Total offense: 1st NFL; Total defense: 2nd NFL (Pittsburgh)
The Rams are getting ready to roll out the green carpet with good reason: Their aresenal is tailor-made for fast-paced turf. Given an "all things eaqual" scenario with no wind or ice to thold them back, St. Louis is putting up 400-plus yards per game. They earned homefield, but they may not even need it; the Rams were 8-0 on the road.
These weapons are no secret: St. Louis boasts the most potent passing attack in the NFL behind MVP Kurt Warner and his duo of 1,000-yard receivers. The Rams are anything but one dimensional with Marshall Faulk in the backfield. Warner left the 4,000-yard mark in the dust, plus the team is as healthy as it has been all season.
Team they LEAST want to see in the playoffs: San Francisco. The division rivals have the fire power to get into a shootout with the Rams, and the SF defense has improved. Still, no one really matches up well with St. Louis.
"People around the league don't like the Rams. Maybe it's the way we play football. That's the way they feel they can get at us, to snub us with Pro Bowl selections. But hey, we're still going to win the Super Bowl."
--LB London Fletcher
CHICAGO BEARS (13-3)
Total offense: 25th NFL, 11th NFC; Total defense: 6th NFL, 3rd NFC
The Bears have pelped put the black and blue back into the Central Division for its last hurrah. That means they're more than happy to put their top-notch run defense to the test, especially on familiar turf. The Bears have held opponents to a league-best 12.7 points per game this season. Chicago, however, is a stranger to post-season presssure. They have only one post-Ditka playoff appearance and that was in 1994. Their three losses have all come against playoff teams (Baltimore and Green Bay twice) , but they have fared well against two other post-season entrants with an early off-season OT win over San Fran and a sweep of the Buccaneers.
Team they LEAST want to see in the playoffs: Green Bay. No explanation needed!
GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-4)
A home game does wonders for Green Bay's chances. The Packers know what they have to do Sunday: Keep the Lambeau Field postseason unbeaten streak alive and settle a three-year-old score with San Francisco and Terrell Owens.
The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Niners came from behind to end the Packers' two-year Super Bowl streak and end Mike Holmgren's run of 5 years with at least one playoff victory (not to mention put a wrap on Holmgren's GB career).
Brett Favre is healthy, hungry, and exactly the type of player that wins in the post-season. San Francisco's defense has improved immensely, but the secondary may find themselves in the same spot the Giants did in the season finale: no match for Favre. Much depends on the offensive line and Green to pour it on, giving Favre room to breathe.
Green Bay's injury-riddled defense is the question mark. They've been porous against the run, and that's a scary thought with Garrison Hearst in the backfield. But with the return of Nate Wayne and now Gilbert Brown, there's hope.
Team the LEAST want to see in the playoffs: St. Louis. The TransWorld Dome is the worst invitation in the league next week.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-4)
Total offense: 5th NFL, 2nd NFC. Total defense: 18th NFL, 9th NFC
The Niners feature an offensive package that, while not as awesome as the Rams', is a force for defenses to reckon with. RB Garrison Hearst and WR Terrell Owens are capable of posting incredible numbers. So is QB Jeff Garcia, but the buzz on this team lately has been coach Steve Mariucci's lack of creativity on offense. With two shutouts in December, San Francisco has seen its defense climb the NFL ladder. But can they stop Favre and Green? The Niners may find that a little more difficult than taking on the hapless Saints.
Team they LEAST want to see in the playoffs: GREEN BAY. Tough first round draw, a trip to Lambeau. That's the first, and maybe last step on SF's tough playoff road. The best they can hope for if they win is that Tampa will come through, thus sending the SF-GB winner to Chicago rather than St. Louis.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6)
They say defense wins championships and Philly's numbers are impressive. They Eagles have allowed just 13 points per game, second-best in the league and lowest by an Eagles defense since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Philly has also help opponents to 200 yards passing per game. Their 37 forced fumbles lead the league. But Philadelphia's best defense may be behind them. The run D took a turn for the worst in the second half of the season and the bad news keeps on coming. DE Hollis Thomas was placed on IR after undergoing surgery to repair a broken foot. The offensive outlook is brighter. Donovan McNabb is heating up at just the right time.
Team they LEAST want to see in the playoffs: St. Louis. With an injury-ridden defense, this is a nightmare matchup.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-7)
Total offense: 24th NFL, 12 NFC. Total defense: 7th NFL, 4th NFC
The Bucs face a tough road. Tampa's offense, even with the power-running Mike Alstott and the dangerous Keyshawn Johnson, the may not be able to take advantage of the injury-induced holes in Philly's defense. Warren Sapp is a season veteran who will lead this strong, stingy defense, but that may not be enough.
Team they LEAST want to see in the playoffs: St. Louis/Chicago Bears. Both defenses would shut down the Tampa attack.