Can 2 rookies lead Dallas back to the top?
Dak Prescott was quite the revelation and consolation for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was outmaneuvered for first-rounder Paxton Lynch and third-rounder Connor Cook in the NFL draft last April.
Jones chose Prescott with the 135th pick of the fourth round, and Tony Romo's training camp injury microwaved plans to ease the rookie from Mississippi State into the rotation.
Now Prescott is aiming to become the first starting QB to win a Super Bowl as a rookie , and he has the supporting cast to make it happen, including fellow rookie Zeke Elliott and perhaps the best offensive line in the league.
The rest of the NFC field features teams with experienced quarterbacks who could squelch those plans, however, including Matt Ryan of the high-flying Falcons , who also earned a first-round bye.
The showcase of wild-card weekend comes Sunday when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers host Eli Manning and the Giants. On Saturday, Matthew Stafford and the Lions visit Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
The biggest strength and weakness of each of the six NFC playoff teams:
1. DALLAS (13-3), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 30, 27-17 over Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, 1996.
Hope: Prescott and Elliott keep rolling right along and don't allow the pressure of the playoffs to get to them. Coach Jason Garrett used the season finale against Philadelphia to allow Romo to shake off the rust , just in case. While many playoff teams have QB issues, Dallas has depth at the position.
Nope: The rookies could run out of magic in the playoffs, especially if a defense short on headlining playmakers gives one of the NFC's elite passers plenty of time to work over a secondary that hasn't produced many interceptions over the last two seasons.
The Dope: "We're as healthy as we've been all year. We've got players we didn't dream we would have when we started training camp. Let's let it all empty the bucket in our three games. Whatever we can do, think of, let's do it over those three games." — Jones, seeking his fourth ring but first 21 years.
2. ATLANTA (11-5), no Lombardi Trophies: lost Super Bowl 33 to Denver 33-19 on Jan. 31, 1999.
Hope: Exceptionally deep and balanced offense. Ryan threw a team record 38 TD passes and to an NFL record 13 targets. Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson provide big-play potential behind top WRs Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. OC Kyle Shanahan is THE hot head-coaching candidate.
Nope: Despite a league-high 540 points, the defense isn't all that. Even though youngsters Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and Vic Beasley have transformed Atlanta's defense, the unit needs help. The Falcons allowed 19 fourth-quarter points in Sunday's 38-32 win over New Orleans. How will it fair against Green Bay or Dallas?
The Dope: "It's obviously nice to be mentioned, for sure. That's special. But at the end of the day, we've got bigger things in front of us." — Ryan on MVP chatter.
3. SEATTLE (10-5-1), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 48, 43-8 over Denver, Feb. 2, 2014.
Hope: The Seahawks are an experienced team that has won at least one playoff game in each of the last seasons. Wilson remains an uncanny playmaker who can make something out of nothing and Seattle's defense still elite. The Seahawks' signature win in New England in November shows they can win anytime, anywhere.
Nope: Seattle enters the playoffs on a whimper . The run game has been AWOL for almost a month and the defense hasn't been the same since star safety Earl Thomas broke his left leg in December. The loss of Tyler Lockett also eliminated one of Seattle's key playmakers on offense and special teams.
The Dope: "Everything that's already happened doesn't matter at all. Everyone wants to project how it's going to go based on the finish. You can't tell. It's how you deal with it, how you go about your business, and then when it comes to game time, how you execute, then how you handle the wins." coach Pete Carroll.
4. GREEN BAY (10-6), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 45, 31-25 over Pittsburgh, Feb. 6, 2011.
Hope: Rodgers is on a roll. And when he gets going, the Packers look unstoppable, capable of building big leads and coming back from any deficit. After a 1-2 start in 2014, Rodgers famously admonished fans to R-E-L-A-X. This time, after a 4-6 start, he came up with "run the table" that led to another NFC North title.
Nope: The defense is depleted at cornerback. The offense has been on a remarkable run of mistake-free football during its winning streak, but doesn't have a real running threat. The Packers could be hard-pressed to keep up in high-scoring games like they were during a midseason four-game skid.
The Dope: "We dug ourselves a hole at 4-6. We're out of it now. And now the real challenge is starting. It's playoff football and it's a one-game season." — coach Mike McCarthy.
5. NEW YORK GIANTS (11-5), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 46, 21-17 over New England, Feb. 5, 2012.
Hope: The Giants allowed an NFC-low 17.75 points a game , second in the league to the Patriots (14.06). Steve Spagnuolo's unit has allowed 10 points or fewer in three of the last four games. Over the final 11 games opponents averaged just 16 points.
Nope: The Giants need that stingy defense because of their ineffective offense. They're ranked 25th in the league. Only the Texans (29th) are ranked lower among playoff teams. New York didn't score 30 points in any game during the season and hasn't even reached 20 points since Nov. 27 against the hapless Browns.
The Dope: "Are the guys going to be prepared, are the guys going to be ready, are the guys going to be ready for the speed? There's no question in my mind about it." — Linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who has won Super Bowls with the Saints and Patriots.
6. DETROIT (9-7), No Super Bowl appearances.
Hope: Stafford is clutch in crunch time . The No. 1 overall pick from the 2009 draft is the first QB to lead eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since the 1970 merger. However, he did struggle with a finger injury down the stretch.
Nope: Like many teams in this age of spread offenses in college failing to produce NFL-ready linemen, the Lions have O-line woes and a banged-up backfield. They rank 30th in the league in the rushing. Stafford's been sacked an NFL-most 37 times and Zach Zenner is their top RB with Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah hurt.
The Dope: "If you're in, you've got a chance. Obviously we'll have a chance to get better, the things we need to still work on we can improve upon." — coach Jim Caldwell.
Cowboys' Randy Gregory gets 1-year ban for substance abuse
SCHUYLER DIXON, AP Sports Writer
FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dallas defensive end Randy Gregory was suspended for at least a year Thursday for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
It's the third time this season Gregory has been suspended. The first was a four-game ban, followed by 10 games on top of that. The latest suspension makes him ineligible for the playoffs, which start Jan. 15 for Dallas, the top seed in the NFC.
The suspension is for one calendar year, meaning Gregory could be eligible for the playoffs without another violation if the Cowboys make it again next season. Gregory can apply for reinstatement to Commissioner Roger Goodell 60 days before the anniversary of the suspension.
Gregory played the final two games of his second regular season, recording the first sack of his career in the finale against Philadelphia.
The 24-year-old former Nebraska standout slid to the second round of the 2015 draft over off-field concerns that included a positive test for marijuana at the NFL combine.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said he intends to support Gregory, but the latest ban raises doubt as to whether he will be on the Dallas roster when he is eligible to return. He only has one full season remaining in 2018 under his four-year rookie contract, and it won't cost the Cowboys much to cut him.
Gregory was considered one of the best pass rushers in his draft, and the Cowboys were comfortable with the gamble late in the second round.
There was promise early with a strong rookie training camp and vows from Gregory that he wanted to make good on his word to Jones that he could control his issues with marijuana. But he only made it through one season, and didn't have a sack while missing four games with an ankle injury.
The first suspension was announced last February, and he was away from the team during training camp while in rehab. The second suspension was announced in September, but Gregory remained with the team while serving the 14-game ban.
Under the latest suspension, Gregory can't participate in club activities and is banned from team facilities except for sessions with the person in charge of his treatment.