No. 5 St. Louis Rams at No. 4 SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
TODAY 4:30 P.M. (Ch. 28)
COACH: Mike Holmgren (125-83 overall; 9-7 in playoffs).
PLAYOFF HISTORY: They are 3-6 overall and may best be remembered for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's bold prediction of a win after winning the overtime coin toss in the wild-card game in Green Bay last season. He promptly threw an interception to Al Harris, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.
BLUEPRINT: Holmgren's concept of the West Coast offense lives large with the Seahawks. It all begins with running back Shaun Alexander, whose consistency gives him a strong argument for being the most productive player in the league. Then, with the running game established, the Seahawks will try to get Hasselbeck to connect downfield with receivers Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson. Defensive end Chike Okeafor had 8.5 sacks.
TURNING POINT: Twice, the Seahawks avoided falling below .500. After three wins to begin the season, Seattle dropped its next three but knocked off the Panthers 23-17. Five weeks later, at 6-6, they did it again by knocking off the Vikings 27-23.
BEST PLAYERS: Alexander (353 carries, 1,696 yards, 16 TDs, four receiving TDs); Hasselbeck (279-of-474, 3,382 yards, 22 TDs, 15 INTs); Jackson (87 catches, 1,199 yards, seven TDs); Robinson (31 catches, 495 yards, two TDs); receiver Jerry Rice (30 catches, 495 yards); Okeafor (8.5 sacks).
ST. LOUIS RAMS
COACH: Mike Martz (53-32 overall; 2-3 in the playoffs).
PLAYOFF HISTORY: It seems like yesterday that the Rams were ripping through NFL defenses and making it to two Super Bowls in three years, including a 23-17 win over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams have made the playoffs in three of the past four years.
BLUEPRINT: They are called the Greatest Show on Turf because of their speed. The Rams want to get a defense into a track meet, a situation that traditionally favors their speedy receivers, innovative running backs and overall offensive philosophy. With the emergence of rookie running back Steven Jackson, the Rams can function in a more physical game.
TURNING POINT: A very average team all year, the Rams' rebirth had little to do with them and everything to do with the Vikings, who did them a favor by losing four of their last five games.
BEST PLAYERS: Marc Bulger (321-of-485, 3,964 yards, 21 TDs, 14 INTs); Torry Holt (94 catches, 1,372 yards, 10 TDs); Isaac Bruce (89 catches, 1,292 yards, six TDs); running back Marshall Faulk (195 carries, 774 yards, three TDs); Jackson (134 carries, 673 yards, four TDs); Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace.
No. 6 VIKINGS at No. 3 GREEN BAY PACKERS
SUNDAY 4:30 P.M. (Ch. 13)
COACH: Mike Tice (15-18 overall).
PLAYOFF HISTORY: During their glory days, the Vikings went to four Super Bowls and lost them all. Since then, Minnesota has clawed back into regular playoff contention. In 1998, they lost the NFC Championship Game 30-27 to Atlanta after going 15-1 in the regular season. They also played in the postseason in 1999 and 2000.
BLUEPRINT: It's Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss. Nothing else really counts. True, the Vikings will tell you that they want to run the ball using a stable of backs. They will try. But their success comes down to the number of big plays made by Culpepper and Moss.
TURNING POINT: They should consider themselves lucky. A 5-1 start helped the Vikings amass just enough wins to stay in contention while they were imploding down the stretch.
BEST PLAYERS: Culpepper (379-of-548, 4,717 yards, 39 TDs, 11 INTs; 88 carries, 406 yards, two TDs); Moss (49 catches, 767 yards, 13 TDs); tight end Jermaine Wiggins (71 catches, 705 yards, four TDs); receiver Nate Burleson (68 catches, 1,006 yards, nine TDs); running back Onterrio Smith (124 carries, 544 yards, two TDs); Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams (12 sacks).
GREEN BAY PACKERS
COACH: Mike Sherman (55-34 overall; 2-3 in playoffs).
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Playoffs are nothing new Title Town. The Packers have made four Super Bowl appearances, including two in '90s. After the 1996 season, they defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, then lost to the Broncos the next year. They have been to the playoffs the past three seasons.
BLUEPRINT: When you have a gunslinger quarterback like Brett Favre, who is enjoying a revitalization, you learn to live or die with his arm. The Packers do just that. Favre is going to pitch it around and take chances. And he has been winning most of the time. Still, Green Bay can and will let Ahman Green run the ball to keep some of the pressure off Favre.
TURNING POINT: After being blown out by the Titans 48-27 on Monday night, the Packers regrouped and won six straight to pass the Vikings at the top of the NFC North.
BEST PLAYERS: Favre (346-of-540, 4,088 yards, 30 TDs, 17 INTs); Green (259 carries, 1,163 yards, seven TDs); receiver Javon Walker (89 catches, 1,382 yards, 12 TDs); receiver Donald Driver (84 catches, 1,208 yards, nine TDs); Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera; Pro Bowl fullback William Henderson.
FIRST ROUND BYE:
No. 1 PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
SEED: No. 1
COACH: Andy Reid (69-36 overall; 5-4 in playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Bye.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: For the past three seasons, the Eagles have been beaten in the NFC Championship Game, losing to the Rams, Bucs and Panthers. Their only Super Bowl appearance came in XV, when they lost to the Raiders 27-10.
BLUEPRINT: With Terrell Owens, the Eagles were an explosive offense that hit defenses with the home run or kept them staggered with the threat of it. It all starts with quarterback Donovan McNabb's rare talent, a commitment to running the ball and a revitalized blitz-happy defense that finished 10th in the league.
TURNING POINT: Some will argue there are two. The acquisition of Owens in an offseason trade gave the Eagles that big name playmaker to complement McNabb, leading to a 13-1 start. But Owens got hurt Dec. 19 in a win against Dallas and likely won't play again this season, a significant blow.
BEST PLAYERS: McNabb (300-of-469, 3,875 yards, 31 TDs, eight INTs), Owens (77 catches, 1,200 yards, 14 TDs); running back Michael Westbrook (177 carries, 812 yards, three TDs); Pro Bowl safeties Brian Dawkins (four INTs) and Michael Lewis; Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard (five INTs); Pro Bowl linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and Pro Bowl kicker David Akers (27-of-32, 122 points).
FIRST ROUND BYE:
No. 2 ATLANTA FALCONS
SEED: No. 2
COACH: Jim Mora (12-4, first season).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Bye
PLAYOFF HISTORY: In 1998, Jamal Anderson led the Falcons to a magical playoff run that ended with a 34-19 loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. The Falcons' last dip in playoff waters came two seasons ago when they stunned Green Bay on the road in the opening round before losing at Philadelphia the next weekend.
BLUEPRINT: Michael Vick. Michael Vick. Michael Vick. Okay, the Falcons run the ball. They put significant pressure on the passer. They will get yards on special teams and their kicker, Tampa native Jay Feely, is quite consistent. But who are we kidding: This team goes where Vick takes it.
TURNING POINT: Knowing how badly Rich McKay wanted out of Tampa Bay, late last season Falcons owner Arthur Blank worked a deal that would bring the former Bucs general manager to Atlanta as president/general manager. All McKay has brought is integrity, personnel and salary cap expertise and a winning philosophy.
BEST PLAYERS: Vick (181-of-321, 2,313 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs; 902 yards on 120 carries, three TDs); running back Warrick Dunn (265 carries, 1,106 yards, nine TDs); running back T.J. Duckett (104 carries, 509 yards, eight TDs); tight end Alge Crumpler (48 catches, 774 yards, six TDs); Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kearney (13 sacks); and Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking.
_ NFC capsules by ROGER MILLS, Times staff writer