The 2011 regular season has come to a close. This season was particular exciting, with many offensive records broken (including Dan Marino's single season passing record), the Packers looking like they would go undefeated before falling to the Chiefs, and many close finishes including a Week 17 where almost every game seemed to have playoff implications.
This slideshow will outline and predict the fates of each of the 12 playoff teams looking to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis on February 5.
Let's get this one out of the way quickly....
The Denver Broncos at 8-8, are not the best team in the AFC West, but they are the team that won enough games, played enough defence and got enough Tebow "magic" to win the division and earned the right to play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.
This matchup gives us a head-on collision between two quarterbacks that are both the most similar and dissimilar in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is the starting quarterback of the most hated team in the NFL, and has had his fair share of run-ins with the law. Big Ben is the NFL's ultimate bad boy.
On the other hand, Tebow is the NFL's resident pastor, praying before and after nearly every drive. Both quarterbacks play with a great amount of toughness and resiliency, and both are proficient at leading their teams on game-winning drives.
Ultimately, the Broncos will fall to Pittsburgh, but if the Denver defence shows up, it could be a low scoring, hard fought game that comes down to the last drive.
Prediction: Wild Card Round loss to Pittsburgh
The Bengals were the surprise team in the AFC this season. Led by the rookie quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, Cincinnati finished the season 9-7 and sneaked into the last wild card spot.
Cincinnati's wild card matchup is against the Houston Texans, the AFC South champions, who they played to a hard fought 20-19 loss at home in the regular season.
The Texans have their work cut out for them, now that they are on their fourth starting quarterback of the season after the loss of rookie T.J. Yates.
Expect another close game, and if Houston quarterback Jake Delhomme can limit the number of turnovers his team commits, the Houston running game and the energy of playing their first playoff game in franchise history will prove to be too much for the young Bengals.
Prediction: Wild Card Round loss to Houston
The Detroit Lions tasted success this season for the first time in a long time, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
This incarnation of the Lions is led by Matthew Stafford, and his super-human wide receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson.
The Lions offence can score with anyone and will prove to be a worthy competition for the Saints. Ultimately, the atmosphere of playing in the toughest stadium in football, the Superdome, will prove to be too much for the Lions.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams probably has something special prepared for the game, and a strong pass rush should be expected.
The Lions will be a good football team for years to come, but this season is not the year they finally make it to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Wild Card Round loss to New Orleans
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the NFL's hottest teams going into the playoffs. Their eighth-ranked passing offence has helped them score 133 points in their last four games, and they have scored at least 30 points in each of their last three wins.
Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is responsible for the hot streak in Hot-lanta, as he has scored six of his eight touchdowns in those four games.
Unfortunately, the Falcons must travel to the Meadowlands to play the only team in the NFL playing football as well as they are right now.
The New York Giants have also won three of their last four games, including two must-win games against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants' pass rush will prove to be the difference in this one and through most of the playoffs.
Both of these teams could go on a run through the playoffs, should they come out of this game alive
Prediction: Wild Card Round loss to New York
The Houston Texans are a very good football team. They have a great running game with Ben Tate and Arian Foster, an All-Pro wide receiver in Andre Johnson, a great offensive line and a defence that can hold their own.
However, eventually injuries to the first three quarterbacks on the depth chart will catch up to any team, and starting Jake Delhomme against the Ravens is not a recipe for success.
The Texans should be proud of the season they have had so far, and if they can build on this season in the next one, they have the power to change the dynamic of the AFC South for years to come.
Prediction: Divisional Round loss to Baltimore
The Pittsburgh Steelers fall into a similar category as the Texans. Both teams are among the best in their conference, but injuries going into the playoffs will prove to be too much when they play a team that is better than them.
Pittsburgh has to play the Patriots in the Divisional Round, a team which spotted Buffalo 21 points before scoring 49 unanswered. Granted, the Steelers' defence is a lot better than that of the Bills, but Tom Brady and the Patriots will probably be too much for a Steelers team which may have just lost their starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall, for the rest of the season.
