NFC playoffs: The six survivors

The second season is here, and here's a look at each team participating in the NFC playoffs as the six survivors begin preparation for the postseason with wild-card weekend looming.

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DALLAS COWBOYS
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It will not be a happy Cowboys team headed to Seattle for the wild-card playoffs.

The Cowboys went from leading the NFC East and possibly a second seed in the NFC playoffs to three embarrassing home losses in the final four games, capped by a regular-season beatdown by the 3-13 Detroit Lions.

Turmoil and disgust and disappointment surround the team, which heads to the playoffs with more questions than answers.

--- Quarterback Tony Romo has gone from a sensation to regression.

--The defense simply can't rush the passer or cover receivers.

--And coach Bill Parcells has no answers.

The Cowboys have no momentum and little confidence. But as bad as it seems the Cowboys are not without hope. Seattle is an opportunity for them to start a new season and put their abject December in the past.

Frustrated as he is, Parcells said, "I am not apologizing for being in the playoffs." Said linebacker Bradie James: "We are a playoff team. The record speaks for itself. It's disappointing because you set the bar so high and you crash in December. I can't figure that out. We don't know what to expect. But we are still playing. That's all the hope you need."

While teams don't usually remake themselves from being mistake prone to perfect in one week, the Cowboys don't have to be perfect in the post-season to have some success.

The NFC playoff chase is filled with teams who share in their misery of playing their worst football in December. The Seahawks have just one win in their last four games.

It also helps that the Cowboys are playing on the road. They had a better record on the road than they did at home in 2006. And they are very familiar with playing in Seattle.

This will be their fifth trip to the Northwest in the last three seasons. The Cowboys played at Seattle during the regular season in 2004 and 2005. They also played preseason games in Seattle in 2005 and 2006.

"You always want to play at home," Romo said. "Obviously we haven't played great at home lately. You never know. This team focuses well on the road. For some reason, we step off the bus ready to go sometimes. Hopefully that will take shape this week."

PLAYER NOTES
--- QB Tony Romo has had eight interceptions and seven fumbles in the past five games. Coach Bill Parcells said Romo has been careless with the football because he has been overconfident. "Sometimes when everybody is feeding you the cheese it's hard not to eat it," Parcells said.
--- RB Julius Jones again complained about his role in the offense. He had only one carry in the second half against the Lions, which has been a trend over the second half of the season. But Jones has hope things will change against the Seahawks. He ran 30 times for 198 yards and three touchdowns at Seattle as a rookie in 2004.
--- WR Terrell Owens had a league-high 17 dropped passes and a league-high 13 touchdown receptions in 2006. The 13 touchdowns were the second most in club history behind Frank Clark's 14 in 1962. Bob Hayes had 13 in 1966.
--- LB Bobby Carpenter will make his second start against the Seahawks on Saturday. The rookie top pick got his first start against the Lions in place of Al Singleton. He had two tackles and broke up a pass.
--- CB Terence Newman allowed only two touchdown passes this year. CB Anthony Henry had 23 pass deflections, the most by a Cowboys defensive back since 1984. Safety Roy Williams intercepted five passes. But those were hollow numbers for a Dallas defense that ranked 24th in pass defense and gave up 25 touchdown passes this season.

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NEW YORK GIANTS
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The Giants, however unlikely, reached the playoffs. They are the only 8-8 team in either conference to do so, and as a reward they get to take a short trip down the New Jersey Turnpike to play the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles.

They got in by the barest of margins, seeing as how there were three other teams that finished with the same record -- Carolina, Green Bay and St. Louis. In all, there were eight 8-8 teams, and the four from the AFC -- Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Tennessee -- failed to earn a wild-card spot, too.

So the Giants will play the Eagles, a team they have already beaten once this season, a team that might rank as their hottest, most intense rival (Dallas notwithstanding), and now the intriguing question comes up almost unbidden.

What if they win?

They can, of course. They did it once this season and the rematch wasn't that far off. The Eagles won, 36-22, but with a few minutes left it was just 29-22, a touchdown apart, until a pass thrown by Eli Manning was picked off and turned into the cushion.

"We are in the playoffs and at this point all the teams that made it have the same record," said weak-side linebacker Brandon Short. "We're all 0-0, and now we go from here. You know, the playoffs don't mean that much. Lots of teams get there. What really counts is that nobody is happy until they get to hold that Vince Lombardi Trophy over their heads. Then it's real."

The Giants know they won't have Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, who was placed on injured reserve last week. But some of the others who were on the inactive list last Saturday night in Washington -- guard/center Rich Seubert, tight end Jeremy Shockey, for instance -- should be ready to go against the Eagles. It will be the third meeting of the season between these two rivals, and the winner, as Short says, will leave with a 1-0 record.

