The NFC playoff picture is finally settled.
We've got the defending champs (the New York Giants) starting off with home-field advantage throughout the postseason. We've got a team that was a trendy Super Bowl pick a couple of years ago (Carolina) gaining momentum with each passing week. We also have three head coaches preparing for their first playoff appearances.
This is shaping up to be another compelling postseason.
Here are 10 questions about the NFC playoffs that are worth considering as the postseason begins:
1. How will the New York Giants handle entering this postseason as the NFC's top seed after winning last year's Super Bowl as a wild-card team?
The Giants still operate with a decent-sized chip on their shoulders. They entered this season miffed because they weren't considered favorites to win the NFC East. They then bragged about their ability to focus and play consistently while running away with that division. Coach Tom Coughlin won't let them forget how they won last season's championship, which was with a team-first approach. So by the time they play host to a divisional playoff game two weeks from now, they'll be convinced they're still hunters instead of the hunted. And if you question that, just think about how hard the Giants played in their meaningless 20-19 loss to Minnesota on Sunday.
2. What should be the Giants' biggest concern as they attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champs?
The Giants need to keep Brandon Jacobs healthy. Jacobs gives them their edge -- their offensive line becomes more imposing and Eli Manning's play-action passing becomes more effective. If that same knee injury that sidelined him for three games becomes a problem again, the Giants won't be able to compensate. Hey, I like Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw as much as the next guy. But neither one of them is listed at 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds.
3. Which team has the best chance of reaching the Super Bowl if the Giants fall?
Carolina. The Panthers were good enough to beat the Giants in a Week 16 matchup -- until John Kasay missed a 50-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation in that 34-28 overtime loss -- and they won't be daunted by having to return to Giants Stadium for a possible NFC Championship Game. The Panthers have a veteran quarterback with Super Bowl experience (Jake Delhomme), a strong running game, a big-play receiver (Steve Smith) and a talented defense. We've seen this formula work for head coach John Fox before. And the last time he had all those pieces in place, he took his team to its first and only Super Bowl.
4. Are the
Philadelphia Eagles as dangerous as they seemed in their season-ending blowout of Dallas?
Yes. Something clearly changed with this team when head coach Andy Reid benched quarterback Donovan McNabb earlier this year, and that win over Dallas was another example of the Eagles' improvement. McNabb is playing with confidence and efficiency again. Reid has shown a greater commitment to the running game -- which has thrived with the improved health of Brian Westbrook -- and the defense is as aggressive as ever. If this is McNabb's last run in this city, you can bet he's going to do everything possible to make it a memorable one.
5. With so many talented running backs in the NFC, which one will be the most impressive during the playoffs?
Carolina's DeAngelo Williams is the man here. Even though he shares carries with rookie Jonathan Stewart, he's been the hottest runner in the league over the past two months. Williams has cracked the 100-yard mark in seven of his past nine games. And in those last nine games, he has scored 16 of his 18 rushing touchdowns this season. In fact, he's been so dangerous down the stretch that he should garner some votes for the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
He will struggle. As good as Ryan is -- and will be -- it's hard for any rookie signal-caller to thrive in the postseason. Let's not forget how well Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger played in his rookie season until he entered the playoffs with the top-seeded Steelers that year. Suddenly, defenses had new wrinkles to throw at him and he felt the need to press more often. Don't be surprised if the same fate awaits Ryan.
7. Which team will offer the most disappointing performance in the wild-card round?
This is an easy one: Arizona. The Cardinals don't have any semblance of a running game (entering Week 17, they ranked last in the NFL with 71.1 yards per game on the ground) and they apparently don't have much interest in playing defense anymore (they gave up at least 35 points in four of their last six games; all four were losses). They also probably wouldn't be a playoff team if they weren't operating out of the feeble NFC West. So unless Kurt Warner and his receivers can carry this team for a few more weeks, it's safe to assume the Cardinals will be going home early.
There's no question Jackson has had his problems -- it was impossible to argue against coach Brad Childress' decision to bench him earlier this season -- but he has played well enough to earn his job back. Jackson has been a more efficient passer (eight touchdowns and one interception in the last four games) and his mobility offers the Vikings a dimension that can be hard for defenses to handle. Now we do realize Jackson had three fumbles in a Week 16 loss to Atlanta. But the good news for Childress is he can always call on backup Gus Frerotte if Jackson implodes in January.
9. Which team is facing the biggest setback as the postseason begins?
Minnesota. The Vikings have the best defensive line in football, but losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams (who is nursing a broken right scapula) makes them vulnerable. With the exception of Arizona, every team in the NFC playoffs has a strong running game. Secondly, the absence of the 6-3, 317-pound Williams means his Pro Bowl partner at defensive tackle, Kevin Williams, is going to see more double-teams, which ultimately will impact his effectiveness. Remember, the Vikings managed to play well without Pat Williams for one week -- they held Michael Turner to 70 yards in a 24-17 loss to Atlanta. The Giants rushed for 135 yards against Minnesota in the regular-season finale.
10. Which NFC team will advance to the Super Bowl?
It's tough to pick against the Giants. They're the defending champs and they've done an impressive job of maintaining their focus when distractions (Plaxico Burress) and injuries (like the season-ending knee injury sustained by Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora) could have crippled them. But it's the absence of those kinds of players that make them vulnerable this time around.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have been relatively healthy and their sole controversy (the beating
Steve Smith gave cornerback Ken Lucas in training camp) has been turned into a galvanizing moment. So it says here the Panthers make it to Tampa after a hard-fought championship game victory over the host Giants.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.