The N.F.C. entered the weekend with its six playoff teams already known, but the conference kept everyone waiting for the final positioning until the last game of the regular season.
When the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field for the first time since 2009, they won the N.F.C. North and let the other teams in the conference know who would be playing whom in next week’s wild-card games.
It was not a particularly convincing victory for Minnesota, as Adrian Peterson left the game early with a back injury after gaining only 60 yards, but the Vikings’ defense held off a Packers rally to win, 20-13.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-6) AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS (11-5) Seattle may be the lowest-seeded team in the N.F.C., but there is a reason it has played in the last two Super Bowls, and it reminded everyone of that in Week 17 by demolishing the Arizona Cardinals, 36-6.
“It was just us playing our style of football,” Seattle’s loquacious cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters after the game. “I think sometimes people forget who we are.”
Seattle narrowly lost the Super Bowl last season and then got off to a 2-4 start this season, which left many wondering if the success had gotten to them a bit. But forced to prove themselves in theremainder of the season, they did not disappoint, winning 8 of 10 games.
Russell Wilson, who caught fire in a Week 11 victory over San Francisco and finished the season with 24 touchdowns and only one interception over the course of seven games, led Seattle’s resurgence. Now they will face a Vikings team that at times has been fantastic, but has also fallen short on several occasions.
The biggest key to the game for Minnesota will be the health of Peterson. The N.F.L.’s leading rusher, Peterson left the Vikings’ Week 17 victory over Green Bay with a lower-back injury but returned late in the game. If his back flares up again, Minnesota will be playing at a significant disadvantage.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6) AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS (9-7) The Redskins shuffled along for much of the season as one of the multiple indistinct contenders in a terrible N.F.C. East. But over the last few weeks that image has changed as Kirk Cousins took his game to the next level. He has also found himself a fan favorite based on his exuberant yelling of “You like that?” as he ran off the field after a come-from-behind win over Tampa Bay in Week 7.
Cousins closed the season with four consecutive wins and ended up breaking the franchise record for passing yards in a season with 4,166. He also threw 29 touchdown passes and will enter the playoffs trying to bolster his case that he is a franchise quarterback, which will also be on the mind of Washington’s leadership, as Cousins, 27, will be a free agent after the season.
Their path is the opposite of the one taken by the Packers, who started the season well but faded as their near-legendary offense ran out of magic while trying to play an entire season without the top receiver Jordy Nelson. The team’s defense has a great deal of ability, and the maturation and development of Clay Matthews should not be understated. But unless Aaron Rodgers can turn back the clock and find some sort of passing game, it will be hard for him to keep pace with Cousins.
FIRST-ROUND BYES: CAROLINA PANTHERS (15-1), ARIZONA CARDINALS (13-3) The Panthers were an unstoppable force for much of the season, and their lone loss seemed to have more to do with the law of averages than any flaws in the team having been exposed. They have a terrific defense and a dynamic offense, and if the bye week can get Jonathan Stewart back on the field, they are the most complete team in the playoffs. The Cardinals are not far behind, regardless of a Week 17 loss. Carson Palmer is likely Cam Newton’s biggest competition for the Most Valuable Player Award, and he is surrounded by a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball. The ugly loss to Seattle to close the season may actually serve as some extra motivation, making one of the league’s best teams even better.
A quick look reveals two games between teams that are missing some key pieces but can still manage to be fairly dangerous.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-6) AT CINCINNATI BENGALS (12-4) There is no shortage of history between these teams, and their most recent matchup, in Week 14, turned ugly with a pregame brawl. It got worse for Cincinnati when Andy Dalton, the starting quarterback, was lost for the remainder of the regular season with a broken thumb.
A playoff game between the Steelers and the Bengals being decided by a backup quarterback should sound familiar, as the only other time they have faced each other in the playoffs was in 2005, when Carson Palmer, then the Bengals’ quarterback, severely injured his knee and the Steelers cruised to victory.
“We’ve been there before,” Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said during his postgame news conference after his team’s 24-16 victory over Baltimore on Sunday. “It’s time to right the ship. You know — exorcism.”
The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990 — and the team still does not know whether Dalton will be able to return from his thumb injury — but their defense is good enough to keep them in any game. They have allowed 20 or fewer points in nine of their last 10 games and have held teams to 10 or fewer points five times.
They will have their work cut out for them against a Pittsburgh offense that is led by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. That trio can air it out as well as any group in the game, but with DeAngelo Williams having injured his ankle during this week’s 28-12 win over the Cleveland Browns, the offense might not be quite as balanced as the Bengals are used to.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-5) AT HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7) The Chiefs started 1-5, played most of the season without the star running back Jamaal Charles and finished without the star linebacker Justin Houston, yet somehow enter the playoffs with an 11-5 record. They had a shot at a division title going into their last game of the season but saw their title hopes fade when Peyton Manning led Denver to a victory over the San Diego Chargers to give the Broncos the No. 1 seed in the A.F.C.
The Chiefs accomplished the 10-game winning streak by splitting up Charles’s carries between Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, continuing to pressure the quarterback even when Houston was out, and winning the turnover battle consistently thanks to the efficiency of Alex Smith and a defense that was as opportunistic as it was stingy.
Kansas City has a great deal of momentum on its side, but J. J. Watt, who may be the single most dominant player in football, makes Houston a team to be feared even if some of his teammates are underwhelming. Freed from a cast he had worn to protect an injured hand, Watt responded with three sacks this week, joining Reggie White as the only players to have three 15-sack seasons in the first five years of their careers.
The teams met back in Week 1, and Kansas City came away with a 27-20 victory. The Chiefs had five sacks and forced two turnovers in the game, which is the kind of performance they will be hoping for in the wild-card round.
FIRST-ROUND BYES: DENVER BRONCOS (12-4), NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4) These teams may have finished as the top two seeds in the conference, but it is hard to imagine that anyone in Denver or New England is particularly thrilled with how their teams have been playing. The Broncos managed to get the No. 1 seed despite the failings of the offense, regardless of whether Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler was playing quarterback. The Patriots were a dominant force for much of the season, but injuries have added up, and they lost four of their last six games, handing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to Denver.