver James Jones; safeties Brian Russell of Seattle and Jermaine Phillips of Tampa Bay; Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins; and Washington tight end Chris Cooley.

7. OK, answer man, the final question: Given the strength of the Patriots, and the perceived superiority of the AFC in general, does it really matter who wins the NFC title?

Probably not.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.