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NFC Fear Factor: Cowboys are conference's most dangerous team

After 17 weeks, we finally know the playoff teams in the NFC and where each is seeded, 1-6. But what would the seeds look like if the teams were put in order of fear factor?

The New Orleans Saints, for example, started the season unbeaten through 13 games, then lost their final three and had to hang on to the conference's No. 1 seed. They won't face an opponent until the divisional round, but when they do, will they be feared?

They certainly have little momentum, and now they have a week to get healthy and fix things.

"The key now," said Saints coach Sean Payton after Sunday's 23-10 loss to Carolina, "is to get ourselves mentally and physically refreshed and ready."

But the blemishes have already been exposed for all to see.

Here's one man's list of how the NFC's playoff teams would be ranked in order of how feared they are going into the postseason:


1. Dallas Cowboys (11-5, No. 3 seed)

Beware of this red-hot team, winners of three straight and five of their last seven. Dallas has shown to be the most physical team in the postseason on both sides of the line.

The offensive front is road-grading, giving its trio of tailbacks room to run and allowing quarterback Tony Romo time to make the right decisions. Defensively, Dallas is making life troublesome for opposing quarterbacks with Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware living in the backfield.

Romo has been the main ingredient for the team's solid late-season play. He seems unflappable, which has been a huge departure from his past. He relies heavily on tight end Jason Witten and No. 1 wideout Miles Austin with good reason. Romo is taking few gambles with his throws, and that ball security has been a big reason for Dallas' late-season success.

It's a deep run through the playoffs -- or bust -- for this evolving team.

Fear factor: 8.5


2. Minnesota Vikings (12-4, No. 2 seed)

Securing a first-round bye and a home game, as well as regaining its swagger, in a the regular-season-ending rout of the Giants was huge for the No. 2 seed.

The Vikings' identity is that of a passing team with a powerful running game as a complement. Quarterback Brett Favre was the missing piece and by letting him play the way he knows how, Minnesota is a much better team.

There are still some concerns about pass protection on the edges, but Favre's multiple options -- slot receiver Percy Harvin looks back to form -- allow him to get out of potentially dangerous situations.

Minnesota has shown it plays better with a lead, when it can turn its defensive front loose. The secondary is still not sound against the pass, a potential problem considering all of the opponents in the NFC can design favorable matchups, especially if targeting those where safeties have to cover.

Fear factor: 7.5


3. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, No. 6 seed))

The multiple weapons on offense are too much for most of these teams. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are slippery and tough man-to-man covers. Tight end Brent Celek might be the best receiving tight end in the playoffs. Slot receiver Jason Avant has quarterback Donovan McNabb's trust. McNabb has been here too often to let his team buckle under the pressure.

The Eagles have protection issues and can't/don't run the ball effectively, as it showed in the season finale against Dallas (10 running plays for 37 yards). Any breakdowns up front could be problematic. Dallas has shown in its two games this season against Philadelphia that the Eagles' big plays can be neutralized.

Defensively, the Eagles have solid corners, but they give up long passes because they gamble at times. The run defense also is suspect and opposing tight ends have had some big games. These aren't the physical Eagles on defense that we're used to, but they're good nonetheless.

Fear factor: 7.5


4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6, No. 4 seed)

When dialed in, no team might be scarier. We saw that last postseason when the defense was opportunistic enough and the offense was downright scary.

What has made these Cardinals potentially more dangerous is that they get after opposing quarterbacks. They are sound at nearly every defensive position and have the most physically imposing safeties in the NFL, giving inside receivers pause about being too cavalier across the middle.

Offensively, the Cardinals' passing attack is too confounding to cover, but the lack of a consistent running game could come back to haunt them. The receivers' ability to make yards after the catch is huge because it forces defenses to never relent.

Since they have the flexibility to play against any style of team, the Cardinals could prove problematic if they don't mentally wander, as they are prone to do.

Fear factor: 7.0


5. Green Bay Packers (11-5, No. 5 seed)

Everyone seems to be overlooking Green Bay and that is a dangerous thing to do. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing every bit as good as, if not better than Favre, Romo and McNabb. The once shaky offensive line, since the midseason re-addition of Mark Tauscher, has been radically improved, and Rodgers has the time he needs to make plays. The line also is opening holes for Ryan Grant, who quietly has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and shown bursts of speed that has caught defenses off guard.

Defensively, the Packers have been very strong against the run and forced 40 turnovers this season. Versatile cornerback Charles Woodson has allowed the secondary to design schemes to protect prone areas, and the team's athletic and aggressive outside linebackers are making the move to a 3-4 defense look brilliant.

Though a wild card, the surging Packers, winners of seven of their last eight, can play with any team.

Fear factor: 7.0


6. New Orleans Saints (13-3, No. 1 seed)

The No. 1 seed opened the season 13-0, but went out with a mighty whimper. Three straight losses to conclude the season exposed some cracks.

They are vulnerable to teams that can hit them with repeated haymakers, the defense isn't nearly as opportunistic as it was early, and the offensive line isn't nearly as reliable as it once was.

In the Saints' final three games, opponents gained 1,205 yards. If opponents can limit the big play, New Orleans' offense isn't nearly as threatening as it was during its run of success.

New Orleans has the quarterback to be able to turn things around quickly, but this team needs to find its mojo during the bye week. If it has to face a rugged foe such as Dallas or Minnesota, teams with punishing ground games and dominant defensive fronts, the Super Bowl might not include the Who Dat Nation.

There has only been one Super Bowl champion in NFL history that entered the playoffs with a losing streak of at least two games, and none have done it with a three-game skid.

Fear factor: 6.5

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