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Road to Super Bowl LI goes through Dallas, New England

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The suspense went out of the race to the NFL playoffs early on Sunday evening, when the Giants beat the Redskins, sending both the Packers and Lions into the only postseason slots still available more than an hour before they kicked off the regular-season finale.

The fait accompli feel to the end of the regular season was appropriate, considering that the entire setup for the AFC playoffs seems awfully familiar. The Patriots, with a resounding 35-14 victory at Miami, seized the top overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. New England has been the top seed five times before, and advanced to the Super Bowl in four of those seasons. And because of quarterback calamities elsewhere, the path for the Pats to Super Bowl LI in Houston appears exceedingly manageable.

The Oakland Raiders, who looked for most of the season like the only offense that could stay with Tom Brady's, has -- in the span of a week -- lost their MVP-caliber starting quarterback (Derek Carr), perhaps their backup (Matt McGloin) to a shoulder injury and finally their first-round bye. The Raiders' loss in Denver on Sunday, combined with the Chiefs' victory over the Chargers, gave K.C. the AFC West title and the second overall seed and plunged Oakland to the wild card and the fifth seed. The Raiders will face the Texans next Saturday afternoon in what will be an inglorious matchup of unsightly quarterbacks -- with the shortest possible turnaround to heal their injuries.

Rookie Connor Cook, who finished the game for Oakland, could be forced to start if McGloin can't go. On Sunday night, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was unsure of McGloin's availability. And Houston could have a most improbable quarterback controversy on its hands going into the postseason, with Brock Osweiler, who was benched for Tom Savage just a few weeks ago, wanting to start after replacing Savage on Sunday when the starter suffered a concussion.

Coach Bill O'Brien, who must feel like it was a very long time ago that he had the luxury of Tom Brady running his offense, was non-committal about who would start next weekend. O'Brien has shown no reluctance to switch quarterbacks since he's been in Houston -- he has used nine different starters in three regular seasons -- although he said Savage would have started the second half of the loss to the Titans had he been healthy.

"I think it's going to be an evaluation," O'Brien said after the 24-17 defeat. "We will talk about that as a staff."

Whoever it is, it sets up this divisional-round showdown that begs for Brady, who finished the regular season with 28 touchdown passes and two interceptions for the highest TD-to-INT ratio in NFL history, to play left-handed to make things interesting: the Patriots versus McGloin/Cook or Savage/Osweiler or Matt Moore of the Dolphins.

The AFC field could not have broken any better for the Patriots, who not only force everybody to come to them in Foxborough, where they are 15-3 in the postseason since 2000, but who are assured of not having to face the Steelers or the Chiefs until the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers, who are the third seed and who beat the Browns without Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell or Antonio Brown, will play the sixth-seeded Dolphins, who got a reminder from the Pats on Sunday about just how far they still have to go. The Chiefs have a first-round bye and will face the second-lowest seed remaining in two weeks.

If the AFC playoffs are being profoundly shaped by quarterback attrition, the NFC playoffs will be determined by a more prosaic concern: Which quarterback do you trust the most?

The Redskins will have to determine how much they still trust Kirk Cousins, who had a chance to lead a game-winning drive that would have sent the Redskins into the playoffs but instead threw an interception that doomed them. He is on the outside looking in, and facing what is likely to be a difficult contract negotiation. But even the quarterback at the very top of the NFC now -- Dak Prescott -- goes into the postseason with questions about how a rookie will navigate the games ahead. That unknown applies to the Falcons' Matt Ryan, too. Ryan threw four touchdown passes to beat the Saints and lock up the second overall seed for the Falcons. He threw 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in the regular season and is a leading MVP candidate. But it is Ryan's postseason record that will cause concern until his record changes. Ryan has played in four previous postseasons -- the most recent in 2012 -- going 1-4 while throwing nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Once the Giants eliminated the Redskins, the Packers and Lions were playing only for what amounted to two seeding spots and a home playoff game. The Packers got it -- winning the NFC North and getting the fourth seed. Their reward: a visit from the Giants, who lost at Lambeau Field in October, 23-16. The Giants' offense has not scored 20 points since November, but Big Blue has won nine of their last 11 on the strength of a defense that brings to mind New York's Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011. The Packers don't need any reminders of those teams -- they lost to the Giants at Lambeau in both of those postseasons.

Still, there are five quarterbacks in the playoff field who have already won a Super Bowl and Aaron Rodgers might be the hottest of them all. Six weeks ago, with the Packers at 4-6, he said he thought the Packers were ready to run the table. They have, in large part because Rodgers threw 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last six games. On Sunday, he left the Lions in his wake, sending them to the sixth seed. They will travel to face the Seahawks, who have gone 3-3 in their last six games as the offensive line has struggled to protect Russell Wilson.

So maybe you don't trust Wilson to overcome bad protection or Eli Manning to summon his postseason magic again. But the NFC has all of its starting quarterbacks intact and in the starting lineup for the postseason. The AFC playoffs lined up perfectly for the Patriots. But the NFC lined up just right for the competition.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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