After the Seattle Seahawks clinched back-to-back No. 1 seeds with a 20-6 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle, a football town that has established perhaps the NFL's best home-field advantage.
The New England Patriots were the most recent team to win back-to-back Super Bowls, doing it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Since then, no Super Bowl champion has even won a playoff game the next season and four of them missed the playoffs altogether.
The Seahawks were the youngest team to win a Super Bowl, and now they've earned back-to-back No. 1 seeds. They did it this year with a stifling defense and an offense that recovered from the midseason trade of Percy Harvin.
Despite the loss of 10 key players in the offseason and the Harvin situation, there is some thought that this Seahawks team might be better than the one that beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Here are the 10 biggest questions heading into the NFC playoffs.
1. What team might give the Seahawks the biggest problem? Believe it or not, the Dallas Cowboys could give Seattle more problems than the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks' secondary has the highest respect for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and knows he has the ability to beat it at any time. But teams with great offensive lines and great running games tend to give the Seahawks more problems. Teams that grind it out on the ground against Seattle tend to find themselves in close games in the fourth quarter. The Packers have a great runner in Eddie Lacy, but the Cowboys have DeMarco Murray and the best offensive line in football. Plus, the Cowboys were the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle this season, with a 30-23 victory Oct. 12. As it turned out, that game may have turned around Seattle's season. According to sources, Harvin refused to go on the field for the final drive. The Seahawks traded him to the Jets the next Friday. The turmoil of the trade so late in the week contributed to a bad performance in a loss to St. Louis. But since that two-week stretch, the offense came together thanks to Russell Wilson's leadership and Marshawn Lynch's running, and the Seahawks won nine of their last 10 games. Plus, with the money freed up from the Harvin trade, the Seahawks were able to extend the contracts of linebacker K.J. Wright and defensive end Cliff Avril.
2. Is the Detroit Lions' offense for real? You really wonder whether the Lions' success is a byproduct of an easy schedule. The Lions play the Cowboys in the divisional round. Matthew Stafford threw for 4,257 yards, but against teams that finished at .500 or better, Detroit was 2-4 and averaged only 314.5 yards and 14.7 points a game. That's 42 yards and 8.6 points fewer than it averaged against losing teams. The Lions went 9-1 against losing teams. To beat Dallas, Stafford has to get more out of the offense. The Cowboys average 29.2 points a game and have one of the best offenses in the conference. The Lions' defense might match up well in being able to contain Murray, but Detroit won't be able to win if it can't score more than 20 points.
3. Which team got the biggest breaks? You have to start with the Carolina Panthers. Despite going 7-8-1, the Panthers draw an Arizona Cardinals team that doesn't have a legitimate NFL quarterback. Since Carson Palmer went down in Week 10, the Cardinals have had the worst offense in football. They finished 3-4 and scored only 87 points over their final seven games behind Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley. The QBR for Cardinals quarterbacks was only 39 for that stretch in which they averaged only 290.2 yards a game and 4.97 yards per play. Stanton's status is uncertain after he had surgery Wednesday because of an infection in his knee that had been injured. Lindley could end up starting, but he's 0-2. Beating Carolina on the road won't be easy. The Panthers won their final four games to earn the NFC South title. Cam Newton is healthy, and changes in the defense in the second half of the season have resulted in a younger and faster unit. The Panthers are the second team to win a division with a losing record. The first team, Seattle in 2010, beat the New Orleans Saints in a playoff game.
4. Which of the top two seeds has the toughest task? Had the Packers not lost to Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, they would have had home-field advantage instead of Seattle. That one loss made the playoffs so much tougher for the Packers, even though they are almost unbeatable in Lambeau Field. Unless the Lions beat Dallas, the Seahawks will have their first playoff game against a Panthers team they beat 13-9 on the road this year or an Arizona team they swept. The Seahawks have a much easier path to the NFC Championship Game than the Packers. The Lions could give Green Bay a break if they beat the Cowboys because the Packers would get the Panthers or Cardinals while the Lions would face the Seahawks. Considering the Lions' struggles against winning teams, it would be hard to think the Lions would do a lot of scoring against Seattle. Here's the difficulty for the Packers: The Cowboys should be able to run on them, and the Seahawks might be able to do the same in an NFC Championship Game.
