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NFL Playoffs preview: Breaking down the NFC - Seahawks, Packers, Cowboys, Panthers, Cardinals, and Lions

A preview of this year's NFC Playoffs field, including how each team got to the Playoffs, a breakdown of each team's identity, their secret weapon, and explanations for why each team will win or lose.

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1. Seattle Seahawks

How they got here:

The Seahawks came into the season as favorites to repeat as NFC Champions and after victories over the Packers and Broncos in the first three weeks, things looked to be on track for that. Following a loss to the Cowboys at home though, Seattle traded away mercurial star receiver and returner Percy Harvin, and the behind-the-scenes strife so common among Super Bowl winners reared its ugly head. Russell Wilson's leadership was called into question, Marshawn Lynch's relationship with the coaching staff was reportedly on the rocks, and before long, Seattle fell to 6-4 and looked to be on the outside looking in for the postseason in the NFC.

That's when Seattle's veteran leaders had a closed-doors meeting with coach Pete Carroll, and the melding of minds apparently brought about an important chemistry change for the defending champs. They'd go on to rattle off six straight wins to end the season, becoming the first team in the 16-game era to hold opponents under 40 points over their final six games. This defensive dominance rocketed Seattle to an NFC West Championship while they grabbed the NFC's No. 1 Seed.

Who they are:

The Seahawks' identity is centered upon a suffocating, hard-hitting defense led by the famed Legion of Boom. Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and Byron Maxwell patrol the deep areas of the field while Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Jordan Hill, and Bruce Irvin get after the quarterback and stop the run. In the middle, Bobby Wagner flies around collecting big hits while providing solid pass coverage. Seattle became the first team since the 1969-71 Viking Purple People Eaters to give up the fewest points in the NFL three seasons in a row.

On the other side of the ball, Pete Carroll's crew features a relentless, ruthless run game spearheaded by Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. The Hawks led the NFL in rushing by a country mile, grabbing 172.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per rush, both best in the league. They mix zone-blocking based schemes with the read-option and power-o run games, and stick with it even when behind. They buoy this a low-volume but explosive passing offense led by Russell Wilson.

Secret weapon:

Byron Maxwell doesn't get the same fanfare of his fellow Legion Of Boomers in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor, but he's been an integral piece of the Seahawks' defensive puzzle this season, collecting two picks, 12 passes defensed, and 35 tackles.

The former 6th round pick's versatility is what makes him so valuable though, and on nickel defensive downs, he often moves inside on opposing slot receivers (replaced by Tharold Simon on the outside). Maxwell's ability to play inside or out with equal effectiveness, combined with his penchant to force turnovers either by intercepting the ball or using his trademark punch-out, makes him a player to watch as the postseason rolls around.

Why they'll win it all:

The Seahawks are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL and are built to win in the playoffs with a strong, disciplined, and consistent defense and an offense that rarely turns the ball over. This is largely the same cast of characters that won the whole thing last year -- Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, the Legion of Boom and the front-seven -- so that big-game experience could pay dividends. It doesn't hurt that Seattle appears to be peaking at just the right time and have outscored opponents over the last six weeks 134-39, a 95 point differential.

Moreover, the Seahawks locked up the No.1 seed and now have that ever-important homefield advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. The Seahawks are 16-2 over the last two years at CenturyLink Field including Playoffs, and the road to the Super Bowl now goes through The CLink.

Why they won't win it all:

The Seahawks' offense has been inconsistent and the offensive line has been a patchwork all season, often struggling to protect Russell Wilson. Seattle has also struggled to finish in the redzone, and led the NFL in penalties, often shooting themselves in the foot with drive-killing mistakes. With 17 players and counting on Seattle's injured reserve lists, depth has been tested at several key spots and that often manifests in the form of poor special teams play, which has plagued the Seahawks this season.

Despite their historically stingy run to end the season, the Seahawks haven't faced a top-tier quarterback since Tony Romo in Week 6's loss to the Cowboys. The pass defense will potentially have to get past a some combination of the Playoffs murderers row that features Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and Joe Flacco.

