NFC playoff preview: Cards, Falcons prove unlikely playoff foes

PHILADELPHIA - While the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals spent their Sunday comfortably playing out the regular season, four other teams in the NFC jockeyed for seeding or had to earn their way in.

AFC wild-card breakdown

The AFC playoff field, and perhaps those teams in the NFC playoff field as well, should be wary of the playoff-tested Colts, a team very capable of making the long march to Super Bowl XLIII, writes Vic Carucci.

When everything settled, Carolina claimed the NFC South title, while Philadelphia and Minnesota played their way into the final two playoff spots. Coincidentally, the Vikings, as NFC North champs, will play host to the Eagles, who thoroughly thrashed NFC East rival Dallas, 44-6, to claim the final wild-card slot.

"We had everything riding on this and we didn't step up to the plate," said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, who received yet another vote of confidence by owner Jerry Jones about his job security, despite the high-priced, preseason Super Bowl favorites failing to reach the playoffs. "It's hard to look at the whole season right now."

Atlanta had already claimed a postseason berth, but improved to 11-5 with a win over the Rams to close the season. Still, the Falcons had to settle for the No. 5 seed when the Panthers won. Matt Ryan and the Falcons will go to Arizona on Saturday to face the NFC West-champion Cardinals, who won their season finale against Seattle to improve to 9-7. The win snapped a slide in which Arizona lost four of its previous five. Defeating the Seahawks still won't convince skeptics that the Cardinals are long for the postseason, since six of Arizona's wins came within its lackluster division.

By rallying to defeat the Saints, the Panthers earned the No. 2 seed and, like the top-seeded Giants, will have next weekend off to watch their pending foes, which will have to travel to Carolina and New York, respectively in the divisional round.

In all, four teams with double-digit victories advanced to the playoffs in the NFC, with the Falcons being the only one not to win its division. It came close, but for the first time since the NFC South was created in 2002, the last-place team from the previous season failed to win the division the following year.

The team that did win the NFC South in 2007, Tampa Bay, staged the biggest collapse of any playoff contender in the conference, going 0-4 in December. The Bucs capped things off with a stunning season-ending loss to visiting Oakland. That loss, along with Chicago falling at Houston, enabled Philadelphia the chance to get into the playoffs.

The Eagles didn't squander the opportunity. The 38-point victory is the biggest defeat they've ever given the Cowboys.

"A lot of people counted us out and said it was over," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "To come out here and solidify things at the end of the season and having things work out well for us, that shows the resilience of this team. We continued to stay together despite what people may have said about each individual player or coach."

Besides Dallas and Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Green Bay were preseason-playoff favorites that failed to make the postseason.

Enough about the teams that didn't make it. Let's examine the two first-round matchups in the NFC.

No. 5 Atlanta (11-5) at No. 4 Arizona (9-7)

Who would have ever imagined that these two long-suffering franchises would both be in the playoffs, let alone the Cardinals playing host to a team that was nothing more than a pile of ash at this point last season.

The game will pair two of the NFL's most noteworthy quarterbacks of 2008. Arizona's Kurt Warner, 37, threw his way into MVP consideration (4,583 yards, 30 touchdowns) while Atlanta's Matt Ryan, 23, is a near shoe-in for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 3,440 yards).

Three of the NFC's four Pro Bowl receivers will also be on display. The Falcons' Roddy White came into his own catching passes from Ryan. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are one of the most prolific tandems of all time.

Matchups to watch

» Arizona's Boldin and Fitzgerald vs. Falcons CBs Chris Houston and Domonique Foxworth: Houston and Foxworth are small, strong, physical tacklers but they can be overpowered by bigger receivers. Foxworth, who plays on the left side, is very crafty and has a great break on the ball so he makes up for his stature (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) with good technique and instincts. Houston is best in press coverage and typically has help from a nickel back, outside linebacker and/or safety if needed. The Cardinals could have success against the Falcons by putting Boldin in the slot and exploiting some of the inside seams that tend to open up against Tampa 2 defenses.

» Cardinals RB J.J. Arrington vs. Falcons OLB Keith Brooking: Arrington could be a timely weapon catching passes out of the backfield against Brooking, an every down linebacker, who isn't quite as proficient as he once was.

» Falcons RB Michael Turner vs. Arizona's defense: The Cardinals' run defense was a lot better early in the season than is was down the stretch, which isn't a good thing since Turner seems to be peaking, rushing for 208 yards and a score vs. the Rams.

» Atlanta QB Matt Ryan vs. the rookie wall: Though Ryan has shown incredible maturity and resilience, he has completed just 38 of 68 passes while throwing four interceptions and two touchdowns over the past three games.

No. 6 Philadelphia (9-6-1) at No. 3 Minnesota (10-6)

Vikings coach Andy Reid will be facing his former longtime assistant Brad Childress, who served as Reid's offensive coordinator for four seasons (2002-05). Both coaches faced scrutiny about their job security at different points this season but now appear to be in good shape.

Each team needed season-ending victories to get into the playoffs. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been on a mission the past two months but will be facing the NFL's fourth-stingiest run defense. The key could be Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who has played fairly well since regaining his starting job a month ago. The onus will be on both Jackson and McNabb to make plays in the passing game since Minnesota and Philadelphia boast two of the NFL's top run defenses.

This will be the Eagles' first game this season in a dome. Minnesota is 6-2 at home with the only two losses coming against dome teams, Atlanta and Indianapolis.

Matchups to watch

» Vikings DE Jared Allen against Eagles OT Tra Thomas: NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware needed three sacks against the Eagles on Sunday to break Michael Strahan's sack record of 22.5. Thanks to Thomas, Ware didn't come close to Donovan McNabb all day.

» Eagles CB Asante Samuel vs. Vikings WR Bernard Berrian: Philadelphia has allowed individual wide outs to have some big games, but that's typically happened when those receivers are on teams playing from behind. Samuel is one of the best cover guys in the business. Berrian is one of the top big-play threats in the league, averaging 20.1 yards a catch.

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