By virtue of posting the NFC's best record, the New Orleans Saints earned the right to sit back and watch Arizona and Green Bay exhaust themselves in one of the most incredible playoff games in recent history. The Cardinals won in dramatic fashion in overtime, but now they have a short week to prepare for a rested team looking to redeem a late-season slide in a dome so loud it makes standing next to a shotgun blast seem like a mosquito buzzing in your ear.
This is why teams fight for a bye.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings, the No. 2 seed, got a week to heal and prepare, but their off week might not seem as rewarding because their opponent, Dallas, won a playoff game that exorcised demons of past playoff failures. "America's Team" is now feeling like it will be the NFL's champion.
With the final four now set, let's examine some questions heading into the NFC divisional playoffs.
Which quarterback should be feared the most?
Kurt Warner has the experience and he just came off a remarkable performance. He could also have Anquan Boldin back. Tony Romo is on a roll, and Brett Favre has the experience and more toys at his disposal than he's ever had. However, Drew Brees, who threw for a league-best 34 touchdowns and is playing at home, is facing a very vulnerable Cardinals defense that will have major matchup issues with the plethora of Saints' weapons.
Who are the "X-factors"?
Trends could surface in each game that allow the No. 3 wideouts to excel. Arizona's Steve Breaston carved up the Packers defense and with the Saints' corners possibly being occupied with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Breaston is a tough cover. Conversely, New Orleans' Robert Meacham is too big and too fast for anyone in Arizona's secondary. Dallas' Patrick Crayton is very dangerous on the deep crossing routes and the Vikings' safety play has been a concern. Then there is Percy Harvin. He could be a factor in the intermediate passing game, but he could be more dangerous in the short passing/screen game, a tactic the Vikings might employ to offset the Cowboys' aggressive pass rush.
Which running back could have the biggest game?
Adrian Peterson is playing this round right? Yeah, but not him; Dallas' D is too tough. Instead, here is your sleeper: New Orleans' Pierre Thomas. The Cardinals simply don't run enough for Tim Hightower or Beanie Wells to put up big numbers. Peterson is in for some tough sledding against the Cowboys and the Vikings have the No. 2 run defense in the NFL -- although the Cowboys' Felix Jones has big-play potential. Thomas, meanwhile, will be able to hit some tough runs against the Cardinals and if the Saints get a lead, Sean Payton will ride him to milk the clock.
Which pass rusher will have the biggest impact?
We can ignore the Saints-Cardinals game on this one. Two of the best pass rushers in the NFL will be in Minneapolis: Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and Minnesota's Jared Allen. Neither will be the standout, though. Anthony Spencer, the outside 'backer who plays opposite Ware, is on a tear (five sacks in the past three games) and he has a very favorable matchup against rookie Phil Loadholt, who is a good run blocker but inconsistent against athletic pass rushers. Dallas does a lot of scheming with Spencer, so he is hard to track.
Will inexperience of coaches be a factor?
Coaching experience really doesn't mean a thing. Newbie Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl with the Steelers last year over Ken Whisenhunt. The key here is all these coaches have gone through their own interesting bouts of turmoil and their teams seem stronger for it. Whisenhunt seems to always know what buttons to push when his easily distracted team goes mentally wayward; Brad Childress stepped out of the "sit-Favre/audible-gate" situation with low-key guile that his team responded to. Sean Payton had to navigate through injuries and the pressure that came with winning 13 straight. Wade Phillips, though, might be walking the most tall right now, having 53 disciples faithfully following him on a short plank with no guarantee of job security next season.
Will the biggest game-changer come on offense or defense?
This is tough, because New Orleans and Arizona could surpass 100 combined points and Ware, Spencer or Allen could force that fumble or errant throw that changes the tenor of that game. However, based on how frequently the ball will be thrown, we have to venture back to the Superdome and pinpoint Saints safety Darren Sharper. With the way New Orleans is going to have to drum up pressure on Warner now that defensive end Charles Grant is out (triceps), Sharper is going to play a lot of center field and could end up with an interception -- or two.
Is there anybody ready to emerge?
There are a number of players participating in this weekend's NFC divisional playoffs who have not delivered as expected, but could emerge to provide a key play or two. For starters, there's Reggie Bush. There's Roy Williams. And then there's Antoine Winfield. Winfield, the Vikings' cornerback, missed most of the season with a foot injury and after a strong debut has been targeted in coverage because he doesn't look fully healthy and up to speed. This game against the Cowboys is the kind of game where he shows how good he is. His great tackling in run support could prove huge because it could limit big runs. Also, Dallas' receivers get a lot of yards after contact. Winfield gets players to the ground on initial contact.
How tough will road games be for the Cardinals and Cowboys?
What's good for each is that both are used to playing in domes. What's problematic is they will be drowned out by crowds that can crank up the volume when opposing offenses have the ball. The Cardinals were 6-2 on the road and the Saints have lost their last two games in the Superdome. Don't put a lot of stock into New Orleans' home slippage, though. The bye should help them regain their edge and allow their fans more time to prep for a party. Dallas is 5-3 on the road, while the Vikings are unbeaten at home. No visiting team wants to play in Minnesota and there is a reason why.
Which stars will step out onto the grand stage?
The playoffs are where stars become superstars. Fitzgerald emerged on the grand stage last season, and should continue his postseason excellence against the Saints. New Orleans' cornerback play is a concern and he could go off. Saints receiver Marques Colston could have a big game on the other side because of favorable matchups against safeties. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten should put up big numbers. Upstart receivers Miles Austin (Dallas) and Sidney Rice (Minnesota) are their teams' go-to wideouts and they seem too confident to melt under the circumstances. Cardinals RB Beanie Wells may take advantage of the Saints' iffy run defense.
What could cause each team to lose?
Arizona: Turnovers and the inability to stop the Saints' passing game. New Orleans: Its shaky run defense could allow the Cardinals to balance out their offense and hit some big play-action plays. Dallas: Penalties and having to play from behind. The Cowboys have looked very strong lately but that's because they've played with leads. Minnesota: Favre gambling too much and the secondary failing to deny big pass plays.