PLAYER NOTES
--- TE Jeremy Shockey (sprained ankle) missed the game against the Redskins and didn't even make the trip with the team. Considering his enthusiasm and fiery behavior, this seemed odd at the time. "We told him not to come down," said head coach Tom Coughlin. "We wanted to make sure he was not standing on the sideline for the entire game. He needed to rest the ankle."
--- WLB Brandon Short has a theory on why the Eagles have played so well lately; they lost QB Donovan McNabb. "I know that sounds silly," he said, "but when Donovan went down, and he is absolutely one of the top quarterbacks in the league, it forced them to run the ball more with (Brian) Westbrook. He's been terrific. Then (Jeff) Garcia started to show he could do the job and now they are more well-balanced."
--- RT Kareem McKenzie acknowledges that Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter talks a lot, agrees that most of it is done to antagonize the other side, but adds this: "I don't pay attention to Trotter or anybody else," he said. "I try to do what I can to help my team win. We're a different team now. We made it through all the struggles and trials and we're here in the playoffs. You know, it's funny how your confidence rises with just one win."
--- RB Tiki Barber finished his last regular-season game with the best game of his illustrious career. He carried 23 times for 234 yards and scored three TDs on runs of 55, 50 and 15 yards. "Now I'd like to have the best game of my playoff career," he smiled, "like maybe two or three times before I really retire." Barber had 1,662 yards for the season, his second-best year (1,860 last season). He finished second in NFC rushing to San Francisco's Frank Gore and was fourth in NFL rushing behind LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and Gore.
--- QB Eli Manning is drawing that left-handed compliment more and more from coach Tom Coughlin. You know the one: "Eli doesn't have big numbers but he is managing the games well." He would just as soon have a big game, however. "I'm the quarterback, it's my job to lead," he said. For the season, Manning completed 301 passes in 522 attempts for 3,244 yards, 24 TDs and 18 interceptions. His completion percentage of 57.7 was better than last year's 52.8 and his passer rating of 77.0 was better than last year's 75.9 -- but barely.
--- LT Bob Whitfield, who had filled in for the injured Luke Petitgout since Nov. 12, was benched last Saturday against Washington in a move that put LG David Diehl in the position and sent veteran Grey Ruegamer to start at left guard.
--- WR Plaxico Burress led the Giants in receiving yardage (988) and TDs (10). He was second to TE Jeremy Shockey in receptions, 66 to 63.
--- RB Brandon Jacobs, who was second in TDs with nine, spoke about Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter. "He really believes all the things he says," he smiled. "He's a good player and he has a lot of confidence. But so do we."
--- K Jay Feely, who had two field goals in two attempts against the Redskins, finished with 107 points for the season and missed only four of 27 field-goal tries.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
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Two days after kicker David Akers missed a 23-yard field-goal attempt against Atlanta, the Eagles brought back his former holder, quarterback Koy Detmer, Tuesday.

The 33-year-old Detmer spent nine seasons with the Eagles, including six as Akers' holder, before getting released in early September. Punter Dirk Johnson replaced Detmer as Akers' holder this season. Akers never made it a secret that he missed Detmer, and he clearly didn't kick with the same confidence this season, missing five of his 23 attempts.

Making matters worse, the Eagles' long snapper, Mike Bartrum, injured his neck in late November and was placed on injured reserve. He has been replaced by Jon Dorenbos.

The 23-yard miss against the Falcons was partly the fault of Dorenbos, who snapped the ball high, and partly the fault of Johnson, who had trouble getting the snap down. When he did, the laces on the ball were facing Akers. The kick hit the right upright. It was the first field-goal miss of less than 30 yards in Akers' career.

The Eagles are expected to carry all three of their quarterbacks -- starter Jeff Garcia, backup A.J. Feeley and Detmer -- on their active roster for Sunday's playoff game against the Giants so that Detmer can hold for Akers. To make room for Detmer on the 53-man roster, the Eagles released cornerback/running back Bruce Perry.

PLAYER NOTES
--- QB Koy Detmer was signed by the Eagles Tuesday. He will replace punter Dirk Johnson as K David Akers' holder. Detmer handled those duties for six years before getting released before the season.
--- K David Akers, who missed a 23-yard field goal in Sunday's win over Atlanta, will have a new holder this week. Koy Detmer was signed Tuesday to replace Dirk Johnson as Akers' holder.
--- DE Juqua Thomas strained his calf Sunday against Atlanta and is questionable for Sunday's playoff game against the Giants. The Eagles are hopeful he'll be OK by Sunday, but said he probably won't practice Wednesday.
--- RB Correll Buckhalter is nursing a calf strain that has put his availability for Sunday's playoff game against the Giants in jeopardy. Buckhalter, who backs up Brian Westbrook, rushed for 48 yards on eight carries against the Giants three weeks ago.
--- CB William James, who has missed the last three games with a strained calf, may play Sunday against his old team, the Giants. If he is close to 100 percent, the Eagles will match him up a lot against the Giants' 6-5 wideout, Plaxico Burress.

