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2014 NFL playoffs: Strengths and weaknesses of each NFC team

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Now that the 2014 playoff field is set, let's examine the crucial factors for each participant. Strategic planning and tactical adjustments can help a team mask its deficiencies in a game, but the best coaches are able to tilt things in their favor by accentuating their own squad's strengths while exploiting their opponent's weaknesses. With that in mind, here's a look at the fortes and flaws of each NFC team (ordered by playoff seeding). Click here for the AFC breakdown.

1) Seattle Seahawks

Next matchup: vs. Lions/Cardinals/Panthers, Saturday, Jan. 10, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX

Biggest strength: The defending Super Bowl champions captured the Lombardi Trophy last February on the strength of a dominant defense. New season, same story: The Seahawks are poised to make another run at the title behind a stifling defense that suffocates opponents with its collective size, speed and athleticism. Led by the "Legion of Boom" secondary, the Seahawks have thrown a blanket around some of the NFL's most dynamic offenses, forcing opposing quarterbacks into scattershot performances from the pocket. Additionally, the 'Hawks have essentially eliminated running lanes since the healthy returns of linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor, making life miserable for ball-carriers who venture between the tackles.

Biggest weakness: Despite rolling into the playoffs with nine wins in their last 10 games, the Seahawks remain an offensive enigma, due to a suspect O-line. Injuries have prevented the unit from developing chemistry at the point of attack, and the resulting inconsistency has left Seattle to rely on Russell Wilson to deliver sandlot plays in order to move the ball down the field. Yes, the Seahawks have earned the No. 1 seed, but questions persist about the O-line's ability to handle a powerful defensive line in a playoff battle.

2) Green Bay Packers

Next matchup: vs. Cowboys/Panthers/Cardinals, Sunday, Jan. 11, 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX

Biggest strength: The top quarterback in the NFL gives the Packers a chance to beat anyone. Aaron Rodgers played at an MVP level this season, particularly at Lambeau Field, where he compiled a 25:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in eight games. With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb emerging as the league's most explosive receiving tandem, the Packers have a shot to claim the title on the strength of Rodgers' play from the pocket.

Biggest weakness: For all of the improvements made by the Packers' defense, the jury is still out as to whether the unit can slow a high-powered offense directed by a mobile quarterback. Green Bay has struggled against athletic signal-callers in recent playoff appearances (see: Colin Kaepernick, who racked up 769 total yards against the Packers in the 2012 and 2013 postseasons). Potential matchups against Cam Newton and Russell Wilson could be problematic, especially if coordinator Dom Capers fails to come up with an effective way to neutralize the zone-read and bootleg-centric schemes. The presence of Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews on the edges should help Capers craft a plan to contain an athletic playmaker, but the Packers' defense will ultimately determine their fate in the postseason.

3) Dallas Cowboys

Next matchup: vs. Detroit Lions, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Biggest strength: The Cowboys' dynamic offense fueled their surprising run to the top of the NFC East. Led by a dominant O-line and the new "Triplets" (quarterback Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant), Dallas tramples opponents with a ball-control attack built on a physical running game and an explosive play-action passing element. The team can also dictate the tempo and utilize a "keep away" approach designed to minimize the exposure of its defense. The offense is ideally suited to play the kind of blue-collar football that yields big results in the playoffs -- and the Cowboys are certainly capable of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Biggest weakness: Credit coordinator Rod Marinelli for getting this defense to play at a high level despite fielding a lineup loaded with misfits and castoffs. Still, the group lacks the firepower necessary to slow down a high-octane offense that features explosive playmakers on the perimeter. The collective grit and hustle of the unit will give Dallas a puncher's chance against any team, but the inconsistent pass rush and suspect coverage could end up being the Cowboys' undoing.

4) Carolina Panthers

Next matchup: vs. Arizona Cardinals, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN

Biggest strength: The Panthers' defense keyed their run to the NFC South title by holding Carolina's last four opponents to 10.8 points per game. Led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the front seven has bludgeoned offenses at the point of attack. A young, athletic secondary, meanwhile, has blanketed receivers on the perimeter. With coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott hounding quarterbacks and runners with a barrage of clever blitz and bluff tactics, the Panthers can turn any contest into a low-scoring affair -- and give Cam Newton a chance to win it at the end.

Biggest weakness: Despite the presence of two 1,000-yard pass catchers (Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen), the Panthers' aerial attack remains a huge question mark heading into the playoffs. Carolina's lack of a proven vertical threat and home-run hitter on the outside could make it hard to move the ball against elite defenses in the postseason. Philly Brown certainly has added a spark to the offense since stepping into the lineup, but leaning on a pair of rookie wideouts (Benjamin and Brown) in a playoff game would be a huge gamble for a team that struggles to score points through the air.

5) Arizona Cardinals

Next matchup: at Carolina Panthers, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN

Biggest strength: The Cardinals' stingy defense has kept the team afloat despite a host of absences due to injuries, defections and suspensions. Under the direction of coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals have relied on a blitz-heavy approach that's wreaked havoc on opponents throughout the season. Cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Patrick Peterson have shown the ability to blanket elite receivers on the outside, with safeties Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson, Deone Bucannon and Tony Jefferson adding timely playmaking between the hashes. Throw in a physical front line led by Calais Campbell, and it's clear the Cardinals are capable of pummeling opponents with their collective toughness, physicality and playmaking ability.

Biggest weakness: It's no coincidence that Arizona's downward spiral -- the Cardinals ended the regular season with a two-game losing skid -- started when third-stringer Ryan Lindley stepped in to replace the injured Drew Stanton at quarterback. The young signal-caller is simply not equipped to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm, and it shows in his play. Lindley has completed just 48.4 percent of his passes with a 2:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in three games (two starts). Moreover, he has struggled to move the offense consistently, and his inability to put points on the board has placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense to keep the score down. Given the importance of cashing in on scoring chances in the playoffs, Lindley's ineptitude could keep Arizona from advancing, presuming Stanton does indeed miss Saturday's matchup in Carolina.

6) Detroit Lions

Next matchup: at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Biggest strength: Though the Lions have some of the best offensive personnel in the NFL, the defense was what sparked their run to the playoffs. Detroit led the NFL in rushing defense, ranked third in scoring defense and second in total yards allowed during the regular season. Coordinator Teryl Austin has built around a ferocious line, with Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage. Sure, the loss of Suh to a one-game suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers in Week 17 weakens the front, but the Lions can still bully their opponents, thanks to the contributions of DeAndre Levy, Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. (UPDATE: Suh's suspension has been reduced to a $70,000 fine on appeal, and he'll be available to face the Cowboys.) Austin is willing to blend blitzes with a variety of coverage tactics (man and zone), meaning the defense can play a rugged style that is tough to deal with in a playoff contest.

Biggest weakness: For all the great things Matthew Stafford has accomplished since his arrival in 2009, the former No. 1 overall pick hasn't delivered in big games on the road. The quarterback has a 16-game losing streak on the road against teams that finish the year with a winning record, which is problematic for a group that must win three away contests to advance to the Super Bowl. Stafford's supporting cast is capable of alleviating some of the pressure on him; still, he must avoid the kinds of turnovers and careless mistakes that routinely put Detroit in a hole. Given the importance of winning the takeaway battle, Stafford's play will ultimately determine whether the Lions can make a run in the tournament.

CLICK HERE FOR THE AFC BREAKDOWN

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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