The Redskins upset victory over Tampa Bay means the Bears will host the Panthers or Giants next Sunday. Here's one last look at both teams as they head into their matchup.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Giants coach Tom Coughlin has been here before.
In the NFL playoffs, that is.
He made his first appearance in 1990, when he was an assistant under Bill Parcells, and that Giants team went on to win Super Bowl XXV.
He was in the playoffs twice as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, twice earning a spot in the AFC Championship Game (and twice losing it). But it is the experience that counts as his Giants prepare for their first-round playoff game against Carolina.
Coughlin notes there is a definite difference during the playoffs in team attitude and intensity level, and he thinks it must be experienced before a player can truly understand the impact the playoffs have on a team.
"You need more from your playmakers," he said. "You need them to lift the team, to show the younger guys how to do it. And you must avoid penalties. You cannot shoot yourself in the foot; you cannot make those kinds of mistakes."
As to the opposition, Coughlin spoke only in superlatives.
"Carolina is a very physical team," he said. "Your mistakes are magnified against a team like that. You have to eliminate them. Carolina comes in with a plus-16 (turnover margin) and we are a plus-12. So both teams have an emphasis on takeaways and not giving the ball away. You can't be penalized. All of these things, and others, are magnified as you go into the playoffs."
Being at home, Coughlin admits, is a positive. "But you have to play smart and physical," he said, "or it doesn't much matter if the other team can take advantage of your mistakes."
NotesQB Eli Manning, who is still struggling but now has completed his first full season as a starter, finished with 3,762 yards and 24 touchdowns, completing 294 of 557 passes. He finished 10 attempts short of the team record and is now fifth in passing yards per season. "I feel I am playing more consistently now than earlier in the season," he said. "I still make some poor decisions but I feel like I'm managing the game better, seeing things well."
RB Tiki Barber came within 20 yards of the NFL rushing title, finishing with 1,860 yards (Seattle's Shaun Alexander had 1,860). "I think this team has a lot more talent than previous playoff teams," he said. "I know the quarterback (Manning) is a lot younger than the one we had in 2000 (Kerry Collins), "But he is very confident, he doesn't get flustered, so we know he's going to bring the same leadership he brought all season."
WR Amani Toomer, the nine-year veteran who was generally discounted this season, had a banner year as the "other wide receiver" to Plaxico Burress. "I had a good season and I had fun playing," he said. He finished with 60 receptions for 684 yards and seven touchdowns.
WLB Nick Greisen praised all the backup linebackers who have been juggled into the lineup throughout the season. "I think it's great," he said. "I told the guys that we can't be the weak link, that I know there are new guys and new faces, but we have all played football before." It is likely that Greisen will stay at WLB even if starting MLB Antonio Pierce (high ankle sprain) doesn't return, because freshly signed Kevin Lewis, the Giants' starter at MLB for all 16 games last season, was re-signed and played well in the season finale against Oakland.
Today's playoff game will have a little added meaning for Carolina Panthers coach John Fox.
Fox is back in New York, where he spent five seasons as the Giants' defensive coordinator before taking over as Panthers head coach in 2002.
Normally, Fox would give it the old this-is-just-another-game routine, but during the week he was surprisingly candid about his feelings.
"Any time I go back there, it brings back memories. I am very thankful to the late (co-owners) Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch for the opportunity they gave me," Fox said. "I had a good run there as an assistant coach.
"You are always going to have fond memories of places where you had success. As far as what it means in this exact game, this will be a tough game against a good football team at their place."
Both Mara and Tisch died of cancer during the 2005 NFL regular season.
"It's hard to believe in a short period of time - because they both were very, very healthy when I was there - that they are not on this earth any more," Fox said. "I know Jerry Richardson, my present team owner, was very close to them. Without the two of them, I'm not sure I'm sitting here (with this job)."
WR Steve Smith should be in for a big game against the Giants, especially if this one becomes a shootout. The Giants have only scored fewer than 20 points at the Meadowlands once this season, so the Panthers may have to put up some big-time points to win this game. He will return punts against New York this week. Smith returned a punt for a touchdown against the Giants in 2003, setting the tone for a Panthers rout.
WR Drew Carter continues to emerge as a much-needed deep threat for the Panthers and should see more action as the postseason arrives. Carter is much more effective than Keary Colbert, who adds little to the offense.
PK John Kasay seems to be kicking better the last two games, but we'll have to wait and see how he does in the cold New Jersey weather today.
DE Mike Rucker will have to come up huge for the Panthers in the playoffs for them to have a chance to win. Rucker should get a good push on today against a vulnerable Giants offensive line.
CB Ken Lucas continues to play well for the Panthers and will be counted on to shut down Plaxico Burress this week.