The NFC wild-card losers might want to play some rule-changing cards in the offseason.
The Arizona Cardinals, an 11-win wild-card team that was seeded fifth, might consider leading a campaign at the NFL owners meetings to change how playoff teams are seeded. Despite a superior record, the Cardinals had to travel to the Carolina Panthers to face a 7-8-1 team that won the NFC South to earn the No. 4 seed. The Panthers beat the Cardinals 27-16 to become the second division-winning team with a losing record to advance past the wild-card round. The Seattle Seahawks did it in 2010 with a 7-9 record. At their March meetings, owners are expected to expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, adding a wild card in each conference. They might be willing to take away a home game from a division winner with a losing record if its wild-card opponent has a better mark.
After his team's 24-20 wild-card loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell might think about joining New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick in lobbying for the ability to use challenge flags on penalty calls. Officials threw a flag on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens for interfering with tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter and with Detroit leading 20-7. It seemed like the proper call, but the referees reversed it and ruled there was no penalty. That non-call prompted the Lions to punt, changing the game's momentum and setting up the Cowboys' comeback.
Regardless of how it happened, the top four seeds remain alive. Here are 10 key questions about the NFC divisional round.
1. Is home-field advantage really that important? It's going to be hard for any team to go into Seattle or Green Bay and pull out a victory. The top-seeded Seahawks have lost only two home games in the past two years. They have some of the loudest fans, and their defense responds to their energy. It helps pass-rushers get a half-step jump against opposing offensive linemen. Opponents average 2.2 false starts a game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. The second-seeded Packers' advantage is Aaron Rodgers. He hasn't thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since 2012.
In recent years, home field has been anything but a lock in the NFC. Since the 2008 season, the top two NFC seeds are just 9-8 at home in the playoffs. Surprisingly, the Packers have lost their past two home playoff games, both times to the eventual champion New York Giants (2007 and 2011 seasons). It's unlikely that skid will be extended. Rodgers has matured enough as a quarterback that he shouldn't lose these kinds of games.
2. Which remaining NFC team made the boldest change down the strength? Give Carolina coach Ron Rivera a lot of credit. After the Panthers struggled through a 3-8-1 start, Rivera decided to go young. He moved three rookies -- fifth-round cornerback Bené Benwikere, fourth-round free safety Tre Boston and undrafted linebacker Adarius Glanton -- into the starting lineup. That went along with using three second-year defensive linemen -- Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Wes Horton -- on early downs and in the nickel. The result has been a younger, more athletic defense. The Carolina defense that started Saturday night's victory over Arizona was an average of 25.8 years old. That's more than a year younger than the Seahawks' starting defense (27.18). In the Panthers' four-game winning streak to close the regular season, they had the NFL's fifth-best defense, giving up 278.2 yards a game.
3. What's the dominant defensive scheme? Even though roughly half the league uses a 3-4 base defense, three of the remaining NFC teams use a 4-3 base. The Packers are the only 3-4 team, but even they change things up. At midseason, defensive coordinator Dom Capers experimented with some 4-3 looks that put Clay Matthews at middle linebacker.
The other teams use some form of the 4-3. Pete Carroll's Seahawks have the simplest 4-3 scheme. They use a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks with man coverage by the cornerbacks. The Seahawks aren't much of a blitzing team. Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli made the Cover 2 defense work after a 2013 season in which the Cowboys put up some of the worst defensive numbers in NFL history. Rivera plays the Chicago Bears' version of the 4-3, rotating defensive linemen, taking advantage of mobile linebackers and applying great pressure on the quarterback.
4. What position will be a pleasure to watch? This round should be a clinic at linebacker. Carolina's Luke Kuechly and Seattle's Bobby Wagner are arguably the best middle linebackers in the game. Thomas Davis of the Panthers and K.J. Wright of the Seahawks are perhaps the best coverage linebackers in football.
Those aren't the only linebackers being featured in this round. Matthews is one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers of his era, and teammate Julius Peppers, a former top defensive end, has done well as an outside linebacker in the Packers' 3-4. The Cowboys have a leading candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year with middle linebacker Rolando McClain.
