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NFC playoff story lines

Three months ago, we didn't even know who Ryan Grant was, or that Todd Collins still had an NFL pulse. Jessica Simpson was just a glint in Tony Romo's eye, and we had yet to notice that Shaun Alexander's career had reached its expiration date.

Now all of those story lines will swirl together in the NFC playoffs.

While it will be hard to ignore the postseason's typical feast on superstar performances, there are multiple subplots that provide intrigue heading into the playoffs. Whether it's two divas colliding in Dallas (T.O. vs. Jessica), two former rivals going in opposite directions (Green Bay's resurgence vs. Tampa Bay staving off transition) or simply two former anonymous figures making their mark (Collins and Grant), there is more than enough fodder to keep the NFC a buzz in the coming weeks.

With that in mind, here are the top story lines going into the NFC's postseason race …

1. Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers are in position to hijack the playoffs.

With the injury concerns for the Cowboys, prospects for Green Bay making a Super Bowl run look a bit better. Having a legitimate centerpiece running back in Ryan Grant doesn't hurt either. Without a doubt, Favre and the Packers making it to the grandest stage in pro football might even outshine the Patriots' run toward destiny and Indianapolis' shot at a second straight Lombardi Trophy.

But Green Bay has its work cut out having to potentially face Seattle. The Seahawks boast a team rich in playoff experience, with a core of veterans that have played in a Super Bowl. Seattle also features a scary four-wideout set, a furious pass rush and a head coach who knows Favre as well as anyone in the league.

2. Will Terrell Owens and Terence Newman be ready for the playoffs?

The health of two of the Dallas Cowboys' biggest impact players will be pivotal once the divisional games roll around. Though the Cowboys seem optimistic about Owens' high ankle sprain (and he has shown he can get over injuries quickly), there's no telling how limited he'll be. As for Newman's knee, the Cowboys haven't given a timetable on his return. And that's not good.

If the Seahawks beat the Redskins, either of Dallas' second-round opponents – Tampa Bay or New York – could cause problems. Without Newman, the Cowboys won't have a player who can match up with the speed of Joey Galloway or the size of Plaxico Burress. And Tampa Bay's top-shelf pass defense could prove particularly tough for Romo without Owens.

Terry Glenn should be healthy, and Patrick Crayton gives Dallas a solid one-two punch even without Owens. But having him on the field means the difference between a good Cowboys offense and a great one.

3. The Seattle Seahawks are being overlooked.

Considering the massive amount of talent Seattle boasts – not to mention the fact this team was a Super Bowl favorite entering last season – the Seahawks have to scare both Dallas and Green Bay. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is playing the best football of his career, and with the return of D.J. Hackett, the Seahawks have a frightening four-receiver combination with Hackett, Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and Deion Branch. The defense can generate a pass rush in almost any situation, and has a ridiculously athletic set of linebackers. And Marcus Trufant is playing well.

So what's not to like? The running game, obviously. Maurice Morris and Shaun Alexander are sharing carries somewhat effectively, but neither player is going to scare anyone at crunch time in the playoffs. Can Seattle get the tough third-and-short yardage when it absolutely has to extend playoff drives? That answer might be the difference between a quick out and a berth in the NFC title game.

4. Which Eli Manning will show up for the playoffs?

Like his brother before him, Manning has struggled to notch a playoff win early in his career, dropping a debacle to Carolina after the 2005 season and losing a heartbreaker to Philadelphia last year. On the bright side, Manning did improve from his first postseason appearance to his second.

This year, Manning struggled mightily down the stretch for the New York Giants. However, he did manage to end 2007 on a tremendous statistical high note, throwing four touchdown passes and nearly knocking off the New England Patriots. It was only Manning's third 100-plus passer rating of the season. He'll be hard pressed to duplicate that against Tampa Bay, which has one of the league's staunchest pass defenses. But Manning and the Giants have played well on the road this season (7-1), and his receiving corps should be healthier than it has been all season.

