We've arrived at the doorstep of the games that matter most.
The playoffs are here, and this year's flock of NFC contenders are a glorious gaggle of powerful teams dotted with watchable stars. Each of these clubs are laced with positive traits, but also quirks that render them vulnerable.
In a conference tournament that's truly up for grabs, let's take a look at what makes these playoff teams tick, shall we? Teams below are arranged according to how they're seeded.
1) Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Strength: The offense is compromised by the loss of quarterback Carson Wentz, but the Eagles held their own on defense over the past two weeks after giving up 434 yards passing to Eli Manningin Week 15. No team this season generated a higher disruption rate (the combination of pressures and run stuffs divided by defensive snaps), and no defense was stingier against the run. Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Chris Long anchor a front line with the power to wreck game plans and rattle quarterbacks. The Eagles will need this side of the ball to play pristine football week after week for any shot at the Super Bowl.
Weakness: Philly's weakness? It's what used to be the club's unquestioned core power: the quarterback position. Losing Wentz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 14 stripped the Eagles of their beating heart and one of the game's most promising young stars. Backup Nick Foles was exposed on Christmas against Oakland and was downright awful last Sunday against the Cowboys before giving way to third-stringer Nate Sudfeld. It really shows in Philly's vertical air game, too, with Foles sporting a 2.1 passer rating on deep throws -- small sample size noted -- while Wentz produced a 94.9 mark before the injury. Eagles fans went from watching Wentz operate as a cannon-armed, pre-snap magician with next-level mobility and Brett Favre-level derring-do to wondering if the postseason might be a one-and-done affair with Foles at the controls.
2) Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Strength: Where do we begin? You can point to the team's star-studded offense, Minnesota's ability to overcome key injuries or the franchise's rock-solid, slump-proof and resourceful coaching staff, led by Mike Zimmer. It all starts with the defense, though, which has held teams to under 20 points in a whopping 12 games. If the pass rush hasn't quite been itself over the past two weeks, the Vikings still have reliable, Pro Bowl-level talent at every level. Beyond the team's nasty front seven, the back end of this unit -- led by cover man Xavier Rhodes and sensational safety Harrison Smith -- has the raw power to frustrate a high-flying team like the Rams in January.
Weakness: I don't see an overt weakness on this roster. Don't tell me this year's Case Keenum isn't a Super Bowl quarterback, either, because he's done nothing but magnify the play of his skill-position players. When Keenum ran into trouble in a Week 14 loss to the Panthers, his six sacks charted back to a banged-up offensive line currently missing left guard Nick Easton, who went on injured reserve on Dec. 26. The line can't suffer any more setbacks. I'd also be concerned that tight end Kyle Rudolph came out of Sunday's win over Chicago in a walking boot. Finally, we need to see Everson Griffen return to his pass-rushing heights from a couple of months ago, but chalk this up as nitpicking. This is the NFL's most complete team, with a roster that thrashed the Rams in November.
3) Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Strength: Let's start with the head coach. It's fair to ask if Los Angeles stumbled upon a generational talent in Sean McVay. Inheriting an unwatchable, stuck-in-the-mud, lifeless, vanilla Rams offense, McVay has succeeded everywhere Jeff Fisher could not. McVay's rapid and wondrous development of quarterback Jared Goff is somehow not the top storyline here when you consider the utter dominance of MVP candidate Todd Gurley on the ground. Both of these players were a flaming mess last season, but not inside McVay's fascinating offensive machine. Not unlike Patriots teams past and present, this season's Rams have the ability to score in bunches. There's scant playoff experience on this roster, but that simply doesn't matter with McVay at the wheel. This squad is ready to fly.
Weakness: One of the league's sauciest special-teams units has lost its ultra-reliable kicker. Greg Zuerlein was shipped to injured reserve with a back injury in late December, and his absence generated immediate on-field consequences -- and looms as a genuine concern. Signed-off-the-street booter Sam Ficken hails from a brokerage firm in Connecticut. No lie. While he nailed a pair of field goals in Sunday's loss to the Niners, Ficken also botched an extra point and missed a 36-yard attempt in a tight win over the Titansin Week 16. Color me concerned.
4) New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Strength (and Weakness?): This year's Saints are a new creation. After eons of relying almost exclusively on Drew Brees and the air game, New Orleans shredded teams on the ground in 2017 with the spicy combination of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. By the numbers, they're the first pair of teammate backs to each record 1,500-plus scrimmage yards. To the eyes, they're a brilliant meshing of rare individual gifts. Ingram runs with vicious authority, while Kamara is an eye-popping, unusual talent who wrecks teams weekly as a tackle-breaking, yards-after-the-catch receiving monster. The twosome leaves New Orleans as a dangerous entry in the NFC, but it's fair to ask if the Saints potentially peaked too soon. After averaging 166.9 ground yards per tilt from Week 6 through Week 13, the Saints have been held under 100 yards in three of their past four games. For success in January, the ground game must awaken in a hurry.
5) Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Strength: It's easy to think of the Panthers and just assume the defense is a beast, but this unit has allowed 24-plus points in eight games this season. They've done a solid job getting to the quarterback, though, with 18 sacks over their past five games. That included a whopping six takedowns each against the Bucsand Vikings. The Panthers have a shot if they can rattle the likes of Brees, Keenum and Goff when it matters most. I'd also point to a ground game that, when it's on, can pound away with Jonathan Stewart, a surging Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton doing Cam Newton-like things.
Weakness: Strange team. The Panthers impressively knocked off the Vikingsin Week 14, but they were also swept bythe Saints and dropped by the Bears. They barely escaped the Jets and looked utterly flat in Sunday's defeat to the Falcons -- even though a win would have handed them the NFC South. That loss had plenty to do with a passing offense suddenly bereft of breakaway speed after season-ending injuries to Damiere Byrdand Curtis Samuel. The effect was evident in Sunday's loss to Atlanta, with Newton hitting just 14 of 34 attempts for 180 yards with three picks. The Panthers are a rough-and-tumble group that can't be counted out, but they struggle to stand out in a loaded conference.
6) Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Strength: Experience. Roster continuity. Yes, that experience includes the harsh, lingering memories of the wildest Super Bowl collapse in Earth's history, but these are the same cast of players who made it that far a year ago. If this year's Falcons are imbued with an aura of disappointment, they also loom as a team that knocked off the Panthersand Saints over the past month. This isn't last year's team -- we get it -- but the conference's sixth seed has dark memories it is desperate to wipe away. That counts for something.
Weakness: Looking through the prism of Saturday's road tilt against the Rams, I don't see a team that can stay competitive if Los Angeles does what everyone expects: pour on points from beginning to end. The Rams have churned out a league-leading 29.9 points per game, with the ability to thrash defenses by land and through the air. It goes beyond the loss of Kyle Shanahan, with quarterback Matt Ryan simply not playing at least year's MVP level. Atlanta has scored under 25 points in five straight affairs, the Falcons' longest streak since 2015. I don't like the matchup.