5. How will quarterback injuries affect game strategy? Seattle's Russell Wilson is the only quarterback of the bunch who is truly healthy. Late in the Panthers' win over Arizona, Cam Newton reinjured the left ankle that was surgically repaired in the offseason. Newton said he was fine, but the Panthers might choose to limit how much he runs against the Seahawks. In addition to the ankle, Newton sat out the season opener with a rib injury. Coaches limited his running early in the season, and a back injury suffered in a car accident kept him out of a game late in the season.
Rodgers is dealing with a left calf strain. He didn't practice last week and might not be able to get on the field until Thursday. He won't be 100 percent for the Dallas game, so Packers coach Mike McCarthy has to decide whether he wants to protect Rodgers with quicker passes and fewer rollouts. Tony Romo, who missed a game in November because of two fractures in his back, took several hard hits early in the Cowboys' win over Detroit. After the hits, several of his throws were either short or wobbly. Although Romo seemed to regain his arm strength later in the game, it's hard not to worry about his injury history.
6. Are coaches gaining more appreciation for running the football? Even though the NFC divisional round features four great quarterbacks, each team clearly values running the ball. Leading the way is Dallas' DeMarco Murray (1,845), the NFL's rushing champion. Green Bay counters with the league's seventh-best rusher, Eddie Lacy (1,139 yards), who gives the Packers the type of power back who works perfectly in the Wisconsin weather. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch was fourth in the league with 1,306 yards and tied Murray for first with 13 rushing touchdowns. The Panthers feature Jonathan Stewart, whose 123-yard performance against the Cardinals was his third 100-yard game in the past five weeks.
7. What historical stat is intriguing? The Packers went 8-0 at home in 2014, and the Cowboys went 8-0 on the road. It's the third time in NFL history a team with a perfect home record hosted a playoff game against a team with a perfect road record. The last time was in the 1972 AFC Championship Game, when the perfect Miami Dolphins beat the Steelers, who were 7-0 at home and still were glowing from Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception the previous week. That game was in Pittsburgh because home teams were predetermined on a rotational basis.
This year's Packers had one of the greatest home seasons in NFL history. They outscored opponents 39.8 to 20.4 and averaged 419.5 total yards a game at home. The Cowboys, meanwhile, outscored opponents 34.4 to 22.6 on the road. Something has to give.
8. What is the history of these matchups? The Seahawks are 6-2 against the Panthers and have won the past four meetings. The most recent games have been low-scoring affairs. Seattle beat Carolina 13-9 this year, 12-7 last year and 16-12 in 2012. There has been one postseason meeting, with the Seahawks beating the Panthers 34-14 in the 2005 NFC Championship Game.
The Packers and Cowboys have a long history playing each other, with Dallas holding a 16-15 edge. Green Bay has won the past three meetings, most recently 37-36 in 2013. What's strange is how long it has been since they've met in the playoffs. From 1993 to 1995, the Cowboys beat the Packers three straight years in the postseason, but this will be their first playoff faceoff since then.
9. What position matchup is the hardest to figure out? There are plenty of questions about the pass-catchers in the Carolina-Seattle game. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin each had 1,008 receiving yards, but there is a big drop-off after them. Jerricho Cotchery was next with 48 catches for 580 yards, and nobody else reached the 300-yard mark. The lack of depth at receiver contributed to Newton having a 58.5 completion percentage, the second lowest of his career.
The Seahawks didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver, yet Wilson completed 63.1 percent of his passes. Doug Baldwin has replaced Golden Tate as Seattle's lead target. Baldwin caught 66 passes for 825 yards. The key to the present and the future is the development of rookies Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood. Richardson has become more of a factor since the Seahawks traded away Percy Harvin. He finished with 29 catches for 271 yards. Norwood had only nine catches for 102 yards, but he might be more involved if Jermaine Kearse, second on the team with 38 catches for 537 yards, can't play because of a hamstring injury.
10. Which teams will be in the NFC Championship Game? I stick by last week's picks. It will be Green Bay at Seattle. The defending champion Seahawks should beat the Packers, as they did in the first game of the season, and return to the Super Bowl.