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CHICAGO BEARS
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With two head coaching vacancies already created and more possible, Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera could be in line for a promotion and a change of address soon.

Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn't want to lose Rivera, but he'll do all he can to further his career.

"I think he'll make an excellent head football coach," Smith said. "I have the same approach that I've taken every year I've been here. I'm the head football coach of the Chicago Bears right now based on my head coach at the time, (the Rams') Mike Martz, doing everything he possibly could to help me get the job. I'll do the same thing for Ron Rivera."

Smith said there's a pride factor that comes with having your assistants become head coaches in the league.

"I'm proud to be a part of Tony Dungy's and Mike Martz's tree," he said, "and that would definitely be a sense of pride for me for one of the guys on our staff to become a head coach."

PLAYER NOTES
--- RB Cedric Benson had 59 carries (for 275 yards) in the final four regular-season games, 10 more than starter Thomas Jones (233 yards on 49 carries).
--- QB Rex Grossman had 18 interceptions in his six worst games, more picks than all but two NFL quarterbacks had the entire season. But Grossman had just two interceptions in the other 10 games he started.
--- WR Muhsin Muhammad had just 14 catches for 231 yards in the final five regular-season games.
--- KR Devin Hester has averaged just 7.5 yards on punt returns and 19.7 on kickoff returns over the final three regular-season games after he took two kickoff returns to the house against the Rams on Dec. 11. During that time Hester also was forced into the defensive lineup as the nickel corner because of injuries.
--- WR Bernard Berrian has 19 catches for only 176 yards in the last five regular-season games.

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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
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The Saints won't know until late Sunday afternoon who their opponent will be in the NFC Divisional playoff game to be played the weekend of Jan. 13-14 in the Superdome.

Because of the general uncertainty, the Saints (10-6) were able to clear their minds and completely get away from things after Sunday's meaningless 31-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale.

Thanks to the first-round bye they achieved, the Saints were given a three-day holiday by coach Sean Payton. They were off Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and they'll return on Thursday to what is a normal Monday schedule -- with a team meeting, film review, weightlifting session and running on the agenda.

With nothing to play for, the Saints rested many of their starters and pulled most of the others in the final three quarters of the loss to the Panthers. With three more days off, Payton expects them to return to work refreshed and refocused for the second season.

It's a departure from the regular-season bye week when Payton worked his team early in the week, then gave them the weekend off. When they returned from the bye, they were trounced by the Baltimore Ravens, 35-22, which triggered a stretch in which they lost three of four games.

"I think it's a little unique in that we don't even know when we play in two weeks," Payton said before rewarding his team. "We'll start up Thursday because I don't want them traveling next weekend."

The only thing the Saints knew when they left Sunday afternoon was that they'll play against either the third (Philadelphia Eagles), fourth (Seattle Seahawks) or fifth (Dallas Cowboys) seed when they return to the field.

If the Eagles beat the Giants in the wild-card round on Sunday, the Eagles will come to the Superdome to face the Saints. But if the sixth-seeded New York Giants upset the Eagles, they would face the No. 1 seed Chicago Bears and the Saints would get the survivor of the Cowboys-Seahawks game.

The Saints will practice Friday and possibly Saturday, depending on if they play the divisional playoff game the following Saturday or Sunday.

"We'll see where we are with our time frame," Payton said. "A lot of it has to do with them getting ready for the weekend and not having to worry about guys getting in for the start of the work week."

PLAYER NOTES
--- QB Drew Brees completed 4 of 5 passes for 46 yards with a long gain of 25 yards before leaving Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers at the 5:31 mark of the first quarter. Brees' only incompletion was a dropped touchdown in the back of the end zone by tight end John Owens.
--- RB Reggie Bush had three carries for 20 yards and a 1-yard TD in about one quarter of work in the Saints' 31-21 loss to the Panthers. Bush also caught two passes for 13 yards.
--- WR Marques Colston played only briefly and did not have a catch in the loss to the Panthers.
--- WR Jamal Jones made the first start of his NFL career in place of injured receivers Joe Horn and Terrance Copper and had three receptions for 69 yards with a career-long catch of 41 yards.
--- TE Billy Miller was in the starting lineup in place of Mark Campbell and had three catches for 33 yards with a long of 22.
--- SLB Terrence Melton led the Saints with eight total tackles in the loss to the Panthers.
--- FS Bryant Scott had seven solo tackles while playing the final three quarters against the Panthers.
--- MLB Danny Clark saw his most extensive action since joining the Saints and recorded seven total tackles in Sunday's game.
--- QB Jamie Martin took his first snaps of the season after replacing Drew Brees in the first quarter Sunday. Martin was 16-of-24 for 208 yards with one TD and one interception and a long pass of 65 yards, finishing with a passer rating of 90.3. He was sacked five times and lost one fumble.
--- RB Jamaal Branch, a former practice-squad player, played in his first NFL game and scored his first TD on a 7-yard catch from QB Jamie Martin. He ran 10 times for 29 yards with a long gain of nine yards and had a team-high five receptions for 14 yards.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks placed cornerbacks Kelly Herndon and Jimmy Williams on injured reserve Tuesday, ending their seasons. The moves had been expected, but they were hard to take for a team already missing starting corner Marcus Trufant.

