The journey began back in the spring, with offseason workouts and minicamps. Then came training-camp practices, staged in the heat of summer. Those were followed by 65 meaningless preseason games played in August and early September. We enjoyed 256 regular-season games played throughout the fall.
And now it all comes down to this, the NFL's second season. Just 12 of the NFL's 32 teams are still alive, and only 11 games (not including the Pro Bowl) remain to be played.
For the playoff participants — and the loyal fans who live and die with their favorite team's every play — only one game really matters: Super Bowl XLIV, set to be played Feb. 7 in Dolphin Stadium in South Florida.
PFW takes a look at each of the playoff teams, analyzing their offenses and defenses, identifying a key player to watch and speculating on what it will take for each team to win the NFL title game.
Here are the NFC teams, in the order in which they are seeded:
1. New Orleans Saints
13-3 / NFC South champion
Keys to offense: After functioning as pretty much a one-dimensional offense over the past couple of years, the Saints achieved a balance between their passing and rushing attacks in 2009. New Orleans is almost unbeatable when Drew Brees has time to throw and the three-pronged backfield of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell is picking up 4-5 yards per carry. That being said, the Saints' offense needs to get back to how it was playing a few weeks back. Brees is good in predictable passing situations, but the passing game is even more potent when defenses have to guard against the run, as well.
Keys to defense: Coordinator Gregg Williams' defense needs to tighten up against the run, or else the Saints could be one-and-done. DTs Sedrick Ellis, Remi Ayodele and Anthony Hargrove must do a better job of knocking offensive linemen backward and closing off gaps. Williams' overhaul of the "D" morphed New Orleans into a playmaking unit that pressured quarterbacks and consistently disoriented offenses through the first half of the season, but it has regressed in the second half of the campaign, thanks in part to injuries. Getting back CB Jabari Greer, who has been out since Week Nine while recovering from a sports hernia, would be a big boost for the team.
Player to watch: Reggie Bush is just a bit player in the Saints' offense, but he still has big-play potential. Dating back to last season, New Orleans has won the last eight games in which Bush has scored a touchdown.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... opposing defenses allow Brees and his receivers to make big plays. The Saints can win games in other ways, but if a team can't stop Brees, it won't have much of a chance. The defense has to clean up some of its issues, as well, for New Orleans to win a title.
2. Minnesota Vikings
12-4 / NFC North champion
Keys to offense: Finding the balance between run and pass is what led this team to a 10-1 start. It dominated up front, limited turnovers and made big plays in the passing game, especially to Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe. RB Adrian Peterson has the capability of being a horse in the playoffs, able to bust out at a moment's notice; the Vikings have to continue giving him the ball. If the offensive line can regain its earlier form, this will be a tough team to stop from scoring.
Keys to defense: The front four needs NT Pat Williams to overcome his elbow injury and anchor the middle. DE Jared Allen is being worn down by constant double-teams and plays run right at him. The team must not put MLB Jasper Brinkley in bad positions, as he was in Week 16, biting on play-action fakes and overshooting gaps. CB Antoine Winfield also has struggled since coming back from a toe injury, appearing to have trouble changing direction, stopping and planting. At his size, he needs that ability restored.
Player to watch: It might be the obvious choice, but there's no other player with more eyes fixed on him than QB Brett Favre. He has ridden the wave this season from the highest of highs to some recent struggles, including one of power with head coach Brad Childress. Favre's game against the Bears in Week 16 — awful in the first half, tremendous in the second — appears to encapsulate his season with recent perspective. He can carry this team on his back all the way to Miami or be the reason it loses its first postseason game. It's anyone's guess which Favre we'll see.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they regain the offensive firepower they had through Week 12 and cover up some of the defensive shortcomings they have, with starting MLB E.J. Henderson injured and with a limited secondary.
3. Dallas Cowboys
11-5 / NFC East champion
Keys to offense: They are most explosive when they are getting the ball into Miles Austin's hands, so the Cowboys must be sure to accomplish that even as defenses are figuring out they must slant coverage his way. Short-yardage situations also have been a bugaboo in recent games, and the Cowboys can't afford to miss on third- and fourth-down conversions with the running backs they have. Their massive offensive line could get a boost from the return of ORT Marc Colombo, but bigger blockers tend to wear down this time of year. They have to dominate in the run game and keep QB Tony Romo clean and upright.
Keys to defense: Creating turnovers — no playoff-bound team forced fewer than their 21 — will need to be more of a priority. The Cowboys are strong against the run and don't allow teams too many red-zone possessions (an average of two per game), but they have been too easy to score on from down there, allowing 18 TDs in 32 possessions inside the 20 (56.3 percent). The cornerbacks will be tested by more talented receivers, so they must hold up in man coverage as the Cowboys will want to use five- and six-man pressures to force the action if the offense leaves too many points on the field.
