1. New York Giants
Coach: Tom Coughlin (115-93). He whipped the Giants from an inconsistent mass of talented players into a surprise Super Bowl winner last season and has been masterful at fending off the slings and arrows that always seem to bring down defending champs. A stickler for details and a disciplinarian, he has been just what this group needs. He was the first NFC coach to take a wild-card team to a title.
Best players: QB Eli Manning (3,238 passing yards, 21 TDs); RB Brandon Jacobs (1,089 rush yards, 15 TDs).
Most interesting player: Manning has developed from a high-profile, highly paid, big-market whipping boy into a solid NFL quarterback. He's still the other Manning, but he's a champion, Super Bowl MVP and at age 27 an ever-improving player.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Antonio Pierce was questioned by police for his part in an alleged cover-up of teammate Plaxico Burress' self-shooting, so he knows his way around a club and an emergency room.
Will make it to Tampa if: Their league-best rushing attack (157.4 yards per game) continues to churn out yards and rack up points behind Jacobs and Derrick Ward (1,025 yards). New York's 26.7 points per game was second only to New Orleans.
Will watch it from their couch if: The running game is snuffed. Manning had a season every bit as good as 2007, while reducing his interception figure from 20 to 10. But if he becomes the focus, especially with Burress suspended, it will be tough for Manning and Amani Toomer to go it alone. Manning was also sacked a lot for a playoff QB: 27 times. The Giants offensive line is obviously adept at punching holes for the running backs, so maybe it could keep the quarterback off the turf.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: The in-person opportunity to castigate Pierce as the figurehead for all that is wrong with the pro athlete lifestyle could be too much to resist.
Our prediction: The safest bet of all to make it to Tampa.
2. Carolina Panthers
Coach: John Fox (63-49). Embattled, beleaguered, hanging on by his bicuspids at times over the past few seasons. He has the Panthers playing as well as or better than anyone at the perfect time.
Best players: WR Steve Smith (third in NFL with 1,421 yards); RB DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards and league-best 18 TDs); LB Jon Beason (138 tackles, third in NFL).
Most interesting player: Steve Smith. Unquestionably one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, he beats up teammates (CB Ken Lucas in training camp), has a Papa Smurf tattoo and worked as an intern at Morgan Stanley. Finally, someone to blame for the fumbling economy.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Panthers cheerleaders. Two TopCats were charged with battery, disorderly conduct and obstructing or opposing an officer after an incident in a Banana Joe's bathroom in Tampa in 2005. Patrons were upset Angela Ellen Keathley and Renee Thomas were taking too long to have sex in a bathroom stall, prompting an altercation. Both were dismissed from the squad. Ready? O-K.
Will make it to Tampa if: Williams and RB Jonathan Stewart (836 yards, 10 TDs) continue to amass yards and points, taking pressure off QB Jake Delhomme. Carolina's defense has been smashing and needs to stay that way.
Will watch it from their couch if: The big backs are stopped and Delhomme has to do too much. Smith is a weapon, but the Panthers can't survive in the playoffs as a one-dimensional offense.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: The Panthers delivered a roundhouse to the Bucs' hopes of not only an NFC South title but top seed in the playoffs Dec. 8 in a 38-23 Monday Night Football thumping.
Our prediction: The running game will take them far.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Coach: Brad Childress (24-24 ). Criticized for his playcalling and handling of several players his first season (6-10 in 2006), this season Childress benched QB Tarvaris Jackson for Gus Frerotte after an 0-2 start. But Jackson was needed again when Frerotte injured his back. This time the Vikings responded by winning five of their past six, closing with a 20-19 win over the Giants on Ryan Longwell's 50-yard field goal.
Best players: RB Adrian Peterson (NFL-best 1,760 yards); DE Jared Allen (14.5 sacks); WR Bernard Berrian (8 TDs).
Most interesting player: Whether Adrian Peterson is the next incarnation of Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown or Gale Sayers is largely dependent on the admirer. He's tall, strong, fast and captivating because of his ability to take any handoff into the end zone, just like his 67-yarder on Sunday against the Giants. The 2007 offensive rookie of the year set a single-game record with 296 yards on 30 carries against the Chargers a year ago.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Hopefully Kevin Williams and Pat Williams aren't in a hurry to shed those holiday pounds. They've already been suspended four games for violating the league substance abuse policy, though a federal judge blocked it. They're accused of ingesting bumetanide, a diuretic that can be used to mask steroids.
