1. EAST: COWBOYS (7--1) Tony Romo is making the right throws, has two strong backs in Marion Barber and Julius Jones, and continues to build on his chemistry with Terrell Owens and Jason Witten. On defense, the Cowboys are creating pressure and turnovers despite holes in the deep secondary. If the D can make as many big plays as the offense, Dallas will go to the Super Bowl. SCOUT'S TAKE "As long as Romo rides high, the Cowboys will too. They do a good job stopping the run and rushing the passer."
2. NORTH: PACKERS (7--1) For a change, Green Bay is getting production from both sides of the ball. Brett Favre looks wonderful in retirement—if Tom Brady and Randy Moss weren't playing keepaway with the MVP trophy, he might already have it locked up—the D-line is sturdy, and Charles Woodson and Al Harris form one of the best corner tandems in the league. SCOUT'S TAKE "Favre has been on the money, and the play-calling has helped. If they're going to win, it will be because of Brett, and it looks to me like he's doing it again."
3. SOUTH: BUCS (5--4) Quarterback Jeff Garcia has the experience, guile and toughness to give Tampa Bay a puncher's chance. Once the Bucs get Michael Pittman back from injury, they'll have more options in the run game. SCOUT'S TAKE "Injury, age and their inability to go downfield are problems. But the coach is fighting for his job, and whenever Jon Gruden is put in a situation where he's challenged, he responds."
4. WEST: SEAHAWKS (4--4) In a division that is competitive for all the wrong reasons, Seattle at least has the muscle memory of a playoff team. But Shaun Alexander, once the top runner in the conference, may be hitting the wall typical for backs at age 30: He's averaging 3.3 yards a carry and has just two rushing touchdowns. SCOUT'S TAKE "They haven't run the ball well, they haven't had consistent quarterback play, they haven't stopped anyone on defense—but they might have time to correct some of it."
5. WILD CARD: GIANTS (6--2) On one good ankle Plaxico Burress has become an elite receiver. But the Giants are winning games with their defense. They can create pressure on the edges and up the middle. Don't expect them to wear down this year. SCOUT'S TAKE "Eli Manning is almost there. You can almost trust him. The two power runners, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, are going to be valuable down the stretch."
6. WILD CARD: SAINTS (4--4) It's been 15 years since a team began the season 0--4 and made the playoffs, but New Orleans has huffed and puffed its way back and has the tools to put a scare into the Bucs. Drew Brees is clicking with his receivers, and Reggie Bush is getting more opportunities to make plays in space. SCOUT'S TAKE "With the line getting healthy, Brees has more time to get the ball outside. The Saints could still struggle when they have to run because they don't have a pounder."
TWO MORE TO WATCH Jon Kitna and the Lions (6--2) are playing with confidence, but their schedule—Giants, Cowboys and Packers (twice), plus a trip to San Diego—could undo the great start. Defense has carried the Redskins (5--3). Now, if Clinton Portis can continue pounding away, it could free up the offense for more quick-strike opportunities.
WILD-CARD ROUND Giants def. Seahawks, Saints def. Bucs
DIVISIONAL ROUND Cowboys def. Saints, Packers def. Giants
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP Cowboys def. Packers
GAME FACE Favre is playing as well as he ever has—and he has a solid defense backing him.