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Sunday, January 4, 2009
Updated: January 7, 9:15 AM ET
Eagles, Cardinals soaring, but can you bet against Giants and Panthers?

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Justin Tuck & Julius Peppers
In their respective NFC divisional playoff games next weekend, which Pro Bowl pass-rusher is going to be more dominant, the Giants' Justin Tuck versus the Eagles or the Panthers' Julius Peppers against the Cardinals?
The NFC portion of wild-card weekend certainly turned out to be wild. We learned that the Arizona Cardinals apparently do know how to play defense and that running the football isn't a lost art for that team. The Philadelphia Eagles were even more impressive. They proved they're still as focused and dangerous as they appeared when they stormed into the postseason with that season-ending, blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

But we all know championship-caliber teams can't get too giddy about surviving their first test of the playoffs. They have to keep gaining momentum while bracing themselves for the next big challenge that awaits them. That's what successful teams do best: They simply never let themselves believe there isn't a tougher test blocking their path to glory.

So now that we've reached the playoffs' divisional round, it's a good time to ponder some of the questions still facing the final four teams left in this NFC race:

1. Are the Eagles this year's version of the New York Giants?

It's starting to seem that way. The Eagles had to grind out their 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, but that effort also said plenty about this team's mental toughness. They had to struggle to gain both yards and points in an extremely hostile environment and they eventually made the plays they had to make.

What's also apparent is this team is as loose as it's been all season, which is exactly the quality that New York had going for it when it went from a wild-card entry in last year's playoffs to Super Bowl champs. "What you're seeing," said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, "is a team playing with a lot of energy and emotion and basically just having fun out there."

2. Which Cardinals defense will show up this week: The one that shut down Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner or the one that played horribly in the final six weeks of the regular season?

The Cardinals are about to come back to earth when they visit the Carolina Panthers on Saturday. Yes, Arizona was jacked up for its 30-24 win over Atlanta on Jan. 3 and deserves credit for holding Turner to just 42 yards on 18 carries. But let's not assume this team is ready to shut everybody else down. The Falcons made plenty of mistakes -- from critical dropped passes to missed assignments -- that helped Arizona's defense appear more dominant. The Panthers aren't likely to make those same errors Saturday.

3. Carolina's defense surrendered 65 points combined in its last two regular-season games. Should the Panthers be concerned with Arizona's high-scoring offense coming to town?
No. Sure, the numbers don't look good, but the Panthers' defense also was worn down toward the end of the regular season. Both starting defensive tackles (Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu) sat out the regular-season finale, a win over New Orleans, and the Panthers' bye gave them valuable rest. The Panthers also know the best way to help their defense is to run the football and control the clock. With the dangerous tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, they'll get back to doing just that.

4. Which team coming off a bye is likely to look sharper, the Giants or the Panthers?
The Giants should be the more focused of the two. Head coach Tom Coughlin has had this team ready to play all season long, and you better believe he hasn't been stroking his players' egos during the bye. Plus, the Giants know their road to Tampa, Fla., will be much harder than it was a year ago because they can't sneak up on anybody.
"The biggest thing Coach Coughlin always tells us is that we still have something to prove," said Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon. "And that's how we're looking at the playoffs."

5. Can the Eagles run the ball against the Giants after managing just 67 yards against the Vikings?
They better hope so. As well as Donovan McNabb played in Sunday's game, the Eagles need a balanced attack to deal with the Giants' defense. After all, the Giants have allowed at least 100 yards rushing to three of the past four runners they've faced, including 131 yards to Eagles running back Brian Westbrook in a 20-14 Giants loss on Dec. 7. Westbrook said he wasn't frustrated with his rushing numbers against Minnesota (20 carries for 38 yards) but he knows that production must improve next Sunday. "We have a great offensive line," Westbrook said. "I just need to find some more wiggle room so I can make a play."

6. Can the Cardinals keep running the football as they did against Atlanta?

Probably not. The Cardinals deserve credit for making a stronger commitment to the run against the Falcons, but this team still had the worst rushing offense in the league. It's just impossible to think Edgerrin James is going to continue playing well (he has 173 combined yards in his past two games) after playing so miserably the rest of the season. The same holds true for fellow Cardinals runner Tim Hightower. When it comes down to it, this is a team that will need to throw to beat Carolina.

7. Which Pro Bowl pass-rusher is going to be more dominant this weekend, the Giants' Justin Tuck or the Panthers' Julius Peppers?

Take Tuck on this one. He's proved to be as dangerous a defender as the Giants expected (he had a career-high 12 sacks in his first full season as a starter) and he's going against an Eagles offensive line that had some struggles Sunday. If Jared Allen could produce two sacks and a forced fumble without the help of two starters on the Vikings' defensive line (both end Ray Edwards and defensive tackle Pat Williams were sidelined with injuries), Tuck should cause similar chaos with a healthier supporting cast around him.

8. Which player could be the X factor in the Giants-Eagles game?

Jason Avant. The Eagles' best big-play threat is rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson, but Avant is quietly making a name for himself as a clutch target on third downs. He caught five passes for 47 yards against Minnesota and many of those plays helped move the chains on critical drives. It's apparent that McNabb trusts him more. Now Avant has to show he can keep delivering the key reception against the Giants.

"Jason continues to work hard every day," McNabb said. "Being in the slot, he's gained a lot of confidence from me and the other guys that he can convert those third downs when we need them. We just have to keep giving him the opportunity to make plays for us."

9. Which player could be the X factor in the Panthers-Cardinals game?

Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers were excited to get this 13-year veteran wide receiver back on their roster during the offseason and now we know why: The guy can play. Muhammad had 65 receptions for 923 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season and his blocking remains as good as it gets from an NFL receiver. Quarterback Jake Delhomme also loves having a proven playmaker who can be relied on when defenses devote too much focus to Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith. So look for Muhammad to provide some valuable contributions to the Panthers' offense this weekend.

10. Which teams are going to advance to the NFC Championship Game?

New York and Carolina. The Eagles seem scary, they beat the Giants once and played them tough back in November (a 36-31 loss in Philadelphia), but the Giants coming off the bye makes them too tough to pick against. As for the Panthers, all you have to know is Arizona was 0-5 when it traveled to the East Coast this season, including a 27-23 loss to Carolina on Oct. 26. The Cardinals aren't about to find some magic cure for those problems this time around.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.