It’s a bittersweet time of year for avid football fans. We have the most exciting eleven games of the season coming up in the next month but it also means that once a Champion is crowned in Miami on February 7 we will be without football for the foreseeable future. Luckily we have things like the Cardinals signing Matt Holliday to an insane contract to talk about once the dust is settled in the NFL but that is a story for another day. There are twelve teams fighting to win the Superbowl; all season we’ve followed, discussed, dissected, and disagreed over these final twelve. Who is the favorite? How did they get here? Who can we write off? How much does Rex Ryan weigh? All help make up the burning questions going into this Saturday…let’s break these final twelve down, starting with the longshots and working towards the favorites.
Tier 5: “We can build on this!”
12. Bengals (10-6): Cincinnati was a big surprise to everyone by winning the AFC North this season but if you take a step back what exactly makes this team special? Carson Palmer had an okay season, Ochocinco has been great, Cedric Benson can keep defenses honest and their defense is solid but there’s nothing that would make you say “Oh the Bengals are on, I gotta watch this!” Here’s an interesting stat about the Bengals: Since beating the Steelers and Ravens, Cincinnati has gone 3-4 down the stretch. Granted last week’s loss was more of a throwaway game but they beat the woeful Browns, Lions and Chiefs and lost to the Raiders, Vikings, Chargers and Jets. 3-1 vs teams with a top 10 draft pick and 0-3 against teams in the playoffs is not how you want to head into the postseason. This whole year has been emotional for the Bengals, especially with their recent loss of teammate Chris Henry. For the Bengals to move forward into January they are going to need to channel that emotion and find the spark this team has been lacking since mid-November.
11. Jets (9-7): We have to put Herm’s former team with one of his most memorable phrases. There are three things working for the Jets: They can run the ball as well as anyone, they have the#1 overall defense in the league and Darrell Revis can shut down any of their opponents best wide receivers. On paper (or, I suppose, on computer screen) this looks like a recipe for a deep playoff run. However, the Jets have one insurmountable obstacle weighing them down (no pun intended Rex). Rookie Quarterback Mark Sanchez finished the season with 12 TDs and 20 Picks giving him an overall quarterback rating of 63. How can you make an argument that this guy is going to win three straight road playoff games against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and (most likely) San Diego? You can hide your quarterback with a great running game sometimes but what happens when the Jets need a TD in a two minute drill? It’s not happening. This will ultimately cost them but considering they were left in the lurch by Brett Favre, brought in a new Head Coach, and started a rookie quarterback all season the Jets will be a team to look out for moving into the early part of this decade.
Tier 4: A Bit Scary but Flawed
10. Ravens (9-7): The seven losses can be deceiving with the Ravens; they lost to the Patriots, Bengals (twice), Vikings, Colts, Packers and Steelers. Every one of their losses came against a team with a winning record and 5 of those games were on the road. It’s not like they punched their ticket to the postseason like the Jets by having teams lay down in front of them on the way in. The Ravens biggest strength is their running game–just last week in Oakland with Ray Rice taking it easy Willis McGahee stepped up and ran for over 150 yards. They cannot throw the ball with any kind of consistency and their defense is nowhere near where it was at the height of its powers last decade. So we’re looking at a one trick pony here and in a road playoff game in New England its going to take more than that to advance. Flacco has been shaky down the stretch and this team is one of the most undisciplined in the league when it comes to penalties. They can obviously play with anyone (Baltimore only lost by more than a touchdown twice in the aforementioned games), but unreliable receivers and a shaky quarterback on the road with flags flying everyone doesn’t bode well for the postseason, especially in a close game.
9. Patriots (10-6): There’s no getting around the loss of Wes Welker: he was statistically the most productive wide receiver in the NFL and attributed for almost 33% of New England’s offense this year. After thumping Jacksonville a “Look out for New England!” groundswell was brewing but then Welker’s knee blew out and the Pats were left with two great players on offense (Moss and Brady), while everyone else had to step up. Working for them in this first round is the fact that they are at home where they haven’t lost all season and they drew the one of the best possible matchups they could with Baltimore. New England’s run defense is in the top half of the league and Baltimore’s secondary is vulnerable. Plus they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady–a tandem that’s never lost a home playoff game, never lost a Wild Card playoff game and is an astonishing 14-3 in the playoffs together. Look for the Patriots to take care of business at home this Sunday then get rolled in San Diego in another week.
