With postseason play beginning this weekend, Gregg Rosenthal takes a straightforward look at the defining traits of each NFC playoff team.
1) Dallas Cowboys
Biggest strength: Like endless words flowing from Jerry Jones' radio interviews, the Cowboys' 2016 success flows from their running game. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott plays with maturity and chutzpah beyond his years, but that's partly because the running game keeps the offense on schedule. The defense was a feisty, pleasant surprise, largely because the Cowboys' offense kept it off the field, finishing No. 2 in time of possession. Tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick rank among the best at their respective positions, but don't overlook road-grader Ronald Leary's contributions. Ezekiel Elliott is short on shirt but owns perhaps the best combination of speed and power to enter the league since Adrian Peterson. It was almost unfair adding him to this group.
Biggest weakness: The Cowboys had more sacks than any playoff team since Week 13, yet their defensive line remains a huge question mark. Defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are uncertain to play in the Divisional Round because of injury. Randy Gregory has been suspended. The emergence of David Irving as a legitimate edge rusher was an enormous development in December, but consider the opponents Dallas' banged-up group could face in the playoffs. Green Bay and Atlanta boast the best two NFC offensive lines that don't have a star on their helmets.
2) Atlanta Falcons
Biggest strength:Matt Ryan is a big-play machine. Unlike Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan's aerial strikes are rarely improvised. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Ryan set target an opponent's weakness and strike with ruthless efficiency. Ryan led the league with 17 plays over 40 yards, which is six more than any other playoff quarterback. It's nearly impossible to guess where Ryan's shot plays will land: Seven different Falcons caught passes over 40 yards. Ryan also had 10 more plays over 20 yards than any playoff quarterback, in large part because of his ability to buy time in the pocket and go through reads quickly. There is no down-and-distance Ryan can't escape.
Biggest weakness: Don't expect to see a lot of stops if Atlanta and Dallas face off in the NFC Championship Game. Atlanta's run defense ranked No. 29 in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, a sign that coach Dan Quinn hasn't upgraded the Falcons' defensive performance much, even if the roster looks more promising. Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell can overrun plays and don't get enough help from a front line that lacks bulk and is built to play indoors. Dallas' strength on the ground will be in perfect position to kick Atlanta's Achilles heel.
3) Seattle Seahawks
Biggest strength: Ignore the game film from Seattle's last six outings and look to the defensive depth chart. That's where you'll see the best collection of NFL defensive talent assembled together in the last decade, even after Earl Thomas' injury. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are still prime pass rushers, and youngster Frank Clark is capable of more. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are having their best season as a linebacker duo. The Legion of Boom is quieter than it once was, but it still has Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. The continuity and chemistry this group has built playing together for five straight Januarys provide hope. That's why Pete Carroll wants us to forget the end of the regular season:
Biggest weakness: Marshawn Lynch's retirement damaged the Seahawks more than anyone could have expected. Seattle tried three different starting running backs this season and might break out a fourth for the playoffs in rookie Alex Collins. The team's leading rusher remains Christine Michael, who now plays in Green Bay. While Russell Wilson can often overcome Seattle's latest failed experiment in O-line anarchy, Collins and an injury-prone version of Thomas Rawls cannot. Every week brings a fresh embarrassment to the running game, from failed goal-line attempts against Arizona to the lackluster performance against the hapless 49ers.
4) Green Bay Packers
Biggest strength: If this assignment asked for the "biggest strength" in the NFL, the answer would still be Aaron Rodgers' right arm. Even when his receivers are covered, he is afforded incredible protection and time to create football art. Coach Mike McCarthy also has done a laudable job creating more routine plays for Rodgers to hit early in the down. With Geronimo Allison, Ty Montgomery and especially tight end Jared Cook emerging as legitimate weekly threats, Rodgers has plenty of options to choose from. He knows better than anyone there's no defense for a perfect pass.
Biggest weakness: Teams can throw on the Packers. With Clay Matthews mostly silent for the team's erratic pass rush, Green Bay's cornerback duo of LaDarius Gunter and Damarious Randall has been exposed. Even during the Packers' six-game closing sprint, they gave up 382 yards to Sam Bradford and 362 yards to Matt Barkley. Brock Osweiler's highest-graded game of the season came against these Packers. The Packers won't be able to hide this group if they get to the Divisional Round.
5) New York Giants
Biggest strength: The NYPD (New York Pass Defense) is a nickname matched in awesomeness by the members of this Giants secondary. No. 1 cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Landon Collins could both be first-team All-Pro members. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, an underrated player since well before he toyed with retirement before Super Bowl XLVIII, has been reborn in the slot. The revamped group has depth, too, with first-round cornerback Eli Apple and quietly effective safety Andrew Adams (an undrafted rookie). Most of Wild Card Weekend is the undercard before the NYPD takes on the potential MVP in Lambeau Field.
Biggest weakness: The national conversation about Eli Manning's play this season is hopelessly far afield from what the game tape shows. Everyone wants to pretend this is 2011, despite the reality that Eli has held the Giants' offense back for much of the season. (An optimist would note two of Manning's better games came in the last month against Detroitand Washington.) Manning always has been a streaky passer, but he hasn't mixed in the "wow" throws this season to make up for the inconsistency. The Miami Boat Brigade has been the only thing keeping this offense afloat.
6) Detroit Lions
Biggest strength:Matthew Stafford's fourth-quarter magic dried up in the final weeks of the season. The team trailed by four points or less against the Giantsand Packers entering the final frame, then wound up losing by more. Still, Stafford made eight deposits into the "game-winning drive" bank this season, with three more comebacks than any other playoff quarterback. If the Lions can hang tight in Seattle, Stafford can withdraw on that earned belief and mojo from an improbable season of overachievement. A little irrational confidence is a great attribute for a franchise looking for its first playoff win in 25 years. One drive would mean so much for this team.
Biggest weakness: The Lions haven't forced a turnover in over a month, a particularly distressing trend when the team's offense has committed seven turnovers during that span. The stat speaks to a larger lack of playmakers on defense. Ezekiel Ansah and DeAndre Levy have turned from stars into solid starters. No. 1 cornerback Darius Slay is coming off a hamstring injury. Opposing offenses dictate against Detroit every week, unafraid that anyone on the Lions' defense creates matchup problems. It's left defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in retreat mode, trying to limit the damage so Stafford can put on his cape and save the Lions in the end.