2. Green Bay Packers:

How they got here:

The Packers stumbled out of the gate in 2014, losing quickly to the Seahawks and Lions on the road on their way to a 1-2 start. Aaron Rodgers took a moment to tell anxious Green Bay fanbase to "R-E-L-A-X," and this quickly became a sort of rallying call for a team that knew it was better than the way they had started. Rodgers and the Pack backed up that statement with wins in 11 of their next 12 games, shooting Green Bay to the top of the NFC. A a loss in Buffalo in Week 15 spoiled their inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Playoffs, though, and set up a winner-take-the-NFC-North game against Detroit in the final week. A victory over the Lions sealed the division championship, and the Pack finished a perfect 8-0 at home on their way to a 12-4 record.

Who they are:

The Packers are Aaron Rodgers' team, and a huge part of the reason for their success points directly to Rodgers' ridiculous stat line in 2014 -- 341 for 520 passing for 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He's arguably the best player at the most important position in the game, and Green Bay leans on him to run their dominant offense, which finished 1st in points, 8th in passing yards per game, and 2nd in yards per attempt.

Even with Rodgers and that explosive passing game, the Packers believe in balance, and finished 11th in rushing yards per game and 10th in yards per attempt. Eddie Lacy is a great thunder to Rodgers' lightning, and the combination of the two could pay dividends in the postseason.

Secret weapon:

Randall Cobb is hardly a "secret" weapon, but on a team with players like Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Eddie Lacy, adding Cobb into the equation makes it very difficult for opposing defenses to cover account for everyone. Cobb finished the year with 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns, and while Nelson is Green Bay's downfield, redzone specialist, Cobb makes his pay in the short and intermediate zones, beating one-on-one coverage and picking up yards after the catch.

The dynamic fourth-year player averaged 6.4 yards after the catch per reception (per PFF), and gives Green Bay yet another big-play threat all over the field. He made big catch after big catch in 2014, and continually showed up for the Pack when they needed a spark.

Why they'll win it all:

This is a quarterback's league, and the Packers have the advantage of being led by possibly the best signal caller in the NFL right now. Aaron Rodgers mixes incredible accuracy and touch with excellent velocity and a short, quick, and compact delivery. Moreover, he can move around and get out of the pocket to make plays, making it extremely difficult to defend Green Bay's offense. With a talented stable of weapons at his disposal, Aaron Rodgers has the ability to completely take over games.

Importantly, though, Green Bay has balance on offense, and can lean on the run game if weather conditions are unfavorable or if Rodgers has a rare off day. Simply put, this team can beat you in a number of ways, and they'll be hard to stop once the Playoffs start.

Why they won't win it all:

The Packers' defense finished 13th in points per game, 15th in yards per game, and again struggled against the run, finishing 23rd in the NFL while giving up 119 yards per game on the ground. Green Bay boasts an elite offense, but their defense will be challenged in the postseason in trying to consistenly stop some of the league's best offenses.

Additionally, by losing out on the shot at the No. 1 seed, Green Bay would potentially have to go on the road to Seattle, where they lost earlier this year, on their way to a Super Bowl berth. This would be a much more difficult proposition than playing at home throughout, where they're nearly unbeatable. The Packers struggled on the road in a loss at Buffalo and a win at Tampa Bay late in the year, raising some concerns about their ability to play up to the level we expect from them in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field.

3. Dallas Cowboys

How they got here:

Expectations weren't high for Dallas going into the 2014 NFL season, and after a turnover-riddled opening loss to the 49ers, those predicting a meltdown in Valley Ranch felt validated. The Cowboys bounced back though, silencing the doubters while rattling off six victories in a row, including a big-time win over the defending champions on their turf. The win over the Seahawks cemented the Cowboys as contenders, helping to formally introduce their new run-first, smashmouth brand to the nation.

Neither losses to Washington and Arizona nor two broken bones in Tony Romo's back would deter the Cowboys too much, and they'd finish the year winning six of seven to run away with the NFC East division title, burying the Eagles along the way.

