NFL preview: Lions v Eagles, Seahawks v 49ers, Panthers at Saints

Calvin Johnson

The NFC playoff picture takes centre stage this weekend with three games all carrying serious postseason implications. The highlight will be a pair of intense divisional rivalries.

Here's what to look for this Sunday.

Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles: Creative Offenses Will Dominate

When the Detroit Lions travel to Philadelphia to take on the resurgent Eagles, they will hope to match a prolific offense with one of their own.

The Eagles are third in the NFL in total offense. Their success has been keyed by the emergence of second-year quarterback Nick Foles.

The strong-armed passer has been thriving in head coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced, unorthodox scheme. Foles boasts a league-best 125.2 passer rating and has thrown 19 touchdowns without an interception.

He has been superbly complemented by the second-best ground game in football, led by LeSean McCoy. But it's not just personnel that is separating the Philly attack from the rest.

Kelly's unique formations, some featuring offensive tackles lined up as slot receivers, are creating mismatches every week.

The breakneck pace he insists upon is allowing the Eagles to overwhelm defenses for numerous big plays.

But as impressive as Kelly's group has been, the Lions have been just as effective. They rank second in the NFL in total yards, producing 424.5 per game.

True balance is what has made them so dangerous this season. The connection between quarterback Matthew Stafford and dominant wide receiver Calvin Johnson is still as prolific as ever.

But now the Lions boast a productive and versatile running game. Veteran Reggie Bush and young bruiser Joique Bell are combining to wear down defenses every week.

Coordinator Scott Linehan is calling a creative array of plays to maximize the wealth of talent at this disposal. He is making use of every weapon, including 6'7" rookie tight end Joseph Fauria, who has developed a niche as a lethal target in the red zone.

Theses offenses may take time to get going this Sunday, but eventually their creative approaches to scoring points will dominate the game.

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: It will Be Bully vs. Bully In Premier NFC West battle

The two biggest bullies in the NFL yard will face off in San Francisco when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks. There is genuine animosity between these NFC West rivals and it stems from the similar way they both approach the game.

They are each built to be a bully and physically dominate the opposition. Most of the time that formula works for the 49ers.

But the Seahawks, along with the Baltimore Ravens, have proved that the reigning NFC champions can't always stand up to a bully as big as them.

The Seahawks have thrashed the 49ers in their last two meetings, both in Seattle. They will rely on their punishing defense to swarm all over struggling dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Of course, the 49ers will turn their own marauding unit loose against Seattle's playmaker under center, Russell Wilson. The San Fran defense has been boosted by the return of premier pass-rusher Aldon Smith. He has helped the unit get back to playing a simple scheme that lets talent dominate.

Whichever defense can shut down their rival's power-based rushing attack will likely win the game.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: Can Carolina's Destructive Front Four Stifle Drew Brees?

The eventual winner of the NFC South is likely to emerge from the Carolina Panthers late clash with the New Orleans Saints.

For the Panthers to win on the road, they will need their destructive defensive line to stifle quarterback Drew Brees. Carolina possesses one of the most imposing front fours in the league.

Their top-ranked scoring defense has amassed 39 sacks, with 25 coming from the D-line rotation. That level of pressure up front is sure to frustrate Brees.

It can help the Panthers rely on the same formula Seattle used to trounce the Saints in Week 13. The Seahawks relied on a rotation of pass-rushing linemen to harass Brees in the pocket.

They played a disciplined, deep zone-coverage shell behind the pressure. That combination took away the big-play potential the Saints often count on.

The Panthers have the players, including star defensive end pairing Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, to make this plan work again.

Don't rule out head coach Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott also designing some blitzes to challenge Brees. Both have a strong background in pressure defenses and are sure to supplement their front four with additional rushers.

The onus will be on Brees and his stable of roving playmakers to manufacture some big gains against the toughest defense in the NFL.

images: © pdaphoto, © Kevind810

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