There are 11 games left in the 2011 NFL season.
Anyone can make predictions about the four that take place this weekend. But those winners will determine what other matchups happen in successive weeks, making predicting who will win later games easier a week from now.
Who wants to take the easy way out? I am making the predictions all the way to Super Bowl XLVI.
This poses some challenges. For instance, one may think the Pittsburgh Steelers will beat the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals will beat the Houston Texans in the first round of the AFC playoffs.
That would match the Bengals against the New England Patriots and the Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens. Perhaps one then thinks the Ravens and Patriots advance, but if the Bengals lose in the first round, they will play one another and cannot both advance.
Thus, what ends up mattering most in such a prediction is who will win when. Which individual winners are most likely to advance from each round?
Note: To make it more interesting, they're listed from most to least probable. Remember a team cannot win a later game unless it also wins the earlier one, so unless the Super Bowl champion is more likely to win three or four games than another team is one or two, that final win will appear later in the list.
The league has caught up with Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos offense.
Tebow lacks the ability to read defenses, has the slowest delivery I have ever seen and is inconsistent in his accuracy. But just because I do not believe Tebow has the tools to be a good starting quarterback right now does not make me a hater.
As a matter of fact, I am a fan. I think the fact that he came from fourth on the depth chart to lead a 1-4 team to the playoffs is commendable enough. Given that he overcame the aforementioned deficiencies and a coach who clearly did not initially believe in him is most impressive.
With his work ethic and intangibles, I have seen enough to believe in him down the road. But right now, a slumping Tebow leads a slumping Broncos team up against an opponent that has been here before, finished with a better record in the best division in football and has the fourth-lowest opponent passer rating.
The Denver defense is good but has been exploited by lesser offenses than what Pittsburgh has. If there's any one single game result that's most likely in the playoffs, it's Pittsburgh winning its first game.
This is pretty simple.
The Detroit Lions have not been to the playoffs for over a decade and are arguably the least-disciplined team in the NFL.
The New Orleans Saints are one season removed from being Super Bowl champions and have not lost a home game in over a year.
Perhaps more to the point, if the Detroit Lions cannot stop Matt Flynn and three other backups in the lineup at Lambeau Field, how are they going to stop Drew Brees in a dome?
The Lions may well have to play better offensively than they did last week to have a chance.
Whoever it is, they better hope Aaron Rodgers is rusty from being three weeks from his last meaningful pass. Against each, he has proven he can pass his team to victory.
Green Bay is expected to field its original starting offense and defense,other than Nick Collins.
After winning for 15 months without being healthy, the Packers should be too much at home for any of those teams unless extreme weather benefits the superior ground game of the Falcons.
The Baltimore Ravens have won a playoff game each year they advanced since John Harbaugh has been coach. They are the most complete team in the league, with the lowest opponent passer rating and offensive weapons in both the passing and running games.
That is why they earned the No. 2 seed in the conference coming out of the best division in football. It is enough to make them the favourites over any of the three teams they might face: Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans or Denver Broncos.
However, this particular prediction is the first that I do not feel entirely confident in, and the last that has an individual likelihood of even 2:1. We cannot be sure of a result when we do not know who they will play.
If the Ravens play the Texans, as I predict, or the Broncos in the divisional round, they should be 10-point favourites. If they play the Steelers—perhaps a one in four probability—the game will be almost a toss-up.
Neither the Houston Texans nor the Cincinnati Bengals roster have any playoff experience to speak of. Only one head coach has been to the playoffs, and he has yet to win.
The Bengals survived the best division with just one win fewer than the Texans. They have the better quarterback, enough offensive balance and a good defense.
But Houston is at home, has a better defense and a better running game.
This game is a near toss-up, but still, the fifth-most likely individual win in this year's postseason.
Now that Matt Flynn has played well in both of his career starts and led a late comeback, one no longer has to think the Packers have no chance of winning a game if Aaron Rodgers is hurt.
That's just enough security to say that the chance of the Packers making it to the Super Bowl is better than anyone but the Ravens even making it to the conference championship.
Bovada has the Packers against the field (4:5) to repeat as NFC champions. I disagree that the Packers are that much better than anyone else, but place this game at No. 6 because the other teams are not that much better than one another.
Both other divisional-round matchups are too close to feel confident picking, making any of those teams not a good bet. Meanwhile, the Packers will almost certainly host either San Francisco or New Orleans in that NFC championship.
Not only do you always bet on the team more likely to be in the game, but either team will be at a disadvantage if they do travel to Lambeau Field.
