With the Wild Card round set to kick off tomorrow evening, 12 teams find themselves just a few wins from glory. While 11 of those teams will ultimately finish this season empty-handed, for one team, Super Bowl XLIII will become their proudest moment. The question looms, who will it be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa come Feb. 1?
Success in the NFL playoffs is greatly about getting hot at the right time. In fact, many seasons the "best" team doesn't even win, just ask the New England Patriots about that. Getting hot at the right time are the Eagles and Colts, whereas the Cardinals and Vikings have slid their way into the playoffs.
So what will that mean for the outcome of the playoffs this season? Here are my picks.
Falcons (11-5) @ Cardinals (9-7)- The Arizona Cardinals have been pretty bad as of late, and many suggest that they are only here because of how bad their division was. The Cardinals have trouble running the ball and don't scare anyone on defense, but they certainly can pass the ball well.
The Falcons have rode Michael Turner and rookie sensation Matt Ryan to 11 wins this season. Ryan has played well beyond his years all season and should continue that against the Cardinals.
Falcons 30, Cardinals 23
Colts (12-4) @ Chargers (8-8)- Peyton Manning is playing at an incredibly high level, and the Colts are rolling. The Chargers finished at .500 and had to beat the Broncos just to get in. The Colts are surely favored, but the Chargers have given Indianapolis fits in the past and it could very well continue. Colts pull out a close one.
Colts 27, Chargers 24
Ravens (11-5) @ Dolphins (11-5)- Despite capping their monumental turnaround, the Dolphins are getting no love. The Ravens are too smart and fast on defense to let the wildcat hurt them, and it will be tough for Chad Pennington to throw.
How will Joe Flacco fair in his first playoff game? Ravens should be able to play just enough defense to leave Miami with a win.
Ravens 17, Dolphins 9
Eagles (9-6-1) @ Vikings (10-6)- Somehow the idea of Tarvaris Jackson against the Eagles' defense just does not seem to leave the Vikings with much of a chance. The Vikings only hope is to get a lead early and pound the ball with Adrian Peterson. There is no team coming into the playoffs with more momentum than the Eagles, and they will find a way to get it done.
Eagles 23, Vikings 13
Ravens (12-5) @ Titans (13-3)- Good defenses, good running games. The x-factor? Which quarterback will play better? Somehow I just don't think the Titans are really as good as their record indicates, and the Ravens have beaten Kerry Collins in a big game before. Flacco and the Ravens offense do just enough to win a close defensive battle.
Ravens 16, Titans 10
Falcons (12-5) @ Panthers (12-4)- This has the makings of a great game. These teams know each other, and they run similar offenses. Whoever is able to stick to the run longer will prevail. Carolina hasn't lost at home, and they will find a way to rattle Matt Ryan just enough.
Jake Delhomme is a battle-tested playoff quarterback and will again come up big for Carolina.
Panthers 27, Falcons 14
Eagles (10-6-1) @ Giants (12-4)- The Eagles will hope that this trip to Giants Stadium ends like their last. The Eagles will try and stack the box and force the Giants to pass. The Giants will be keying on Brian Westbrook to avoid a letting him run wild again. This may come down to McNabb vs. Manning. I expect the upset.
Eagles 24, Giants 17
Colts (13-4) @ Steelers (12-4)- The last time these two tangled it was a great one. This could be the best game of the entire playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger will have a tough time throwing with the Colts' speed rushers breathing down his neck all day. Peyton Manning will get it done as he has all season. The Steelers just won't have enough offense.
Colts 23, Steelers 16
Ravens (13-5) @ Colts (14-4)- Two wild-card teams playing for a Super Bowl spot? I think it can happen. I could see the Ravens running game giving the Colts trouble, but it would be a lot to think Joe Flacco will play well enough in a hostile dome stadium to match Peyton Manning. Certainly though, Ed Reed could always do enough to win it for the Ravens but I think the Colts will have just enough on both sides of the ball.
Colts 26, Ravens 17
Eagles (11-6-1) @ Panthers (13-4)- If you think the Eagles have forgotten their home loss to Carolina in the '02 Championship game, you would be wrong. If the Eagles get here they will be on a roll. While the edge would go to Carolina at home, the Eagles will be able to deal with the Panthers cut-back running style, and Brian Westbrook will have a big game. Should be a close one.
Eagles 31, Panthers 27
Super Bowl XLIII
Colts (15-4) vs. Eagles (12-6-1)
If there is anyone who could pick apart the Eagles blitz-heavy man to man defense it is Peyton Manning. If there is any back who could shred the Colts like none other it would be Brian Westbrook. Will Donovan McNabb be able to overcome his prior Super Bowl let-down?
Give Peyton two weeks to study this defense and he will pick them apart. At least there is no Philly curse to blame it on this time, but is it really fathomable for Philadelphia to win two championships in a row? Not this year.
Colts 38, Eagles 24
I've decided to go with the hot-hands and pick the two teams who are the hottest going into the playoffs. Three straight years of Manning Championships could very well happen. The question is, how right or wrong will I ultimately be?