Tier 3: Dangerous
8. Cardinals (10-6): Every week last year we waited for the Cardinals to lose in the playoffs; this was a team that was 9-7 in a horrendous division. We kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting…then they came just one amazing Steelers drive short of being World Champions. Regardless of how shaky they looked at times this year the recipe is identical. If Warner has time the Cardinals offense can keep pace with anyone in the NFL. The potential loss of Anquan Boldin would be a big one but Beanie Wells seems to have established a bit of momentum (last week’s mail-it-in vs the Packers not withstanding) in hopes of keeping Arizona’s high-powered offense balanced. We learned last year that these guys can get hot at any point and remember this is the same team that throttled the Vikings in early December.
7. Eagles (11-5): Live by the big play, die by the big play seems to be Philadelphia’s M.O. entering this postseason. They were a win in Dallas short of a first round playoff bye; this team knew exactly what was at stake if they went in and won last weekend so I am not buying any “they were holding back a little” arguments I’ve been hearing over the last week. Dallas’ defense is exactly how to beat the Eagles: limit their big plays in the passing game by making McNabb uncomfortable with a pass rush and not letting DeSean Jackson get behind the defense. Conversely Dallas can wear down a stout Philly D with a great tandem of playoff running backs and Tony Romo playing the best football of his career. If Philadelphia can get through Dallas they can beat Minnesota, New Orleans, Green Bay or Arizona. I just don’t like the way they match up against Dallas, despite the fact that Wade Phillips will be predominately involved.
6. Packers (11-5): Green Bay can beat you in a number of ways. One thing I haven’t heard talked about much is how the losses of Al Harris and Aaron Kampman have actually improved the Packer defense. Kampman seemed totally lost in Dom Caper’s 3-4 scheme and Al Harris has always had plenty of bravado but ultimately is more hype than anything else when going against premiere recievers (see Moss, Randy 2005 Playoffs otherwise known as: Joe Buck’s Conniption on Fox). Harris and Kampman went down the same week against San Francisco in late November and Green Bay has only lost 1 game since on a miracle throw and catch by Big Ben in Pittsburgh. Green Bay has the #2 ranked overall defense in the NFL and is #6 is total offense, the only other playoff team who have both in the top 6 is Minnesota. This has long been the recipe for postseason success and nobody wants to see the Packers right now.
5. Dallas (11-5): The only thing that prevents me from bumping them higher is that every time there is a cutaway to Wade Phillips I cannot picture him hoisting any kind of trophy. He just looks like he has no idea what’s going on when he releases that “Aww shucks! Dang!” kind of tirades caught on camera. He reminds me a bit of Alan from The Hangover (Zach Galifianakis’ character) when he is emulating Phil after the Doug retrieval goes bad (kicking the dirt helplessly not knowing what he’s doing). It’s safe to say that when an NFL Head Coach reminds me of the dimwitted soon to be brother in law from The Hangover it doesn’t bode well. But Dallas is really good. Marion Barber and Felix Jones provide enough balance to keep the defenses honest and let Tony Romo pick them apart when he’s in a groove. Miles Austin is a coach’s dream: tough, catches everything, will absorb enormous hits and make a big play. Call him the anti-Roy Williams. Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends in football. Their pass rush is tremendous and their secondary and linebackers are also above average. Do they have enough to win in spite of the Michelin Man (my Dad’s name for good ole Wade)? I think so, but I can’t think of a more terrifying proposition for Cowboy fans then being down in a close game with the clock winding and seeing a Wade Phillips deer-in-the-headlights cutaway knowing he’s the guy you need to help bring you to the promise land.