Who they are:

The Cowboys' heavy investments in their offensive line paid dividends in 2014 as Dallas emerged with a dominant run game, spring-boarding DeMarco Murray to the NFL record books, rushing for 100+ yards in the first eight games. Murray would go on to break Emmitt Smith's franchise record with 1,845 yards on the season, and that feat represents the type of balance the Cowboys rode to their NFC East Division Title and Playoffs berth. Tony Romo was his efficient self, leading the NFL in passer rating (113.2), completion percentage (69.9), and yards per attempt (8.5). When he's been asked to, Romo's been deadly throwing downfield to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, and that two-headed, "run it down your throat then throw it over your head" type of attack makes the Cowboys dangerous in the postseason.

Secret weapon:

The Cowboys defense was supposed to be terrible this year, and Rolando McClain was supposed to be terrible ... always. Neither turned out to be true -- Dallas' D wasn't "the worst in NFL history" this season, as one writer predicted, and McClain is enjoying a career renaissance after retiring... twice.

The former Raider first-round bust is a Comeback Player of the Year candidate and finished 2nd on the Cowboys with 81 tackles. He's been the force in the middle for Ron Marinelli's defense this season, fitting gaps in the run game and attacking the ballcarrier. The player that was out of football for a year and a half prior to joining the Cowboys this summer has a real shot to lead this defense in a deep Playoffs run.

Why they'll win it all:

The Cowboys can score points in a hurry -- they finished 5th in the NFL in points per games this season -- but importantly, they can control the clock, and they led the NFL in TOP per game with 32:51 per matchup. This keeps their opponents' Playoff-caliber offenses off the field and off the scoreboard.

It starts up front with the offensive line, who have done an amazing job clearing running lanes and protecting Tony Romo and Tony Romo's back this year. With Romo's ability to strike deep down the field to Jason Witten and Terrance Williams, convert in the redzone with Dez Bryant, and maintain possession of the football with a demoralizingly effective run game led by DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys can jump out to leads and then hold them. Moreover, the Cowboys can play their game in any weather - rain or shine.

Why they won't win it all:

The Cowboys' defense had the luxury of being on the field for fewer minutes than any other group in the NFL, and played the 5th fewest snaps, all thanks to Dallas' strong run game and ball-control offense. They did, however, give up 5.8 yards per play (25th), 355 yards per game (19th), 22 points per game (15th), 251.6 passing yards per game (26th), 4.2 yards per rush (15th), and 17 rushing touchdowns (31st), while only accumulating 28 sacks (28th).

While the Cowboys' offense is among the league's most dominant, their defense is decidedly not. A leaky run defense combined with a pass offense that held opposing quarterbacks to an 88.5 passer rating (13th), could spell trouble for an extended run for Dallas in the Playoffs.

4. Carolina Panthers

How they got here:

The Panthers got off to a quick start in 2014 by beating the Bucs and Lions. Early optimism for another dominant season wore off quickly as from early October to late November Carolina went without a win, and during a ten game stretch smack dab in the middle of the season -- from Week 3 to Week 13 -- they were 1-8-1.

It's a pretty remarkable feat, then, that after being all but left for dead in the NFC South, the Panthers stormed back into the Playoffs race by winning their final four games, including the clincher in Week 17 against the Falcons, while taking advantage of a historically weak division. Carolina weathered some hardships along the way, including a Cam Newton car accident that kept him out one game, and came out stronger in the end for it. Importantly, they look to be playing well on defense at the right time.

Who they are:

The Panthers defense is tough and physical up front with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, they can get after the quarterback with Charles Johnson, and they have a talented linebacking corps led by Luke Kuechly. They can create turnovers, and when they're clicking, they can shut down anyone. They play assignment correct, disciplined football. They haven't had the most consistent season on that side of the football, but over their final four games, gave up an average of just 10.75 points per game.

On offense, it's Cam Newton's show, and they play a similarly tough, physical brand of football. Newton too finished the year strong despite breaking two bones in his back in a car accident, and has displayed newfound confidence and effectiveness both passing and running the football.

Secret weapon:

Tight end Greg Olson had maybe the quietest 1,000 yard season of any receiver in history. Overshadowed by rookie Kelvin Benjamin's performance this year, the eighth-year pro finished with 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, proving himself to be one of Cam Newton's most trustworthy targets. While most defenses will be focused on Benjamin downfield and in the redzone, Olson has the ability to move all over the field and threaten over the middle, up the seam, or down the sideline. He can provide matchup issues for defenders because of the combination of his size and speed.