Bad weather could give the Niners an advantage because of the stronger running game, but rarely are conditions bad enough to ground the Packers' passing attack. Without that, it's hard to see San Francisco keep up with the Packers offense when they're not only unaccustomed to the weather, but the playoffs.
The Saints can keep up with the Packers but struggle on the road against lesser teams in better weather. They lost to the Packers in the season kickoff when the weather was good. They don't force as many turnovers and commit more of them, especially on the road.
One could already question whether the New England Patriots are the money team they are made out to be and treated by oddsmakers: Green Bay (9:5) is the only team paying out lower as a champion (4:1).
The Patriots have not won a playoff game in over 47 months, losing two at home and a Super Bowl to one of the event's largest underdogs.
One could say that Bill Belichick cannot win without his illegal taping of walk-throughs. One could say Tom Brady, who has a passer rating more than 10 points lower in the postseason than the regular season, is not clutch.
I will not say either of those things. But teams who can put pressure on the quarterback without sending more than four pass-rushers are a problem for the immobile Tom Brady. Teams that do not turn the ball over can move it all day on the Patriots defense.
There are not a lot of teams that can say that, so the Patriots rack up great regular-season records. But a lot of playoff teams can say that, and chances are pretty high they will see one of them in the Steelers.
Pittsburgh should be good enough to deliver the Pats a third consecutive home loss. If they play anyone else in the first round, New England wins, but having a prediction of the Steelers winning in this round hedges one's bet in the event they beat the Ravens.
Drew Brees deserves consideration for Most Valuable Player.
He set an NFL record for passing yards (5,476) and an NFC record for passing touchdowns (46) and did it without the receiving corps likely MVP Aaron Rodgers has.
Then again, he played in one more game and has a significantly better offensive line. He threw over twice as many interceptions (14:6) and only one more score. He had three more games with a passer rating under 100 than Rodgers had, with three on the road.
On the road, Brees was 252-for-357 (.706) with 2,852 yards (8.0/attempt), 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Outdoors he was 160-for-230 (.696) with 1,849 yards (8.0), just nine scores and six picks.
He will have to play in the windy, often rainy conditions of Candlestick Point, San Francisco. They will not be able to run the ball much against one of the all-time great run defenses.
That means he will throw a lot against not just the elements but a defense that is fifth-best team in opponent passer rating. Since no team forced more turnovers than San Francisco, so look for them to exploit the one weakness in the Saints offense.
The Saints pass defense is 22nd in opponent passer rating and is playing a team that does not run the ball over. They will have to hope the defense that is 12th against the run can stop a great Niners running game.
The Niners even have the edge on special teams, and they beat better teams during the season...they should not be underdogs just because they are new to the playoffs.
Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game. Heck, Tony Gonzalez has yet to win a playoff game.
Picking the Falcons is a definite upset. But while other people see a team that's not ready, I see one that is due.
They have a better record than the team that barely won the weakest division in football. One never knows which New York Giants team will show up, and the team has never had to deal with Tom Coughlin being as happy as he was in beating the Dallas Cowboys to make the playoffs.
I am betting they do not respond well, and the more balanced offense wins. There's even the potential the weather could help them.
There are six teams that are the best bets to beat a relatively healthy Green Bay Packers team—San Francisco and New Orleans in the NFC and New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC.
The Packers could not face more than two of those teams—the winner of the Niners-Saints and the AFC champion. Either NFC team would have to go through each other, the Packers and the AFC champion.
Meanwhile, the AFC is tightly contested. The Ravens and Steelers always play close games, and the team that has always had the upper hand now appears to have lost it. The Patriots are by far the weakest defense in the conference and have the least balance on offense but are the top seed.
All of this spells the Packers being more likely to win the Super Bowl than any of those teams are to make it there.
The Baltimore Ravens are the most complete team in the league on paper. They can both make plays in and defend the run and pass, and they're much better on special teams than the Super Bowl XLV Champion Green Bay Packers were last season.
However, they have almost no one on the team who has won more than one playoff game. They have lost games they should not have during the season, and (take it from a San Jose Sharks fan) that may betray a lack of focus—something a champion cannot have.
Their quarterback is not consistent and has not proven he can carry the team in the playoffs like the signal-callers for the other two great AFC teams. The Ravens might have to play both the Steelers and Patriots to get to the Super Bowl and are certain to have to play one of them.
All of that makes just getting through the AFC difficult. You have to pick the best team to emerge, but putting much on it to happen would not be wise.
Please note: For a listing of predictions in the chronological order the games will be played and the points (11 for most and one for least) on those winners, see comments below.