5. Todd Collins is this postseason's Jeff Garcia.

Whether Jason Campbell is healthy, the Washington Redskins are riding veteran Todd Collins as far as he can take them in the postseason. Collins has notched a 100-plus passer rating in three of his last four games – all wins – and has been a driving force for the streaking Redskins. He flat outplayed Tony Romo in Washington's season-ending win. In a way, Collins is looking a lot like Jacksonville's David Garrard, limiting his turnovers and riding Washington's strengthening running game and defense.

Collins' situation is strikingly similar to that of Garcia last season. He knows the team isn't his for the long term. But he knows offensive coordinator Al Saunders' system, and he has plenty of veteran poise. That was good enough to win a postseason game last season for Philadelphia, and it's not out of the realm of possibility for this Redskins team to duplicate that or even go further.

6. This is likely to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last shot before a major retooling.

It seems the Buccaneers are on the cusp of a major makeover every offseason, before the Buccaneers perform just well enough to extend Jon Gruden's regime. But despite the solid seasons of Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway, both players appear to be coming to the end of the road (Garcia is 37 and Galloway is 36).

Meanwhile, key defensive players like Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly continue to advance into their 30s, leaving several other cornerstones to be replaced in the next few seasons. All those signs point to a significant retooling at some point, and the close of Tampa's last gasp at returning to the Super Bowl.

7. The curse of the succubus will doom Dallas. (We're kidding. No, really, it will.)

By now, we all know that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo gets the yips playing in front of his love interests. His stats in front of Carrie Underwood/Jessica Simpson? An 0-2 record, five interceptions, a pair of embarrassing passer ratings (45.4 in front of Underwood and 22.2 in front of Simpson) and droves of irate Cowboys fans who would rather see Romo taking the "lone" in Lone Star State literally.

Don't kid yourself. This is a big deal in Dallas. And with the playoff spotlight burning like 10,000 suns, you just know Simpson is going to show up again donning that hideous pink jersey. It's the Hollywood move, so fans can count on it. That should provide the first postseason sideshow in Big D, despite Terrell Owens saying he was joking when he suggested Simpson stay away from Cowboys games (he wasn't). If Simpson shows and Tony tanks, you can bet the Romo/Owens love affair will go south faster than Simpson's nuptials with Nick Lachey.

8. Ryan Grant is the best NFC running back in the playoffs.

Grant rushed for 929 yards and eight touchdowns in the season's final 10 games, outpacing all the NFC's other marquee names – Washington's Clinton Portis, Dallas' Marion Barber, Seattle's Shaun Alexander, Tampa Bay's Earnest Graham and Brandon Jacobs of the Giants. He has given the Packers the balance they have been seeking all season long and may be the team's best weapon next to Brett Favre. Yet Grant has gotten hardly any attention for the load he has carried down the stretch, getting overshadowed not only by his quarterback but also by wideout Greg Jennings and a staunch defense. With a strong playoff run, Grant is poised to go into 2008 as the NFC's second-best running back, behind only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

9. Shaun Alexander is the worst NFC running back in the playoffs.

It might well be over for the former league MVP. He has looked both slow and tentative all season and hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game since September. His ineffectiveness is a big reason why Seattle has had to become more pass oriented. That's not good news for a 30-year-old player who signed an eight-year, $62 million deal only two seasons ago and who doesn't look nearly as good in the lineup as Seattle's smallish back, Maurice Morris. Translation: This likely is it for Alexander in Seattle unless there is a renegotiation of his contract, which doesn't seem all that likely. He simply doesn't fit right now, and unless he has a playoff resurgence on par with Jerome Bettis late in his career, he'll be moving to a new locale in the offseason.

10. The Giants' finale will come back to haunt them.

Other than pride, New York had little to play for when it met the Patriots, but head coach Tom Coughlin chose to go with his starters and ended up locked in a physical final game. The price? Coughlin lost three key players during the game: center Shaun O'Hara, linebacker Kawika Mitchell and cornerback Sam Madison. O'Hara and Mitchell both sustained sprained knees and don't look like strong bets for the first-round game at Tampa Bay. And Madison's abdominal strain will, at the very least, cause him consistent pain if he can play next week. The Giants don't have enough quality depth to deal with the losses of any of the three, particularly on defense with Mitchell and Madison. If Tampa runs roughshod over a depleted defense, Coughlin is going to get the sharp end of New York's media sword.