Why they'll win it all:

The Panthers are hot at the right time. The midseason slump Carolina went through isn't totally indicative of the talent level on this roster. The defense has the physicality to play with anyone and their style of ball fit the postseason well -- they can play in any type of weather and have difference makers on the front seven.

Offensively, Cam Newton's dual run-pass threat presents issues for defensive coordinators, who have to dedicate an extra defender to the box to account for his legs. This opens up space in the intermediate and deep areas of the field, and Newton's done a good job of distributing the ball efficiently.

Bottom line, with the defense smothering opposing offenses and Cam Newton and his crew finally starting to come together, anything can happen.

Why they won't win it all:

While the Panthers have been firing on all cylinders over the past four weeks, the fact remains that they went nearly two full months without a win this season. The defense wasn't as sharp, wasn't as deep, and losing Greg Hardy proved to be a pretty big hit to their effectiveness. The consistency wasn't there like it was last season, and opposing teams were able to move the ball as Carolina finished 21st in the NFL with 23.4 opponent points per game.

The same question of consistency could be applied to Cam Newton, who at times has flashed brilliance and at others has turned the ball over far too often. During Carolina's rough stretch this season from Week 3 to Week 12, Newton completed just 57 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and 11 picks. If that Newton shows up in the playoffs, it could mean we'd see a quick exit for Carolina.

5. Arizona Cardinals

How they got here:

The Cardinals took casualties before the season even started, losing Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL, Daryl Washington to suspension, Karlos Dansby to free agency, and quickly lost John Abraham for the season after one week. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer would be next, going out for three games early on. No matter, "next man up!" the Cardinals said, and just kept on winning. They'd get Palmer back in Week 6, then run their record to a league-best 9-1 on the back of a stellar defense and with the help of a few fourth-quarter comebacks.

Arizona's tough injury luck would continue, though. Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10 and was replaced by backup Drew Stanton, who subsequently hurt his knee as well in Week 15. This means, after losing their grapple-hold of the NFC's top seed and the NFC West division, the Cardinals now face the prospect of going into the Playoffs with their third-string quarterback in Ryan Lindley under center.

Who they are:

The Cardinals are best identified by their multiple, attacking defense led by Todd Bowles. They stop the run with the best of them, get after the quarterback like crazy, and bring blitzes from every angle imaginable. Bowles is one of the most daring defensive coordinators in the NFL in terms of designing all-out blitzes, and that makes the Cardinals one of the most difficult defenses to prepare for.

On offense, even with a third or fourth string quarterback at the helm, Bruce Arians believes in attacking downfield with deep bombs. They've kept their foot on the pedal with admirable chutzpah, and have a talented and explosive group of receivers to target downfield in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and the talented rookie John Brown.

Secret weapon:

With opposing pass defenses keying in on Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, rookie John Brown has become a dangerous weapon up the seam and deep downfield for the Cardinals. He has blazing breakaway speed and quick-twitch agility to gain separation over the middle, and Bruce Arians hasn't been afraid to work him into the gameplan. Brown is a big-play specialist, averaging 14.5 yards per catch on the year while reeling in 5 touchdowns. He's a thorn in the side for opposing defensive coordinators, who have to figure out how to match up with one of the quickest players on the field.

Why they'll win it all:

Defense, defense, defense. The Cardinals have the ability to completely shut down an opposing offense and showed the ability generate pressure and create turnovers on the side of the ball. Todd Bowles has talented difference makers in DE Calais Campbell, CBs Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, OLB Alex Okafor, ILB Larry Foote, and DT Dan Williams to work with, and has done a great job of getting wildcards in safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Buchannon involved in the action.

Bowles will bring pressure from the middle, from the corner, both, or neither, and mixes it up enough that opposing quarterbacks rarely have much of an idea where, when, or even if pressure is coming. This has led to a lot of mistakes, and Arizona has capitalized in the form of 18 picks on the year. If the Cardinals are going to win it all, it will be because of their hounding, ball-hawking defense.