Player to watch: It's Romo's team now, and he's playing some of his best football ever. Will he keep it up? He's going to need some help for sure, but staying focused on the task in front of him and not letting outside distractions and pressure get to him are high on his priority list. He has the talent and the guts to lead this team to the promised land, and he's squarely the guy in the crosshairs now.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they forget the critics and simply play up to their talent. Really. Some believe this quietly might be the most dangerous team in the playoff field, capable of putting it all together in January.
4. Arizona Cardinals
10-6 / NFC West champion
Keys to offense: Although the Cardinals remain at their best in three- and four-WR formations featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet, a late bloomer who is just now starting to make his presence felt, the key to their postseason success will be a ground game that is much stronger than the 2008 version. If they can hang on to the ball, RBs Chris "Beanie" Wells and Tim Hightower provide an effective one-two punch, with Hightower adding an extra dimension as an effective receiver out of the backfield. QB Kurt Warner needs to remain upright and will need better protection than he has received lately from OTs Jeremy Bridges and Levi Brown.
Keys to defense: The Cardinals need DT Darnell Dockett, ILB Karlos Dansby and SS Adrian Wilson to turn it up a notch in the playoffs the same way they did last season. Somebody besides Dockett must provide steady pressure, perhaps second-year DE Calais Campbell, who has exceeded expectations in adeptly replacing the departed Antonio Smith. The defense also must eliminate its tendency to allow long runs. ILB Gerald Hayes, who just hasn't looked right late in the season, needs to step it up. So does rookie Rashad Johnson, pressed into service as the dime back in place of the injured Matt Ware.
Player to watch: Fitzgerald has received a lot more extra attention this season. Nonetheless, the Cardinals believe they have just missed connecting on a handful of vintage Fitzgerald plays in recent weeks. Don't be surprised if he saves his best for last, for the second year in a row.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they can avoid making costly turnovers and falling behind on offense and not implode at the most inopportune times on defense — like they did in Super Bowl XLIII.
5. Green Bay Packers
11-5 / Second place in NFC North
Keys to offense: QB Aaron Rodgers must get rid of the ball quickly and not force the issue. Rodgers must use all of the weapons he has at his disposal and try to direct a balanced attack with both his arms and his legs. The offensive line has shown great improvement in recent weeks and must keep it up in the playoffs. RB Ryan Grant, who has come on strong of late, needs to provide big plays in the run game. WR Greg Jennings must do the same thing in the passing game. Creative usage of talented TE Jermichael Finley, a matchup nightmare, must continue.
Keys to defense: Dom Capers' unit must continue forcing lots of turnovers and keep offenses guessing with blitz packages from different angles featuring different defenders. NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson will be responsible for primarily covering the opponent's best receiver, whether it's a wide receiver or tight end. The biggest concern is a very vulnerable secondary in nickel and dime packages. Green Bay's run defense, which has been stellar most of the time, must keep it up. With NT Ryan Pickett hindered by hamstring problems down the stretch, first-round draft pick B.J. Raji might have to pick up the slack up front.
Player to watch: It will be very interesting to see if Rodgers proves worthy of his first Pro Bowl berth in the postseason, especially if the chips fall in such a way that he ends up facing former Packers legend and fellow NFC Pro Bowler Brett Favre for the third time this season. A strong postseason by Rodgers could remove the specter of Favre from Packerland once and for all.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... Rodgers gets on a real postseason roll that builds up steam with increasingly strong performances — right up to the big game in Miami.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
11-5 / Second place in NFC East
Keys to offense: The spread-it-around plan mostly has worked wonders this season, as DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Brian Westbrook, Jason Avant, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Weaver and others have made Donovan McNabb's job a lot easier. The offensive line has been battered by injuries all season, the latest being C Jamaal Jackson's season-ending knee injury. This group must play near top form for the offense to continue humming, and the good news is that the backups filling in are talented and somewhat experienced. And McNabb must avoid the curious mini-slumps that have cropped up in patches here and there in recent games.
Keys to defense: Despite ranking high against the run and pass in terms of yards allowed, the Eagles can be scored upon. Although it has been excellent on third downs all season, the red-zone defense has allowed opponents to score touchdowns 59.1 percent of the time. Its sacks and takeaways tend to come in bunches, so it must continue to play aggressively. The Eagles have made changes at linebacker, netting mixed results. They especially must tackle and cover better for the "D" to regain its edge.
Player to watch: Westbrook likely won't be the player he was even last season, but he still could play a valuable role. Many backs struggle to produce big plays when their reps and touches have been reduced, so it will be interesting to see how the Eagles plan to use him in the postseason and whether he can find a rhythm while sharing carries with McCoy and Weaver.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they play up to the competition. Four of the Eagles' five losses have come to strong playoff teams (Cowboys twice, Saints and Chargers), but you can't pinpoint a great victory over a very good team.
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