3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, South)
6. DETROIT LIONS (10-6, wild card)
The Saints are the team nobody wants to play, particularly at the Superdome, where they have rewritten large sections of the offensive record book this season. The Lions have the battle scars to prove it. On Dec. 4, Detroit ventured into New Orleans and fell behind, 17-0, and trailed at halftime, 24-7, on the way to a 31-17 New Orleans victory. It’s no secret why. The Saints, with the top passing offense, have more weapons than any other team in the N.F.L. The 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham is practically uncoverable, and when teams try to double-team him, they leave somebody like Marques Colston alone. When the Carolina Panthers tried to blanket Graham on Sunday, Colston had 145 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Drew Brees merely set the single-season mark for passing yards and broke his own record for completion percentage.
Expect more of the same in this game, which should be a shootout. In the teams’ regular-season game, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 408 yards, outgunning Brees (342). Both teams can rush the passer, but that does not seem to matter to either quarterback. What foiled the Lions last time was an inability to finish drives – for all that yardage, they scored just two touchdowns.
The Lions’ defense is a wild card. The pass rush has been formidable – Cliff Avril is the sack star this season – but Detroit was scorched by Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Matt Flynn, in the regular-season finale in a game that did not matter for the Packers. Consider that a warning.
KEY TO THE GAME The Lions should hope that Brees decides to retire this week. Short of that, a fast start by the Lions’ offense is essential because no coach has a better killer instinct when he gets a lead than the Saints’ Sean Payton.
4. GIANTS (East winner)
5. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, wild card)
The Falcons got a lucky break in the final game. If the Lions had beaten the Packers, the Falcons would have had to return to New Orleans, where the Saints humiliated them last Monday, 45-16. Instead, Matt Ryan will face the Giants’ explosive offense, but exploitable defense, far more vulnerable to the pass than the Saints’ defense is.
The Falcons have been a bit of an enigma, beating middling or worse teams (Jaguars, Panthers, Seahawks, Vikings) and losing to most of the playoff-caliber ones (Saints, Texans, Packers). The second loss to the Saints highlighted their biggest problem: they struggle against the pass. Discount the blowout of the Buccaneers on Sunday – that says more about how Tampa Bay quit than it does about how the Falcons stack up with other playoff teams. Still, the Falcons badly needed a big win to feel better heading into the playoffs, and they got it. Running back Michael Turner had been struggling with a groin injury, but he broke out with 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries.
But keep an eye on the rookie receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons’ offense might not have been able to keep up with the Saints, but that does not make them unique. Jones could bedevil defenses that rank near the bottom of the league against the pass, and that makes the Falcons a dangerous playoff team. The pressure will be on Ryan to beat the relentless pressure that the Cowboys or the Giants can bring – the Falcons allowed just 26 sacks this season – and to try to keep pace with the offense on the other side.
KEY TO THE GAME The Falcons will have to protect Ryan from some of the best pass rushers in the N.F.L. to give the offense a chance to keep up with a quarterback who is having a superb season.
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-1, North)
The Packers lost some steam down the stretch, their defense hurt by the run (199 yards by Chicago on Dec. 25) and the pass defense woeful throughout the season. But the bye will serve its intended purpose: everybody can get healthy before the divisional round, especially receiver Greg Jennings (knee), defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) and several offensive linemen.
2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3, West)
They entered the final Sunday with the league’s best scoring defense (they did not give up a rushing touchdown in their first 14 games), which has allowed them to play a conservative, virtually error-free offensive style. That formula will get an extreme test if the seeds hold up and their divisional round opponent is the Saints.
This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.
PHOTOS: Saints receiver Marques Colston (PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL HABER/ASSOCIATED PRESS); Wide receiver Julio Jones of the Falcons (PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES)