The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that didn't lose a home game during the recently completed regular season. Now they're counting on their frenzied fans and the frigid climes of a Wisconsin winter to help them get to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years.
"I'm really looking forward to having a full crowd, that good old Green Bay weather," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers secured the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year. "It's been an advantage for us for a long time. I think it's an advantage having 78,000, instead of 7,800 like we did last year."
Actually, only 7,772 fans were at last year's conference championship game, when COVID-19 restrictions limited attendance and Tom Brady quarterbacked the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-26 win at Lambeau Field. Brady and the Bucs went on to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, the franchise's first title since 2003 and Brady's record seventh championship to go with the half dozen he won with the AFC's New England Patriots.
This time, the Packers can have full capacity — 81,441 — at their games beginning with the divisional round. They have the conference's lone bye.
The Bucs are seeded second, followed by the Dallas Cowboys — led by rookie sensation Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs on defense and a talent-laden offense guided by a finally healthy Dak Prescott — and the Los Angeles Rams. The wild cards are the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.
The Rams, powered by the midseason additions of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and edge rusher Von Miller, are hoping to do what the Bucs did a year ago and play in the Super Bowl at their home stadium, SoFi Field in Inglewood, California, on Feb. 13.
The wild-card round's three-day weekend has Philadelphia at Tampa Bay on Saturday, San Francisco at Dallas on Sunday and Arizona at Los Angeles on Monday.
Here's a look at the NFC playoff picture as the chase for the Super Bowl title and the Lombardi Trophy begins.
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-4)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XLV, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 on Feb. 6, 2011, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Last season: No. 1 seed, beat Rams 32-18 in divisional round, lost to Bucs 31-26 in NFC championship game.
This season: Earned 11th trip to playoffs in Rodgers' 14 seasons as starter and third consecutive NFC North Division title under coach Matt LaFleur.
Why they'll prevail: The Packers can earn a spot in the Super Bowl without ever leaving Lambeau Field. Reigning league MVP Rodgers has thrown 20 touchdown passes without an interception over his past seven games, and he said the fractured pinky toe that bothered him the second half of the season is starting to feel better. The Packers are getting healthier just in time for the playoffs after struggling with injuries throughout 2021. The offensive line got star left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Josh Myers back for the regular-season finale. On the other side of the ball, cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith are expected to be back for the playoffs.
Why they'll derail: A defense that seemed much improved under new coordinator Joe Barry for much of the season has started to slump. After allowing 18 points per game during an 8-2 start, the Packers have given up 27.3 per game over their past nine. Special teams has been a major weakness all season. Slow starts also have been a problem. The Packers have been outscored 84-51 in the first quarter. Fall behind early in the playoffs, and they might find themselves booking flights to Cancun instead of L.A.
What they're saying: "It is great having the road to the Super Bowl going through Lambeau. But as we learned last year, that doesn't guarantee anything. We have to take advantage of being at home and playing in our climate." — LaFleur
2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (13-4)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl LV, beat the Chiefs 31-9 on Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Last season: No. 5 seed, beat Washington 31-23 in wild-card round, beat New Orleans Saints 30-20 in divisional round, beat Packers 31-26 in NFC championship game.
This season: Won first NFC South title since 2007, set franchise record for regular-season victories.
Why they'll prevail: The reigning champs haven't been as dominant as some people envisioned when the team defied the odds by returning every starter from last season, but it hasn't been because of Brady and a potent offense that averaged 406 yards and 30.1 points per game. At age 44 and in his 22nd NFL season, Brady has had one of his best years, leading the league in completions (a single-season record 485), attempts (719), passing yards (5,136) and touchdown passes (43). He's just the third quarterback in the past 30 years to lead the league in all four categories.
Why they'll derail: The dominant defense led by Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Devin White peaked late last season, keying an impressive postseason run. Injuries have made it difficult to build on that success. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Richard Sherman spent time on injured reserve; safeties Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. have been in and out of the lineup. And while the run defense yields an NFC-low 92.5 yards per game, opponents have enjoyed more success on the ground lately with linebackers David (foot), Barrett (knee) and Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) ailing.
What they're saying: "I think our guys are just prepared. Once we figure the other team out, they're in trouble." — Coach Bruce Arians, dismissing the notion that parting ways with often troubled receiver Antonio Brown could wind up galvanizing his high-powered offense and inspiring a deep playoff run
3. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XXX, beat the Steelers 27-17 on Jan. 28, 1996 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
Last season: 6-10, missed playoffs.
This season: First NFC East title and first playoff appearance since 2018.
Why they'll prevail: Prescott and the league's No. 1 offense have plenty of options to send the Cowboys deeper in the playoffs than they've been in 26 years. While their numbers aren't staggering, receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb can take over games, and Cedrick Wilson can be a dangerous option with Michael Gallup sidelined by a knee injury. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott has battled a knee injury most of the year, but he appears to be getting healthy at the right time.
Why they'll derail: The Cowboys have an opportunistic defense that led the NFL with 34 takeaways in the regular season. That unit has played more freely when Dallas takes a lead. The Cowboys will be in trouble if they don't, and they've had a tendency to let opposing rushing attacks dictate games when they don't get the takeaways. Dallas never led in its past four losses and didn't force a turnover in three of them.
What they're saying: "For me to have this opportunity before me on Sunday is kind of unimaginable. Honestly, just because I can't really believe it right now. It's a surreal moment. Most importantly, I'm excited and I can't wait to do it with my brothers." — Lamb, a second-year player preparing for his playoff debut
4. LOS ANGELES RAMS (12-5)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XXXIV, beat the Tennessee Titans 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Last season: 10-6, No. 6 seed, beat Seattle Seahawks 30-20 in wild-card round, lost to Packers 32-18 in divisional round.