Seattle's defensive staff is preparing a game plan around newly signed corners who have not yet shown what they can do. Rich Gardner, signed last week, was inactive in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Pete Hunter, signed Tuesday, is a former Cowboys draft choice who hasn't played in the league this season.

The team also signed veteran free safety John Howell, but his contributions will most likely be on special teams. The Seahawks have another option in practice-squad corner Gerard Ross. He has been with the team all season, but there's no compelling reason to sign him to the active roster this early in the week.

Coaches will watch Gardner, Hunter, Howell and Ross in practice before determining for sure which players will play which roles in the wild-card game against Dallas on Saturday.

"We have to get a feel for Pete Hunter and don't forget that Gerard Ross is in that mix," defensive coordinator John Marshall said. "It's a tough situation that Mike (Holmgren) and Tim (Ruskell) and the defensive staff, we're going to have to come up with decisions of who is going to be where.

"You have to do that on a daily basis, what you see."

Hunter was living near the Cowboys' facility when the Seahawks called him Monday. They brought him in for a workout Tuesday morning and put him on the practice field that afternoon. He could be the nickel corner against his former team. Hunter is 6-feet-2 and 208 pounds, giving Seattle another big body to send at Terrell Owens.

"He's got good size and his footwork is good," Marshall said. "He's in shape. He has veteran knowledge of the game. He has started in the league and played in a lot of other games.

"In his workout, he moved around real well. His redirection, his plant and drive, we felt that was what we needed."

Babineaux and rookie Kelly Jennings will start against the Cowboys. Babineaux started the final four games at corner last season. He started much of this season at strong safety. His future is at safety, but he's versatile enough to play the corner in a pinch. He also has the size to match up with bigger receivers.

"He's a good, physical player," Marshall said. "He's smart. He can handle that and he's going to be a fine safety. But we're very happy he can handle the corner position too."

Babineaux's late interception of Drew Bledsoe helped Seattle score a dramatic victory over the Cowboys last season. Jennings was starting for the University of Miami at the time. He's a smaller corner with good speed and technique. He had been playing left corner in the nickel defense, with Herndon moving to the inside corner position.

PLAYER NOTES
--- QB Matt Hasselbeck is not wearing his knee brace in practice, but the team has him wear it in games. Hasselbeck missed four games to a sprained MCL earlier in the season. The knee has healed enough for Hasselbeck to pick up yards with the occasional scramble. Wearing the brace in games gives him some extra protection.
--- RB Shaun Alexander has shown he can carry the ball 30 or even 40 times in a game without wearing down. There were some concerns upon Alexander's return from a broken foot. Those concerns have been put to rest emphatically. What Seattle needs is for Alexander to run with the determination he showed against San Diego two weeks ago.
--- FB Mack Strong has finished the season strong, helping Seattle rediscover its running game. Strong is best when he's blocking and not asked to catch so many passes.
--- WR Nate Burleson is getting fewer snaps in the offense now that Bobby Engram is back from a thyroid condition. Burleson remains the kick returner and punt returner. He has played well in those roles.
--- TE Jerramy Stevens caught 11 passes in the final three regular-season games. The team has used more two-receiver sets with a tight end in recent weeks. That means more opportunities for Stevens.
--- WR Deion Branch is catching the ball much better after suffering from four drops against San Diego two weeks ago. He took the blame for the loss to the Chargers. Given Branch's mental makeup, he is expected to continue catching the ball well.
--- WR Darrell Jackson is not practicing this week and might not play against the Cowboys on Saturday. He has a turf-toe injury that could be nagging. A timetable for his return is not known.
--- WR D.J. Hackett did not practice Tuesday. He suffered what the team called a groin injury against Tampa Bay last week. Hackett is expected to play against the Cowboys on Saturday.
--- LB Julian Peterson collected his 10th sack of the season in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. That is a career high. The crowd noise at Qwest Field will help him get off the ball quickly in the wild-card game against Dallas on Saturday.
--- SS Jordan Babineaux is back in the starting lineup at cornerback because of injuries. Babineaux started at corner in the final four games of the 2005 season.
--- CB Kelly Herndon landed on injured reserve Tuesday with a knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale. He should be ready for training camp next season.

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