Tier 2: Question Marks
4. Minnesota (12-4): Does Brett Favre have enough left for three more wins? Can he reign it in? Will he implode like he has in recent playoffs? Where’s Adrian Peterson? Has Jared Allen fallen off a bit? How shaky is their secondary? How much control does Brad Childress have? These are just a few of the questions surrounding the Vikings and their potential playoff run. The Vikings finished 2-3 down the stretch after starting off the season 10-2. They got blown out in Arizona, embarrassed in Carolina, somehow lost to the Bears but managed to soundly beat the Bengals and Giants (one of the all time “we don’t want to be here” games I can remember). There has been controversy off the field after a spat between Favre and Childress. I don’t think the Vikings can right the ship in time to beat teams as good as Dallas, Philly, Arizona or even Green Bay. While Dallas and Green Bay have surged into the playoffs the Vikings backed in and almost lost a bye week if it wasn’t for the Eagles getting blown out in Jerryworld last Sunday. It’s hard to get behind a team with no clear leader or identity anymore on either side of the ball.
3. New Orleans (13-3): Is it a good idea to lose all momentum going into the playoffs? Did this team peak on Monday Night against New England? How banged up is their already suspect defense? New Olreans looks like they’ve lost their mojo since losing at home to Dallas three weeks ago. Truly great teams would take out their agression the next week on the lowly Buccanneers but somehow, inexplicably Tampa Bay went into New Orleans and beat them. That’s two straight home losses; one to a team looking for its first significant December win in years and the other looking for its third win of the season. Sean Payton then called off the dogs in Carolina last week and now New Orleans appears dormant heading into January. They hold the most significant homefield advantage of any team in the playoffs and will be there throughout their playoff run. We’ve already seen them lose to Dallas in the Superdome and Green Bay has the defense to keep the Saints in check plus enough firepower to torch the Saints porous secondary; the same goes for Arizona and Philly. However the first round shakes down the Saints will have to find their swagger or it’s one and done on the Bayou after a brilliant start.
2. Indianapolis (14-2): Should they have rested their starters? That’s the only real question that matters with them right now. If they lose the answer is no; if they win it all the answer is…maybe. Indianapolis Star writer Bob Kravitz outlined what the Colts threw away 2 weeks ago. Here’s my biggest issue that has emerged: so we have Bill Polian, one of the greatest personnel men of all time in the NFL, whose philosophy, by all accounts, is rest over risk. So in the Jets game, at home, with thousands of paying customers hoping to see their team go 15-0, the Colts shut it down to avoid any season altering risks. But the next week Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and the rest of the Indianapolis offense take the field in a Buffalo blizzard! It seems that if the Colts can acheive personal records (Manning’s start streak, catches for Wayne and Clark, etc) it’s worth rolling out the starters in the worst weather possible, but when the entire team has a chance at football immortality it’s not worth going for it. That is a complete contradiction and it’s shameful to leave perfection on the table while continuing to rack up individual achievements. I was ready to crown Peyton as the best ever with a 19-0 season. Now I don’t even think they’ll get to Miami.
Tier 1: The Favorite
1. San Diego (13-3): Winners of eleven straight including wins over three playoff teams (Philly, Dallas and Cincinnati). Phil Rivers and his receivers are the toughest matchup for any secondary in football. The Pats’ young and tiny secondary doesn’t stand a chance and the Colts D can’t hang with them either. Rivers has been an MVP level of brilliant this season and there is not a hotter team in football than the Chargers. They remind me of the 2003 Patriots, who started 2-2 and didn’t lose another game all season straight through the Superbowl. There was nothing flashy about those Patriots the won big, the won in the final 2 minutes, they held leads and moved the chains when needed. San Diego seems to have the same set of tools. The Chargers are good enough on defense to stay in games and they have an offense that can milk a lead or comeback if needed. Much like Wade Phillips is an obstacle in Dallas, Norv Turner’s track record doesn’t hold up that well either. However, this team played in the AFC Championship two years ago and lost to the eventual Champions (Pittsburgh) in the divisional round last year. They have also beaten the Colts each of the last two seasons when it mattered the most. On the road, at home, in Miami; it doesn’t matter, the Chargers are ready to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Wild Card Round
New York Jets over Cincinnati
Dallas over Philadelphia
New England over Baltimore
Green Bay over Arizona
San Diego over New England
Dallas over Minnesota
Indianapolis over New York Jets
New Orleans over Green Bay
San Diego over Indianapolis
Dallas over New Orleans
San Diego over Dallas
(America over Armageddon when Wade Phillips and Norv Turner face off in Miami)