More: AFC story lines
Four months ago, it had to be the Dallas Cowboys. They had the talent. They had the star power and driven owner. They had the 13 returning Pro Bowlers.
And yet, 16 weeks later, the Cowboys have nothing but galaxy of unfulfilled promise.
What was expected to be the NFC's No. 1 story line heading into these NFL playoffs never materialized. Instead, the star in Big D has given way to a plethora of less dramatic ones, from the Plaxico-less New York Giants to ageless Kurt Warner. While the playoff script seems novel, it is no less intriguing.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 story lines in the NFC playoffs:
1. Will the Giants repeat as Super Bowl champs?
Most repeat champions dominate in two of three areas: rushing the quarterback, creating turnovers and running the ball. The Giants are the No. 1 running team and among the league leaders in sacks and turnovers. But they showed weakness when Brandon Jacobs went down with injury. When teams stop the run, Eli Manning takes more chances. It's likely that four teams could force the games into Manning's hands. Three of them reside in the AFC (Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Baltimore), while the fourth, Philadelphia, would face New York in the divisional round if the Eagles advance. Odds are the Giants won't have to overcome the hurdle until the Super Bowl, and that's a favorable reality.
2. Does Carolina put it all together again?
This is the year the Carolina Panthers get back to the NFC championship game, but don't trust Jake Delhomme to carry the load if the running game falters. He's certainly more capable of doing it now that Steve Smith is again playing like an All-Pro. But if the Panthers run into Philadelphia, Delhomme is going to face overwhelming pressure. And if the running backs can't negate it, Delhomme will have to play mistake-free – which is a tall order, especially if the Panthers run into one of the AFC's elite defenses.
3. Is Philadelphia a serious threat?
Absolutely – for three reasons. First, the defense is healthy, and the secondary finally is living up to its talent level. Second, Donovan McNabb has cut down on his turnovers, which were putting the defense in bad spots in the middle of the season. Third, the Philadelphia Eagles are riding more momentum coming off the Dallas win than any team in the postseason. They believe. And that's a dangerous thing in the playoffs.
4. Has Arizona been exposed?
After reassessing their wins this season, it sure looks that way. Miami and Dallas comprise their best victories, but both were circumstantial – the Dolphins hadn't moved to the Wildcat yet, and Dallas had just started its descent. In reality, the Arizona Cardinals beat up on a host of bad teams by utilizing a good offense and a marginal defense. Now that wideout Anquan Boldin is banged up and the running game has gone back in the tank, Warner is hanging out in the wind, and the Cardinals are looking like a pretender.
5. Can the Falcons advance with a rookie quarterback?
First off, we can throw out that rookie label. After 16 starts, it's gone. If this were college, Matt Ryan would be midway through his second season calling the shots. He wins games for Atlanta. Anyone who doesn't know that by now hasn't been paying attention. So long as Atlanta runs the football, the Falcons will be in every single playoff game. They are reminiscent of the 2003 Carolina team that went to the Super Bowl, with a slightly better offense and a slightly less stout defense. Crazy? This is my Super Bowl dark horse.
6. How far can Peterson carry the Vikings?
Probably not beyond the first round. Eventually, Adrian Peterson is going to need a quarterback who can make consistent plays – not just a few flashes every third or fourth series. Philadelphia's defensive speed is going to give Peterson fits, and unless Tarvaris Jackson can string together some big plays of his own, the Minnesota Vikings are going to get bounced.
7. Give me one offensive player who has the potential to make or break a playoff run
On offense, it's Minnesota's Bernard Berrian. When he makes big plays, the Vikings are hard to beat. Peterson's big plays take pressure off Jackson and Berrian, and open up pockets for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, too. Peterson pulls a defense tight, and Berrian sucks it back out and creates seams that no other Vikings player can.
8. Give me a defensive player who has the same potential
Atlanta defensive end John Abraham can take a good Falcons defense and make it exponentially better when he's creating havoc in the backfield. Atlanta is 8-1 when he has at least one sack, and 3-4 when he doesn't. But it's his potential for multiple-sack games that makes him so dangerous. Abraham had three triple-sack games this season, and when he's on, the Atlanta defense takes on a far more aggressive, attacking attitude. If he gets hot in the playoffs, Atlanta will be very hard to beat.
9. Which teams have the best chance against the AFC elite?
If they can stay healthy, it's probably the Giants and – surprisingly – the Eagles. Both have strong, fast, versatile defenses. Both have game-breaking running backs, even if Philadelphia doesn't have the Giants' depth. Both also have playoff-tested quarterbacks who have been to the Super Bowl. But above all is that that both come from the NFC East, where they have been used to playing in brutal defensive environments and close games, and under season-long pressure. Essentially, they have an additional mental ingredient beyond offensive and defensive balance.
10. If you had to pick a winner just based on the head coach, who would it be?
Since Tom Coughlin is the only one with a Super Bowl ring, that makes this question seem easy. But people need to realize that Coughlin is by far the best coach in the NFC playoffs right now. And his ring has nothing to do with it. Coughlin has taken this team and turned it into a group of self-disciplined veterans, who are 1,000-fold stronger mentally than they were even two years ago. Michael Strahan's departure could have caused the locker room to lose some of its cohesion. Instead, this team has grown closer. Whether it was battling through injuries, the Plaxico Burress drama, or back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and Dallas, the Giants have shown a sharpened resiliency. That's Coughlin's imprint.