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Unlike AFC and Pats, NFC doesn't have team to fear

Never have two wild-card teams met in a conference championship. The NFC seems ripe for that possibility this month.

Unlike in the AFC, where the New England Patriots loom, much as they did in their undefeated 2007 season, as that opponent to be feared, the NFC is wide open. So much so that both road teams this weekend, the Saints and Packers, own victories against their hosts.

Wins for New Orleans at Seattle and Green Bay at Philadelphia hardly are farfetched. Indeed, outside of the Seahawks (7-9) - the first division winner with a losing record - pulling off a monumental upset, the NFC is a five-team grab bag.

Once you get into the postseason, no one's really interested in how you got there,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said.That's been the history of our league.''

The history of the league since 2000 has been that wild-card teams have a decent chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and top seeds are anything but a lock. Last year, when the Saints beat the Colts for the championship, it was the first time the No. 1 seeds in each conference made the big game since 1993.

In the last decade, wild-card teams got to the Super Bowl three times; they all won it: Baltimore in the 2001 game, Pittsburgh in 2006 and the Giants in 2008.

Could we have a fifth seed against a sixth seed in a title game this year? If so, look to the NFC.

New Orleans, after all, is the defending champion and should have an easy time with Seattle, which it beat 34-19 in November. Green Bay, plagued by key injuries more than any other contender, defeated the Eagles at Philly in the season opener and has that dangerous look about it reminiscent of the Steelers who won three road games before beating Seattle in the '06 Super Bowl.

We did not execute at the level we're capable of, but we're 10-6, we're in the playoffs, we're a damn good offense, and we need to get ready for Philadelphia,'' coach Mike McCarthy said, noting the balance his team can have.We've lost some games here, but we've been in every single contest. ``I've always referred to (the defense) as the thermostat. They control the temperature, they control what's going on every time we compete. It gives us an opportunity to play offense the way we do.''

True, the Saints and Packers would need to be road stars to get to the Super Bowl - although New Orleans would get the home-field edge in any meeting with Green Bay, which only could come in the championship.

Even truer, it's senseless to dismiss the teams above them - other than the Seahawks.

Atlanta has the conference's best record, 13-3, and quietly has been the NFC's top team. It might be a bit inexperienced in key contests, but Atlanta has a rapidly developing quarterback in Matt Ryan, an all-time great tight end in Tony Gonzalez, and a stud running back in Michael Turner. The defense has several playmakers, led by end John Abraham.

But the Saints went into the Georgia Dome two weeks ago and, despite their best efforts to give away the game, beat the Falcons. Atlanta's worst game of the season was at Philadelphia, and the Packers also bumbled enough to lose at the Falcons' dome.

As good as they have been, do the Falcons make the opposition tremble? Not quite.

We better be confident about it,'' Gonzalez said of the challenge ahead,but we know it's going to take a lot of hard work and we're going to have to face some good teams that are going to try and get at us. I think if we can play like we're capable of playing, we can beat any team.''

And any team can beat them, including second-seeded Chicago, another club that hasn't gotten the attention its turnaround season deserves. Lovie Smith has done a masterful coaching job, with the defense, sparked by the return to health of Brian Urlacher, capable of shutting down just about anybody. The offense, particularly with running back Matt Forte breaking out in the second half of the schedule, can be efficient. Special teams, led by returner Devin Hester, are, well, special.

Chicago also is error-prone, especially when Jay Cutler is pressured. Nearly every potential NFC opponent is capable of doing so to the quarterback.

So the folks in Nawlins who got to celebrate that home victory over the Vikings in overtime a year ago for the NFC championship shouldn't write off hosting another early Mardi Gras against the Packers.

That's how wide open the NFC is.

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