5 NFC playoff questions — the biggest storylines heading into wild-card weekend

Pedigree, X-factors, the Gruden effect and lots more

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1. Does familiarity play favorites?

Of the four wild-card matchups, only the weekend's finale in Chicago between Matt Nagy's Chicago Bears and Doug Pederson's Philadelphia Eagles isn't a rematch from the 2018 regular season. And yet we wouldn't fault those who said there is more familiarity between those two clubs than any potential postseason pairing.

Nagy and Pederson are extremely close from their time together on the staffs in Philadelphia, where Nagy began as a coaching intern below Pederson, a quality control coach, and continuing to Kansas City, where the Bears rookie served as QB coach under the reigning Super Bowl champ (and then-Chiefs offensive coordinator).

The two head coaches who double as play-callers essentially run the same offenses. They feature players (Chicago's Trey Burton and Philadelphia's Alshon Jeffery) who cut their NFL teeth behind enemy lines, while their defenses might boast the top two D-lines in the playoff field. Does one side get any sort of edge from all the commonalities?

Meantime, the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, who touch down in Arlington, Texas, this weekend, reprise their Week 3 battle, in which Pete Carroll's club got off its 0-2 schneid with a 24-13 home victory. Of course, the familiarity goes beyond that, with former Seahawks D-coordinator Kris Richard still hoping to exact revenge on his former boss who surprisingly cut ties last offseason, allowing the Cowboys to hire Richard as their secondary coach/pass-game coordinator.

2. How does pedigree travel this weekend?

The conference's two head coaches and starting quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings who play this weekend will both do so on the road, where the Eagles and Seahawks went a combined 8-8 during the regular season (compared to the Bears' and Cowboys' combined home mark of 14-2). Of course, in both Philadelphia's and Seattle's title-winning postseasons, they each played playoff games away from home only once — for the Super Bowl.

Seattle appears to have a pack-and-play formula, in addition to the conference's most Super Bowl skins on the wall, with a dynamic run game (No. 1 in yards, No. 2 in attempts, No. 5 in average gain) and risk-averse quarterback overseeing a judicious, ball-control offense (league-low 11 giveaways) to complement a solid 'D.'

But the Eagles haven't run the ball consistently (30th in rushing), and they're resigned to playing inexperienced players and journeymen in a banged-up secondary, where they rank 30th against the pass. Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, then, really need their team's high-priced lines to dominate the Bears, which at least seems plausible for Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett and Co., if not a wall attempting to protect immobile Nick Foles from Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the rest of a dominating Bears front seven. Or can rallying around their perceived underdog-with-a-QB2 disadvantage again work to their advantage?

3. Which club does 'Gruden Effect' help the most?

The Bears and Cowboys probably aren't in this position without the unintended help of Jon Gruden, who jettisoned the top two talents he inherited as Raiders coach in Khalil Mack to Chicago and Amari Cooper to Dallas.

That you already knew.

Remember, though, that the Seahawks' firing of longtime O-line coach Tom Cable, the ex-Raiders boss whom Gruden quickly plucked off the scrap heap to join him for a second stint in Oakland, cleared the way for Mike Solari's arrival and subsequent O-line revival in Seattle.

We're having a bit of fun at Gruden's expense — hey, he can afford it! — but it's only meant to add just a bit more context to arguably the singular most important acquisition the Bears, Cowboys and Seahawks made this past season.

Mack joined an already-solid Bears 'D' and made it easily the NFL's best playmaking unit. Cooper was inserted into one of the game's worst pass-catching corps and basically put the Cowboys on his back for the better part of a five-game win streak propelling them back to the playoffs. And without Solari helping to coax marked blocking improvements, the Seahawks don't successfully go from the NFL's most pass-heavy team during an 0-2 start to the most run-committed over a 10-4 finish.

4. Who are the biggest X-factors?

The Bears' Mitch Trubisky might be the biggest X-factor in the entire 2018-19 playoff field. He authored a six-TD game vs. the lowly Bucs, earned Player of the Week honors for tallying four more scores without a giveaway in taking apart the Lions and finished among the best single-season quarterbacks in franchise history.

But he's also tallied a touchdown-turnover ratio of 5-8 in games in front of a national audience and enters his first-ever elimination game since high school. The Bears don't need Trubisky to be heroic — they need him to handle the offense with care, letting the defense do much of the heavy lifting. Whether he can oblige will most determine how far Chicago advances.

As for the other three X-factors on display this weekend, on Philly's side at Soldier Field this weekend, we'll go with Nelson Agholor. The Bears have the Pro Bowl-caliber producers to minimize the damage of Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz; it's Agholor from the slot whose speed could give Sherrick McManis problems.

McManis has held up well thus far in place of Bryce Callahan, who is on IR, but Agholor has caught fire of late, with three touchdowns among his 10-156 receiving over the past two games. For the Cowboys, how fortuitous is it having Richard's knowledge of Seattle's pass catchers entering Saturday? Although we just got done extolling their ground attack, the Seahawks will visit a Dallas run 'D' led by Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch that allowed only one 100-yard rusher in its final 13 games. It has the sideline-to-sideline speed to potentially make Seattle beat it through the air, where Richard has the Cowboys young DBs playing confidently and, this weekend, with a unique understanding of how Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett will try and win.

Finally, the Seahawks didn't trade up in the draft to pick a punter in Round 4 for him not to be an X-factor. The rookie out of Texas has absolutely been as advertised, ranking second in gross average (48.2) and No. 6 in net (42.5). Seattle's defensive strength is defending the pass, not the run, and Dickson gives it a nice weapon to ensure Dallas has to drive the length of the field.

5. How will two giant offenses return from weekend rest?

The top-seeded New Orleans Saints earned the right to have the path to Super Bowl LIII in the NFC go through the Superdome, but they didn't exactly reignite on offense there over the final two weeks, when they threw for only two combined touchdowns against vulnerable Steelers and Panthers secondaries.

Granted, it was Teddy Bridgewater, not Drew Brees, playing in the finale without Alvin Kamara and both starting tackles. Still, it'll be interesting to see whether the potent Drew Brees-led passing offense we're accustomed to will instantly reappear after being held below 200 yards and/or two passing TDs in the final five games ... or if Sean Payton is content continuing to lean more on his rushing attack.

Similarly, is Sean McVay's Rams offense all the way back after getting an unexpected jolt from C.J. Anderson in Todd Gurley's two-game absence to end the season? In their two games prior to scoring a combined 79 points with Anderson as its bell cow — both losses — Jared Goff failed to throw a touchdown. He won't have to worry about the elements anymore, but should we be at all concerned about Goff's uneven close to what had been an MVP-caliber campaign?

Remember, he wasn't very good in his first playoff game, either, completing barely more than 53 percent of his passes and averaging only slightly more than 5.5 yards per attempt vs. Atlanta last January.

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