5. What is Green Bay's biggest concern? Even though the Packers improved their defense, they struggle against good running teams. Green Bay got more athletic along the defensive line, but it averages barely more than 300 pounds a player with its run-stopping unit in the 3-4. The Seahawks gained 207 rushing yards against them in the season opener. Chicago had 235. New Orleans had 193. The Packers were able to hold Carolina to only 108 yards rushing in a win 38-17 on Oct. 19, but the Panthers were still trying to find their way on offense. Green Bay had a break this season in the sense that it had only three games against the top 10 running teams in the league: the Seahawks, Jets and Panthers. Three of the NFL's top 10 rushing teams are in the NFC playoffs, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to make adjustments. Moving Clay Matthews to middle linebacker has helped, but it doesn't fix how light the Packers are up front.
6. What's the injury situation? Things aren't too bad. The bye week gives the Seahawks the chance to get healthy. They will have center Max Unger back from his high ankle sprain and might have time for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse to recover from a hamstring injury. The big scare Sunday was when Rodgers aggravated a calf injury and missed some time in the second and third quarters. Because he returned and the Packers earned a bye, Green Bay fans don't have to worry about Rodgers' availability. The Cowboys will have to see whether right tackle Doug Free (missed two games with an ankle injury) and linebacker Anthony Hitchens (high ankle sprain) will be able to recover. The Panthers are healthy. Arizona doesn't know about Stanton and linebacker Larry Foote, who have knee issues. The Lions have major concerns along their offensive line. They already lost right tackle LaAdrian Waddle for the season with an ACL tear, and guard Larry Warford hurt a knee Sunday. Overall, though, the injury list for the NFC isn't too bad.
7. What quarterback theme showed up in the NFC playoffs? For the second straight year, running quarterbacks and the read-option are in vogue with Wilson and Newton. Heading into Week 17, Wilson had 31 runs on read-option plays for 265 yards and five touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Newton had 32 for 212 with no touchdowns. His numbers were lower because the Panthers' coaching staff didn't let him run as much because of rib and ankle problems. The one running quarterback who didn't return from last year's playoffs was Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers. Rodgers doesn't do the read-option, but he is a dangerous runner who can buy time with his legs. Rodgers finished the season with 263 yards rushing and a 6.3-yard average. Wilson ran for 849 yards, and Newton had 539. Stafford and Dallas' Tony Romo are the two accomplished pocket passers in the NFC playoffs. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Wilson (2.89 seconds), Romo (2.76), Newton (2.66) and Rodgers (2.66) rank among the top nine NFL quarterbacks for how long they hold the ball before passes.
8. What one stat defines the 2014 NFC playoff teams? Turnover differential. All six playoff teams ranked among the NFC's top eight for turnover differential, with the Packers at plus-14, followed by the Seahawks (plus-10), Cardinals (plus-8), Lions (plus-7), Cowboys (plus-6) and Panthers (plus-3). Seattle coach Pete Carroll said he learned the value of winning the turnover battle as a young coach.
9. How much will playoff experience for the quarterbacks matter? A lot. It's not easy to win playoff games. Rodgers and Wilson will have the biggest advantages. Rodgers is 5-4 as a playoff quarterback and has averaged 29 points a game. Wilson is 4-1 and averages 28.2 points. Each has won a Super Bowl. There is considerable pressure on Stafford, Newton and Romo, who are a combined 1-5 in playoff games. Although Romo overcame a history of disappointing Decembers with a 4-0 record this month, he has a 1-3 record with an 18.5-point average in the playoffs. Newton (last year) and Stafford (in the 2011 season) lost their only playoff appearances. Playoff success is reflected in salaries. Rodgers makes $22 million a year, and Wilson might get that type of contract in the next year. Without the playoff success, Romo makes $18 million and Stafford makes $17.66 million. Newton might have to settle for less than $20 million annually in his next contract if he doesn't win in the playoffs.
10. Who will win the NFC championship? It's hard to see anybody beating the defending champions at CenturyLink Field. The NFC Championship Game was shaping up as a Seattle-Green Bay meeting at Lambeau Field, but the Packers' loss to Buffalo a few weeks ago changed that. A rivalry has been brewing between these teams in recent seasons. The Seahawks' "Fail Mary" victory over Green Bay in 2012 started their rise to become a top contender. The Packers spent the offseason gearing up for this year's opener against the Seahawks but were blown out 36-16. Another meeting in a championship game would be fitting, and another Seattle victory can be expected.