The NFL regular season is officially over.
A lockout, hurried offseason and 256 games later, the playoffs are finally amongst us.
The national media love to consume the storylines written on the field by the players who make up the Xs and Os. Viewing audiences are intrigued by the drama and exciting contests between the league’s best.
As we prepare for the playoffs, 10 storylines of the postseason’s 12 clubs will factor in to the viewing audience’s attention like none other.
Here are the top 10 storylines going into the 2011 NFL postseason.
They’re a team led by a rookie quarterback, rookie receiver and a rebuilt defense.
I would argue that because Marv Lewis managed to get a group of youngsters to the postseason, he should have a horse in the race for NFL Coach of the Year.
We saw it last season when the AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs got destroyed by the Baltimore Ravens at home. Baltimore was an experienced playoff team while the Chiefs were going for the first time in a long time.
The playoff experience was certainly a factor in deciding the outcome.
Luckily for Cincy, it pulls a wild-card date with the QB-less Texans – but more on that to come.
They’ve been the model for most franchises when it comes to building upper management, coaching and franchising a quarterback.
It’s amazing, however, that their last championship was way back in 2004.
The last few playoff appearances have been disappointments for the Patriots. Last year, the Jets knocked New England out in the divisional round at home. In 2009, it was the Ravens who literally ran all over New England. The year before that, the Patriots missed the playoffs even though they won 11 games. And the year before that, they lost in the Super Bowl.
Get the point?
The time is now for Tom Brady and Co. to break through and regain the title as the NFL’s best. Unfortunately, their porous secondary may ultimately be the downfall of this team.
They’ve been called dirty and fluky. But with the franchise’s first playoff appearance in nearly two decades, these Lions are out to prove the doubters wrong.
We saw Sunday what offensive power Detroit has when Matthew Stafford is in rhythm and clicking with his receivers. It obviously helps to have a vertical threat such as Calvin Johnson.
The offense won’t be the issue for the Lions. They can score with the best of them. However, they have the daunting task of trying to contain Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on the road.
The last time these teams played, Detroit was without defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. With him back for the Wild Card Round, will his presence alone be enough to stall Brees?
Speaking of Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing yards and completions leader takes his Saints into the playoffs with a full head of steam.
New Orleans will always be a threat, especially when the Superdome is the venue for the action.
Because the Saints are the NFC’s No. 3 seed, they will have to go on the road at least once if they advance from the Wild Card Round. That means they’ll either be going to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers or Candlestick Park to battle the 49ers, if not both.
Saints fans shouldn’t be concerned with home playoff games, but rather those on the road. New Orleans is undefeated at home and 5-3 on the road.
It’s an obvious question but still one that needs to be asked.
The team has looked fantastic throughout the 2011 season. It's buried most of its opponents by passing for an incredible amount of yards. The offense has carried the Packers behind likely MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Defensively, the team is a little more iffy. It features the league’s worst statistical passing defense and surrenders more yards a week than any other franchise. That can be explained, though, because how else do you overcome a 35-10 halftime deficit than by altering your offense to air it out?
What a disappointment this would be if the Packers fall short of the NFC title game. With all their success in 2011, it would be a shame for the champs to trip up on the road to Super Bowl Sunday yet again.
When the news that Peyton Manning’s neck could potentially keep him out for the entire season broke, the Texans must’ve felt like they were the chosen ones to win the AFC South and make their first playoff appearance.
Well, they did indeed leapfrog the Colts to win the division, but in the process they lost their fearless leader, Matt Schaub.
Schaub’s placement on injured reserve meant the team’s fortunes would rely on the play of backup QB Matt Leinart. Leinart himself went down in the first half of his first start, landing him too on injured reserve.
Houston would be turning to rookie T.J. Yates to carry the team onward.
And as only the story could go, Yates even went down this last Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Titans.
As the health of Yates hangs in the balance, fourth-string QB Jake Delhomme was signed to come in and provide some relief if needed at the position.
This turned out to be a promising season for the Texans and may soon be over if they can’t find a quarterback to win games in the postseason. What a waste that would be when all the stars are aligned in your favor.
Because the Ravens beat the Steelers both times the teams met head-to-head this season, the Ravens are the AFC North champs and get rewarded with a first-round bye.
That means the Steelers, who still won a very respectable 12 games, are a Wild Card team and will likely not play at Heinz Field for the rest of the year.
The curse of the previous year’s Super Bowl loser is that they generally miss the playoffs the next season. That’s obviously not true for this group of Steelers.
Well, how special are they then?
You have a banged-up quarterback and your leading back has a bad wheel now. Can an aging defense carry this team or will the injuries in the backfield prove too mighty to overcome?
The score in the Manning household is Peyton–1, Eli–1.
Without his brother in the league this season, Eli now has a golden opportunity to take his NFC East champion Giants to the promised land and win the big game one more time. Doing so would make him the measuring stick in his family in regards to championships.
The NFL would love to one day see an Eli-Peyton Manning Super Bowl where the two brothers square off for the ultimate prize.
That’s obviously not a possibility in 2012, but who’s to say the Giants can go to Indianapolis and win a wing in Peyton’s house?
From six wins a year ago to more than double that under a new coach in 2011, the Niners have been amazed with the immediate results Jim Harbaugh has been able to bring to a historically great franchise that’s been under some tough times as of late.
The likely candidate for Coach of the Year, Harbaugh has propelled the Alex Smith-led 49ers to a 13-3 season, complete with an NFC West title and first-round bye in the playoffs.
Is this team a serious threat to represent the NFC on Feb. 5, or is it the ultimate example of a one-and-out in the playoffs?
Smith is not the stereotypical quarterback that would lead a team to a ring. You’d have to go all the way back to the Raven’s Super Bowl win under Trent Dilfer to find another example of a mediocre passer doing something in the postseason.
Just like then, the team was built on defensive success. San Fran has been stellar stopping the run during the regular season, but teams like Detroit, Green Bay and New Orleans don’t run the ball that much. Will the 49ers be able to adjust?
Yeah, that guy.
He backed into the playoffs with an impressive 6-of-22 outing for a sexy 60 yards in his latest sparkling passing performance against the Chiefs.
Tim Tebow now, by the way, has eight completions in eight quarters against Kansas City.
Denver fans wanted him and now they’re stuck with him. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, Tim Tebow.
Hate to burst his bubble so early into his first week of playoff preparation, but the crap teams you “beat” in the regular season (Dolphins, Raiders, Chiefs, Jets, Chargers, Vikings and Bears) will not be in the playoffs.
Not a single opponent the Broncos beat with Tebow under center won more than eight games or made it to the postseason.
Still feel good about your chances of winning when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town next Sunday? Think dinking and checking down the offense will work against an elite linebacker crew?
If you can’t pass, you can’t win in the playoffs. No Super Bowl champion turns in a 6-of-22 performance in January or February. None.
Be happy he was a happy-go-lucky regular-season story, because the Denver season ends next weekend.
At least the Raiders would’ve put up a fight.
Brett Lyons is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.