Why they won't win it all:

With Carson Palmer on the injured reserve and Drew Stanton out indefinitely after getting an infection in his ailing knee, the Cardinals will go about trying to win a Super Bowl with Ryan Lindley and/or Logan Thomas at quarterback. While Lindley looked to have some potential in the Cardinals' regular season finale at San Francisco, he remains a career 50 percent passer and has only two touchdown passes in 264 attempts.

This is the modern NFL, and it's severely problematic to lose your starting quarterback, not to mention their backup, particularly in the Playoffs. The Cardinals will go into this year's tournament at a steep disadvantage because of that, and they'll have to play on the road, which will not help.

6. Detroit Lions

How they got here:

The Lions made a statement in Week 3 by snuffing out the division rival Packers at home and the two teams would battle the rest of the season for NFC North supremacy. That neck and neck race fittingly went down to the wire with their Week 17 tilt in Green Bay, which the Packers won, deciding the division champion. Detroit would head into the postseason as the No. 6 seed at 11-4.

The Lions secured a Playoffs berth for the first time since 2011 and for only the second time since 1999. Star receiver Calvin Johnson was lost for over a month with an ankle injury, but the Lions persevered, and free agent acquisition Golden Tate rose up in his place as a playmaking weapon on his way to 99 catches. While the offense had its peaks and valleys, the defense remained among the league's best from start to finish.

Who they are:

While Detroit teams over the past few seasons have been more known for their high-octane passing offenses, the 2014 Lions team is defined by its elite defense. Led by Ndamukong Suh, Glover Quinn, DeAndre Levy, Ziggy Ansah, and others, Detroit finished 3rd in the league in points allowed, 2nd in yards allowed, and set an absurd mark of 69.3 rushing yards allowed per game, close to an all-time NFL record. They stop the run, get after the quarterback, and ballhawk in the secondary.

That's not to say that these Lions can't pass. Matt Stafford has the dynamic duo of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at his disposal, and it doesn't hurt to have solid receiving backs in Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, and Theo Riddick to add in to that group. Throw in an athletic couple of pass catching tight ends in Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria, and Matt Stafford has a talented group of weapons to distribute the ball to.

Secret weapon:

While the Seahawks get a lot of press for their safety duo in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, Detroit's offseason free agent acquisition combo of Glover Quinn and James Ihedigbo went out and led the NFL with 11 interceptions, Quinn with 7 and Ihedigbo with 4. Additionally, as a duo, they've racked up 144 tackles, 18 passes defended and 2 sacks.

With the Lions' ability to pressure the quarterback and affect their footwork and timing, forcing ill-advised or inaccurate throws, defensive backs will have opportunities to capitalize, and Quinn and Ihedigbo have done just that. Not only have they managed to create turnovers, but they've played mostly sound football, avoiding big shots over the top while factoring in to the elite run defense.

Why they'll win it all:

They say that "defense wins championships," and by the most important metrics, Detroit was among the NFL's elite this season. They can pressure from the interior with Ndamukong Suh, bring heat from the edge with Ziggy Ansah, can tackle in the middle with DeAndre Levy, and can create turnovers with Glover Quinn and James Inhedigbo. Detroit's ability to first make opponents one-dimensional by taking away their run game, then create turnovers once they've forced the enemy to pass -- well, that's the formula the Seahawks used last year in helping them win it all.

Detroit is balanced, too, and has the ability to put points on the board when they're clicking. Matt Stafford's arsenal includes a dangerous red-zone threat in Calvin Johnson, a run-after-the-catch home-run hitter in Golden Tate, and a stable of versatile running backs and tight ends to boot.

Why they won't win it all:

While Detroit's defense has been reliable and consistent, the Lions' offense has struggled at times to move the football and score points. Those struggles were most apparent in Weeks 11 and 12, when the Lions lost to the Cardinals then Patriots, failing to score a touchdown in either game. Those issues on the offensive side of the ball have cropped up here and there all season, so it's certainly a cause for concern, and Matt Stafford's drop in touchdown passes this year speaks to Detroit's inability at times to finish. With such a wide array of weapons on offense it's a little perplexing that Detroit would struggle to score points, but going into the Playoffs that will be a big test.

It does not help ease concerns considering Detroit had an atrocious year in the kicking game as well.


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