The regular season is over, slates are clean and each of the 14 teams to make the NFL playoffs have new optimism for ending the 2021 season with a Super Bowl title.

No matter their odds entering the year, each team remaining has a chance to go all the way. Over the course of 18 weeks, they all showed what they’re capable of. Now it’s just a matter of emphasizing those respective strengths, minimizing their weaknesses and limiting opponents from doing the same for the next four weeks. Whoever does it at the highest level will likely hoist the Lombardi Trophy when the big game wraps on Feb. 13.

Let’s take a look at each playoff team in the NFC and why it could be them:

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The Packers have been the best team all season, led by MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers. To win the title, they simply need to continue what they’ve been doing: running the ball effectively, targeting Davante Adams a lot, keeping their turnovers down and limiting big plays on defense.

The brilliance of Rodgers this season is that he’s getting a lot more done than other quarterbacks in fewer tries. He’s just 11th in the NFL in pass completions but fourth in touchdowns. He has the sixth-best yards per attempt average of starting quarterbacks, yet he’s also thrown the fewest interceptions. He’s not top 10 in terms of pass attempts or yards per game, but his league-best passer rating means he’s getting the most out of the passes he does make. 

To win a Super Bowl title, Green Bay has to keep that balance by not putting Rodgers in a position where he’s doing everything. The Packers aren’t a dominant running team, but they’re effective and more importantly committed. If they keep that commitment, their balanced offensive approach will build leads that force other teams to abandon their own rushing attack – the one thing that can work against the Packers.

Before the Bucs repeat as Super Bowl champions, they have to get healthy. And they will. Running back Leonard Fournette, and pass rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are all expected to be back for the team’s Wild Card game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Linebacker Lavonte David could also return.

These are all big time players who contribute to the team Tampa Bay is at its best. Sure, Tom Brady is having one of his best seasons ever, but the Bucs won the Super Bowl last year in part because of a defense that hounded Patrick Mahomes all game. Barrett, Pierre-Paul and David were all contributors.

Fournette’s return is huge for two reasons. First, he was Brady’s fourth-most targeted player. With Chris Godwin (injury) and Antonio Brown (released) out of the picture, Fournette’s role as a pass catcher will be more a necessity than luxury. Finally, he’ll help keep defenses honest. Tampa averages 98 rushing yards per game this season but that number is just 69 in losses. The three games they had the fewest run attempts all resulted in losses. Tom Brady is having an all-time season, but he’s been a little more human when the Bucs are predictable on offense. They can’t be that if he wants to claim an eighth ring.

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Dallas did a little stat-padding in Week 18, playing a mostly meaningless game against an Eagles team resting some of its starters for the playoffs. But maybe Dak Prescott tossing five touchdowns to claim the franchise record, Ezekiel Elliott eclipsing 1,000 yards for a fourth time in his career and the team completely annihilating the backups of a division foe gives them a little extra juice going into the playoffs. If that’s the case, then it was all for a good cause.

Dallas’ offense has been up and down this season, but to win a Super Bowl, it’ll need to carry the good vibes from that finale into the postseason. It was the Cowboys’ second 50-point game in three weeks, and that’s not outside the realm of possibility for them to replicate given the amount of weapons they possess (they led the league in yards for a reason). 

Even in the more likely scenario that they’re falling short of 50 points, a more consistent Prescott and aerial attack will still generate enough points to secure wins with the way their defense can take the ball away. DC Dan Quinn completely turned that unit around from past seasons. Going all the way will require the defense to keep building on its league-leading takeaway and interception totals.

The best thing the Rams can do to get their title-run off on the right foot is ease Matthew Stafford into his fourth career playoff game with short passes and by running the ball. He may be a 13-year veteran, but this season has always been title or bust for the Rams and the majority of that pressure is divided between head coach Sean McVay and his savior quarterback.

Also, Stafford, for all his upside, is prone to make mistakes. He tied rookie Trevor Lawrence for the league-lead in interceptions and he also led the league in pick sixes with four. The Rams don’t run the ball very well, but they simply need to do it to show they will and make Stafford’s job a little easier.

Finally, for the Rams to win the Super Bowl, the different playmakers they’ve acquired over the years have to make plays when they matter most. Jalen Ramsey came up with a big interception Sunday against the 49ers and Von Miller had a big sack – his fourth straight game with one. They need more of that, including on the offensive side from players like Odell Beckham Jr. and, of course, Stafford when the opportunities present themselves.

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Over the first nine weeks of the season, the Cardinals looked to be the best team in the NFC. They were clicking on both offense and defense, quarterback Kyler Murray was playing at an MVP level and head coach Kliff Kingsbury was in the early Coach of the Year talk. Then, injuries to Murray, J.J. Watt and Deandre Hopkins seemed to disrupt their rhythm and they haven’t recovered since. 

A team that started the season 7-0 finished it 4-6, barely crawling over the finish line. To win the Super Bowl, the Cards have to pick themselves up, and it starts with Kingsbury. Losing his quarterback was a tough blow, but since Murray’s return, the Cards are averaging just 23 points – down from almost 31 before his injury. Kingsbury is sold as the type of offensive mind capable of getting this unit back on track, so that’s what he’ll have to do.

A big help would be if the Cards feed their running backs; they’re 9-0 in games they’ve been able to run the ball at least 30 times. And Murray has to play better and trust the receivers who are active. While Hopkins is an exceptional talent who makes things easier, his absence doesn’t mean Murray is lacking in capable targets. The Cards still have the personnel to grind out a game or two without Watt and Hopkins. If they do that before eventually adding those players to a roster with some newfound grit, the Cardinals could be one of the more enjoyable Super Bowl champions in recent memory.

The 49ers pulled off one of the biggest Week 18 wins Sunday by digging out of a 17-0 hole to the division champion Rams to win in overtime and clinch their spot in this postseason. When they play with the desperation they did in the second half of that game, the sky is really the limit for them.

San Francisco is a top-10 team in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for both offense and defense. The team is sixth in overall DVOA. The Niners can hang with any team in the NFL on both sides of the ball, but they’ve had a hard time consistently putting it all together. 

For them to reach and win the Super Bowl, the defense will have to play like the top-three unit in fewest yards allowed that it is for an entire four-week stretch. Head coach Kyle Shanahan will need to continue showing the offensive creativity that has allowed that side to flash at times – keep getting the ball to Deebo Samuel, a lot – and Jimmy Garoppolo will need to realize that a team like that only needs a game manager, not the hero. 

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Looking at this team, it’s hard to imagine they just won a Super Bowl four years ago. But that’s how fast things change in the NFL and gone are the days of Nick Foles and Carson Wentz. This team is Jalen Hurts’, and if they’re going to win a Super Bowl, he’ll be the engine that makes it happen.

Hurts is the sole reason why Philadelphia leads the league in rushing yards per game, as he finished 22nd himself in total yards with 784 – edging Lamar Jackson for the most by a quarterback. But the threat of him taking off makes it difficult for defenses to key in on the running backs, which has allowed for Miles Sanders to nearly match Hurts with 754 yards on 5.5 yards per carry. Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell all averaged over 4 yards per carry, too. 

Hurts’ ability to take off has also opened up passing lanes which he’ll have to exploit with more consistency if the Eagles want to win a title. He’s shown an ability to do so in select games this season, but hasn’t put together a stretch of it…yet. Once he does that, a team that already ranks 12th in scoring can crack the top five. Their defense struggled to keep points down against the best teams on their schedule, but an offense that can sustain drives helps in that regard and hopefully keeps the defense fresh enough to make timely plays, too.

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