Thanks to the return of Aaron Rodgers, the NFC playoff field became even tougher.
Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to a come-from-behind, 33-28 victory over the Chicago Bears to win the NFC North. Overall, the NFC playoff teams finished strong. All six won on an exciting final Sunday that featured an overtime win by the San Francisco 49ers, a dramatic one-point win by the Carolina Panthers to clinch the No. 2 seed and the Philadelphia Eagles' NFC East-clinching victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
"This has been a wild season," Rodgers said after the victory. "We're in right now, hosting a playoff game. I think the NFC is wide-open."
As expected, though, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through No. 1 seed Seattle, where the crowd is crazy and the defense is even crazier.
On Saturday, the New Orleans Saints visit Philadelphia. On Sunday, the 49ers go to Lambeau Field to face Green Bay.
Carolina, Philadelphia and New Orleans are the new teams in the NFC playoffs, while Seattle, Green Bay and San Francisco are returning.
Here are 10 questions worth asking as the NFC postseason begins:
1. What is the carry-over effect from last season's NFC playoffs? Last season, four of the six NFC playoff quarterbacks were young and making their postseason debuts. Two return with some pretty good seasoning. Colin Kaepernick, who took the 49ers within one completion of winning Super Bowl XLVII, returns as a No. 5 seed. Kaepernick averaged 34.7 points in his three playoff games last season. Russell Wilson beat Robert Griffin III in last season's wild-card round and almost pulled off a win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. RG III and Christian Ponder of the Minnesota Vikings didn't make it back to the playoffs. The NFC is a young quarterback conference: Cam Newton and Nick Foles are 24; the senior citizens are 30-year-old Rodgers and 34-year-old Drew Brees of the Saints.
2. Can home-field advantage be the ticket to the Super Bowl? For the past three years, No. 1 seeds in the NFC have failed to take advantage of their situations. The Falcons and 49ers lost championship games on their home turf the past two seasons. The Falcons also blew the No. 1 seed in 2010 by losing to Green Bay in the divisional round. The last NFC team to convert home field into a trip to the Super Bowl was the 2009 New Orleans Saints. That said, the Seahawks have great odds of going to the Super Bowl. Everything broke their way this season. They opened on the road with a win over the No. 2-seeded Panthers, who were just figuring out how to win with Newton. The Seahawks' final road trip of the season was a 23-0 victory over the Giants in the Meadowlands, site of Super Bowl XLVIII. And over the past two years, the Seahawks are 15-1 at home. CenturyLink holds the outdoor sports record for crowd noise. Since the opening of the stadium, opposing teams have had more false starts on offense than at any other stadium in the NFL. Quarterbacks struggle in Seattle, and that could be a problem for young quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Newton and others.
3. What is the biggest strategic difference in the NFC compared to the AFC? Unlike the AFC, a conference that had only one division winner with a 1,000-yard halfback, the NFC continues to stress the run. The Seahawks pound it with Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers pound it with Frank Gore. Even though DeAngelo Williams had a subpar, 843-yard season, the Panthers stress the run. Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina are three of the top four teams in football in run percentage. Even the Packers are more of a running team than in the past thanks to the emergence of rookie Eddie Lacy. That strategy goes against the overall league trend, but it is effective. The Seahawks won 13 games this season, while the Panthers and 49ers each won 12. Leaguewide, there were only 93 100-yard rushing games by backs, compared to 121 last year and 129 in 2011. That's a 23 percent drop-off from last season. Not one back averaged 20 carries per game, but the winning teams in the NFC -- for the most part -- had the successful running backs.
4. What's the biggest headache for defensive coordinators? No doubt, it's the combination of the read-option and the running quarterbacks. Newton had 585 rushing yards on 111 carries and six touchdowns. Wilson had 596 yards on 96 carries. Kaepernick had 524 yards on 92 carries. Even though he missed eight games with a fractured collarbone, Rodgers can break a long run, particularly when he sees man coverage and his first couple of reads in the progression are coverage.
5. It is considered a quarterback's league, but what is the value of coaching? Coaching is huge in the NFC. Some of the highest-paid coaches made the playoffs. Sean Payton of the Saints makes $8 million a year. Pete Carroll of the Seahawks makes $6.5 million. Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers is on a five-year, $25 million contract, and he's already turned down a more lucrative extension. Mike McCarthy of the Packers makes around $5 million a year. The only bargains are Carolina's Ron Rivera and Philadelphia's Chip Kelly, who are on their first head-coaching contracts around $2.8 million a year. In the NFC, the top teams got what they paid for. Carroll has made the Seahawks the deepest team in football. Harbaugh took the talent that was built by Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and turned it into a Super Bowl contender for the third straight year. The return of Payton, suspended in 2012 because of the bounty scandal, brought the Saints back to the playoffs.
6. What are the playoff records of the quarterbacks? The only NFC quarterbacks without a playoff win are Newton and Foles, who are making their postseason debuts. Rodgers is 5-3 and has a Super Bowl ring. Brees is the most seasoned with a 5-4 record, including a Super Bowl victory, but he hasn't won a road game. Kaepernick is 2-1. Wilson is 1-1.
7. What's missing in the NFC playoffs? Star power at wide receiver. None of the eight selected Pro Bowl wide receivers is represented. A few Pro Bowl alternates are around, such as Jordy Nelson of the Packers, Anquan Boldin of the 49ers and DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. This set of NFC participants proved that teams can do well without top receivers. The Seahawks, for example, earned the No. 1 seed despite losing their No. 1 receiver, Sidney Rice, to injury and getting only one catch from Percy Harvin after signing him to a $61 million contract. Michael Crabtree of the 49ers and Randall Cobb of the Packers missed half the season, but both teams are here. The Packers also survived the departure of Greg Jennings to Minnesota.
8. How have the teams matched up this season? The Packers have a chance to avenge their season-opening loss in San Francisco. This time, they will face the 49ers in Green Bay. If there are any divisional rematches, the Seahawks and 49ers split their games, with the home teams winning. The same goes for the Panthers and Saints. Both Carolina and New Orleans beat the 49ers. Seattle had a road win at the beginning of the season in Carolina and blew out the Saints in Seattle.
9. Which injuries should be watched during the playoffs? The Panthers got a break by clinching a bye and buying an extra week for wide receiver Steve Smith to recover from a sprained PCL in his left knee. Those injuries usually take two to four weeks to heal, so the Panthers have a chance of having him back for their divisional-round game. The bye also could allow halfback Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) to play. The Seahawks might not have Harvin (hip) or linebacker K.J. Wright (foot surgery) for their divisional game, and backup tight end Luke Willson has a high-ankle sprain. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane suffered a hip injury Sunday, but he has time to recover. The Saints, Eagles and 49ers are healthy, although 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers was banged up Sunday. He's having an MRI on his hamstring. If he can't play, Eric Wright will get the start. The Packers won't have linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) and had linebacker Brad Jones sit out the season finale with an ankle injury.
10. Who will make it to the NFC Championship Game? The Seahawks and Panthers have the best chances, which puts a lot of pressure on Newton to try to win in Seattle. The Saints have struggled too much on the road to think they can win two games to get to the title game. In fact, if the Saints beat Philadelphia, they would have to play in Seattle, where they were blown out in Week 13. I could see the 49ers beating the Packers.