This season: First NFC West title since 2018, second straight trip to playoffs.
Why they'll prevail: The Rams' offense is good and getting better, with receiver Cooper Kupp's historic season and quarterback Matthew Stafford's big-play ability pushing Los Angeles to five wins in six games down the stretch. The passing game ranks fifth in the NFL with 273.1 yards per game. After two years of stagnation, the Rams are scoring points in bunches while controlling the ball with a balanced approach. They seem capable of outscoring just about any opponent that has defensive flaws to exploit, particularly with a revitalized rushing attack led by Sony Michel and Cam Akers.
Why they'll derail: Their defensive stars are supported by an unimpressive cast, and opponents have been taking advantage of those flaws. The Rams' linebackers and defensive backs beyond Jalen Ramsey are simply not at all impressive, and they're getting worse: leading tackler Jordan Fuller (ankle) is out for the season, further depleting the secondary with the departure of its top safety. From targeting David Long or Nick Scott in coverage to forcing linebacker Troy Reeder to stop plays in the middle of the field, good opponents have racked up big numbers on the defense, and there are only good opponents left in the playoffs.
What they're saying: "You just have a little bit more familiarity with it, but it's going to come down to the same things that are in alignment with winning football games: executing, taking care of the football, getting takeaways, tackling, breaking tackles, being good situationally in third down and red area." — Rams coach Sean McVay on opening the playoffs against NFC West rival Arizona
5. ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6)
Last Lombardi: None. They lost Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers 27-23 on Feb. 1, 2009, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Last season: 8-8, missed playoffs.
This season: First playoff appearance since 2015.
Why they'll prevail: The best news for the Cardinals is that they're going on the road. Arizona had a remarkable 8-1 record away from home this season, including a win over the Rams in the fourth week. Arizona is a team that doesn't have a ton of holes when it's playing well, and quarterback Kyler Murray has been one of the best in the league, completing nearly 70% of his passes. The Cardinals could also get a huge boost if three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt is able to return from a shoulder injury.
Why they'll derail: Simply put, the Cardinals aren't playing very good football these days. Arizona is 1-4 over its past five games, 4-6 over its past 10 and hasn't looked much like a team ready to go on a deep playoff run. Arizona's offense hasn't looked the same since three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins sustained a knee injury.
What they're saying: "I think this is what he's been waiting for for three years. He's a guy who wants to be playing for something and knows he's playing for something. This is his first shot at the playoffs, and I expect him to probably play the best game of his career. I know he's going to give it everything he's got," — coach Kliff Kingsbury on Murray
6. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (10-7)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XXIX, beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26 on Jan. 29, 1995, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami for their fifth championship.
Last season: 6-10, missed playoffs after the previous year's Super Bowl 31-20 to the Chiefs.
This season: Reached double digits in victories for just the second time in eight years.
Why they'll prevail: The offense is loaded with playmakers who can make big plays out of seemingly nothing. Deebo Samuel had 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns as a receiver and a running back, George Kittle is one of the top tight ends at getting yards after the catch and rookie running back Elijah Mitchell averaged 100 yards from scrimmage per game. Throw in improving receiver Brandon Aiyuk and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and coach Kyle Shanahan has numerous options for his creative playbook.
Why they'll derail: While San Francisco is loaded with playmakers, there are still major questions at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo had good stretches this season, but he's still apt to throw interceptions at key times and struggles when he needs to get the ball deep or outside the numbers. Garoppolo's limitations were a reason why San Francisco drafted his eventual replacement in Trey Lance last spring — and those same limitations could end up dooming the 49ers the way they did in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two years ago.
What they're saying: "The culture of our team is never quit. We've been in good situations, bad situations over the years. One thing I can say is, even before Kyle and (general manager John Lynch) got here, there was never any quit in us. When they got here, they implemented their culture. We don't quit, no matter the situation, and we worry about the next snap." — defensive end Arik Armstead
7. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-8)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl LII, beat the Patriots 41-33 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Last season: 4-11-1, missed playoffs.
This season: Fourth playoff appearance in five years.
Why they'll prevail: Dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the league's best rushing offense, but he also has talented playmakers in wide receiver DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert. Running the ball effectively with Hurts and a stable of productive backs, including Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell, could keep Brady and Tampa Bay's high-powered offense on the sideline. The Bucs can't score as much if the Eagles control the clock and keep Brady off the field.
Why they'll derail: The Eagles were 0-6 against opponents that made the playoffs and 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record. Rookie coach Nick Sirianni is coaching his first playoff game, and Hurts, who played in big games in college with the Alabama Crimson Tide, is starting for the first time in the postseason. These are not the ingredients for a deep playoff run.
What they're saying: "I don't remember," Hurts, when asked his earliest recollection of Brady
All Times Eastern
Saturday, Jan. 15
AFC: No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals (10-7), 4:35 p.m. (NBC)
AFC: No. 6 New England Patriots (10-7) at No. 3 Buffalo Bills (11-6), 8:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 16
NFC: No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) at No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4), 1 p.m. (Fox)
NFC: No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (12-5), 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
AFC: No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Jan. 17
NFC: No. 5 Arizona Cardinals (11-6) at No. 4 Los Angeles Rams (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2)
Saturday, Jan. 22-Sunday, Jan. 23
Lowest remaining NFC seed at No. 1 Green Bay Packers (13-4), TBD
Lowest remaining AFC seed at No. 1 Tennessee Titans (12-5), TBD
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND
Sunday, Jan. 30
AFC, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)
NFC, 6:40 p.m. (Fox)
SUPER BOWL LVI
Sunday, Feb. 13
At SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California
AFC champion vs. NFC champion, 6:30 p.m. (NBC)