Will make it to Tampa if: Peterson makes enough big plays, if the best run defense in the league (allowing just 76.9 yards per game) stays stout — DT Pat Williams hopes to return from a broken bone in his shoulder — and if some better teams wither in front of them (Minnesota beat Carolina in Week 3).
Will watch it from their couch if: Jackson makes mistakes; if the Vikings' sometimes-shaky pass defense is exploited.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: Perhaps there will be an upwelling in Ellis Wyms nostalgia.
Our prediction: Might be good for one win, tops.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (17-15). He was 8-8 with the Cardinals in his debut last season and won the NFC West as a followup.
Best players: QB Kurt Warner (4,583 passing yards, second in NFL); WR Larry Fitzgerald (1,431 receiving yards, second in NFL); WR Anquan Boldin (1,038 receiving yards, 11 TDs).
Most interesting player: Warner. From grocery-bagger to Arena Leaguer to two-time NFL MVP to champion (breathe) to obscurity to a march to the Super Bowl again. Who plays him in the Lifetime movie?
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Matt Leinart. Without all those quarterbacking duties to bog down his day and crimp his social calendar, the former USC party boy should have plenty of time for tall pours at the trendiest of social functions. "Is that Paris by the Stoli display? Paris!"
Will make it to Tampa if: Reclamation project Warner keeps playing like guy who took the Rams to a title.
Will watch it from their couch if: They display the same dearth of character as in a 47-7 loss at New England last week.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: An area that has seen the Bucs, Rays and Lightning evolve from also-rans to championship caliber should have a soft spot for a team that is making just its seventh playoff appearance (first in a decade) since being a charter member of the NFL in 1920.
Our prediction: NFC's weakest entrant out quick.
5. Atlanta Falcons
Coach: Mike Smith (11-5). The former Daytona Beach resident had never been a head coach when he took over the thermonuclear wasteland that was the Falcons. The team's top player and figurehead (QB Michael Vick) was en route to prison on federal dog-fighting charges, coach Bobby Petrino had stolen out of town and there was no reason to believe things would improve for years.
Best players: RB Michael Turner (1,699 rush yards, second-best in NFL, 17 TDs); WR Roddy White (15.7 yards per catch); DE John Abraham (16.5 sacks).
Most interesting player: Matt Ryan. The Falcons took him with the third overall pick and tasked him with becoming the new leader and new face of the organization. Ryan has looked at times like a rookie, but one with a tremendous future.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Maybe it's time to give the Falcons a pass on this one.
Will make it to Tampa if: A bunch of players/coaches/executives with something to prove keep chip firmly on shoulder.
Will watch it from their couch if: Opponents take away Turner, now a star out of LaDainian Tomlinson's shadow in San Diego. Or if a defense that ranked 25th in the league can't keep the offense within reach.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: The Falcons' 13-10 win over the Bucs on Week 15 was a gutshot to Tampa Bay's playoff hopes.
Our prediction: A dark horse for the title game.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
Coach: Andy Reid (97-62-1). He's a two-time coach of the year and has won four division titles, reached four NFC title games and overseen seven playoff wins. But, of course, he's no darned good and better win it all this year or he's garbage.
Best players: RB Brian Westbrook (936 rushing yards, nine TDs); QB Donovan McNabb (3,916 passing yards, 23 TDs).
Most interesting player: WR DeSean Jackson. He might bust a punt return or catch a long pass for a score. He might start celebrating a step too early and drop the ball on the 1-yard line (such was the case this season on a Monday night against Dallas when he lost what would have been his first NFL touchdown).
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Eagles fans. Always on camera, always being indulged and glamorized for boorish behavior.
Will make it to Tampa if: They can bottle, preserve and sip weekly from the butt-kickin' juice they guzzled before destroying rival Dallas on Sunday.
Will watch it from their couch if: They play like the disinterested bunch that didn't know there were ties in the NFL … until they tied the atrocious Bengals.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: It's highly unlikely any Philadelphia team will get much support in these parts, not since the events of this October. (See: Rays, World Series.)
Prediction: A team nobody wants to face.