With Roethlisberger behind centre, the Steelers cannot be ruled out of any games, but the injury-depleted offensive line must keep him upright so he does not sustain another injury.
The Steelers, as long as Big Ben is in Pittsburgh, will be back in the playoffs next year and for years to come, but this season injuries will prove to be too much to overcome.
Prediction: Divisional Round loss to New England.
The dream season must come to an end for the 49ers eventually, and it will end with a Divisional Round loss to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
In his first season at the helm in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh turned the team around, hid all of quarterback Alex Smith's flaws and owned a defence that gave up only one rushing touchdown all season.
In order to beat the Saints, Frank Gore and the offensive line must keep Drew Brees off the field as long as possible, and the defence must limit the amount of big plays Brees makes. The Saints will score, and it is up to San Francisco to score with them.
San Francisco must prove that this season was not a fluke, aided by a strength of schedule ranked 30th in the NFL.
Prediction: Divisional Round loss to New Orleans
I can hear the rumblings already....
The Packers were the best team in the NFL all season. They scored at will all season, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the emergence of Super Bowl hero Jordy Nelson. However, if any team is primed to upset the defending champions, it is the New York Giants.
The Giants play in a cold climate just like the Packers, and in their first meeting almost handed them their first loss of the season, an eventual 38-35 Packers win.
The Giants have two 1000-yard receivers in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks that can attack the Packers' worst-ranked pass defence. The Giants are playing great football right now, and if any team can beat Green Bay, it will probably be the Giants.
The key for the Packers is playing better defence, as they have given up 27 points per game in games against playoff-bound teams.
Prediction: Divisional Round loss to New York
Realistically, Baltimore will probably be happy not to see Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game this year. The Ravens are 0-3 against their arch rivals in the playoffs, despite having their number in the regular season. The Ravens are led once again by Ray Lewis and the defence, but Ray Rice has proven to be a superstar running back in this league.
The AFC Championship usually boils down to which team has the better quarterback, and it is hard to make the case for Joe Flacco over Tom Brady. Brady has been among the best quarterbacks in the league for years, and has found two new favourite targets in the two-headed tight end monster of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Should the Ravens want to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 2000, they must shut down this tandem.
Prediction: AFC Championship loss to New England
New Orleans possesses the best offence in the league. Drew Brees set the single season record for passing yards, surpassing Dan Marino, and the overlooked running game ranks sixth in the NFL. The defence, coached by Gregg Williams, loves to show different looks and blitzes and is very difficult to beat, especially on third down. However, the New York Giants, who lost to New Orleans in Week 12, seem destined to make a deep playoff run.
While the Saints are many people's Super Bowl pick, and they are deserving of it, I think that the Giants' pass rush will get to Brees, force him to turn the ball over and knock the Saints out in the NFC Championship game.
Prediction: NFC Championship loss to New York
Once again, Tom Brady is in the Super Bowl, and once again he will face the New York Giants.
This season, Brady chose to make the tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Hernandez his favourite targets, throwing the ball to the man called "Gronk" in the red zone so proficiently that Gronkowski set many single season tight end records.
The Patriots' glaring weakness is in the secondary, which can be exploited by nearly any team in the league. However, the defence has given the Patriots a chance to win games all year—13 of them, in fact—and it's only a matter of time until their lack of defensive prowess comes back to bite them.
Prediction: Super Bowl Runner Up
A Manning was meant to win the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, much to Colts fans' chagrin, it will be Eli and not Peyton hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy for the second time, hushing the critics whom he set out to prove to that he is an elite quarterback in this league.
All season, people around the NFL have noted how similar this Giants team is to the one in 2007 that knocked off the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. They have Victor Cruz, a deep threat who goes after balls as ferociously as Plaxico Burress, a great underneath receiver in Hakeem Nicks who runs routes as proficiently as Amani Toomer, and a pass rush led by Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck that shows many different looks and lines up in many different positions.
2011 is the year of the Giants, and Eli Manning will finally step out of his big brother's shadow and be labeled a big-time quarterback.
Prediction: Super Bowl Champions