2012 NFL Playoffs: 5 Questions That Will Be Answered This January
With the 2011 regular season now wrapped up, all eyes will turn to the postseason. While the regular season has certainly showed us which teams will be favored in each matchup, for the most part anything can happen in the NFL, which is what makes the league so exciting.
And as exhilarating as the regular season has been, with story lines such as the near-perfect Green Bay Packers, Tim Tebow's emergence and the improved fortunes of the Detroit Lions, the regular season has still left many questions unanswered about the league.
But what better place to find those answers than the postseason? Here are five NFL questions from the regular season that will finally be answered in the playoffs...
1. Who Is the NFL's Best Quarterback?
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It seemed that a few weeks ago, this was a no-brainer (at least from a statistical standpoint). Aaron Rodgers was clearly having the best season out of any other quarterback, leading the NFL in passer rating, touchdown-to-interception ratio and in wins.
But after a loss to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, partially due to the loss of wide receiver Greg Jennings, and with Drew Brees and Tom Brady both surpassing Dan Marino's single-season yardage record, the argument is not quite as clear as it once was.
This is where playoff performance can truly make a case for a quarterback.
While regular-season performance is certainly important, what matters most in this game is winning a championship. Rodgers, Brees and Brady have all done so at least once already. But today, which of these quarterbacks truly gives his team the best chance to make a deep playoff run?
One way to answer that question is to see how each player performs in the postseason. Especially as each of those quarterbacks feature teams with very poor defenses and subpar running games, the quarterback will have an even greater impact on the performance of his team.
2. Is Tim Tebow a Winner?
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Tim Tebow's biggest critics have pointed out his obvious flaws as a quarterback: inability to pass the ball accurately and quickly, poor pocket awareness and the need for an unorthodox offense to help him succeed.
Tebow's biggest supporters will argue that regardless of any of these he manages to win games. Especially in the fourth quarter when the team needs him the most.
His critics have gotten a huge boost recently, as the Tebow-led Broncos have lost their final three games to end the season, with the last two games being largely in part due to extremely poor play by Tebow.
But in the playoffs, Tebow will have a chance to prove himself. To prove to critics that he is a winner and truly excels in pressure situations.
No one with any knowledge of football will ever claim that Tim Tebow mechanically is a good quarterback. He clearly has many flaws and one could find a high school quarterback with better fundamentals and passing statistics than he does.
But Tebow has still managed to lead the Broncos to the playoffs, especially after the team suffered a 1-4 start.
Some quarterbacks simply excel in the playoffs despite lackluster regular-season play. Bart Starr and Joe Namath were excellent examples of this. We will see if Tebow can add his name to this list.
3. Are the Detroit Lions for Real?
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After a dazzling 5-0 start that convinced many that Detroit was one of the best teams in football, the Lions have cooled off tremendously, losing five of their next seven games.
However, since then, the Lions seemingly picked up the pieces and have managed to finish the season strong, ending with a 10-6 record and a playoff spot.
But is this team for real? Can a team that went 0-16 less than three years ago truly rebound this quickly and emerge as one of the NFL's top contenders?
The flaws of the Lions are very real. The team often struggles in run defense and their running game leaves a bit to be desired.
But the strengths of the Lions are also very real. The Lions have a very potent passing offense. They have a good quarterback in Matthew Stafford and one of the best wideouts in the NFL in Calvin Johnson. If it is a shootout, this team certainly has the potential to score on anyone in this league.
So is this team a real contender now? Or was this season just a fluke? How they perform in the playoffs will definitely help to answer this.
4. Are the San Francisco 49ers an Elite Team?
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In the 2010 season, the 49ers were one of the laughingstocks of the NFL. A once-storied franchise boasted a 6-10 record and was arguably one of the worst teams in the league.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
This year's 49ers have won 13 games and are currently enjoying a first-round bye.
How have the 49ers been winning? Simple. Just good old-fashioned solid football.
The 49ers don't make many mistakes. They don't commit many penalties. They don't turn the ball over often. They have a strong running game, a solid quarterback who can make the plays when he has to and a good defense. They aren't flashy, but they get the job done and they win games.
But while we all know the 49ers are a good team, are they truly an elite team? Can this team win in the playoffs with everything on the line? Especially in a league that gets more and more pass-happy every season, can the 49ers succeed without an elite quarterback?
Perhaps the lesson from the 2011 season is that what wins games is not a roster filled with Pro Bowlers or an MVP-caliber quarterback (as shown by the failed "Dream Team" in Philadelphia). But what matters most is good coaching, mistake-free football and a team that can play consistently well as a unit, as shown by the 49ers.
It will be very interesting to see how this holds up in the postseason.
5. Which Team Has Been Underestimated All Season Long?
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What makes the NFL great is that any team can beat any team on any given Sunday. And the playoffs are clearly no exception. The postseason seems to commonly have an underdog surprise all the analysts and make a deep run.
Was it not the Green Bay Packers who barely made playoffs last season, only to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the end?
Or how about the New York Jets, whose stingy defense stopped the powerhouse 2010 New England Patriots and 2009 San Diego Chargers on their two AFC championship runs?
The 2008 season too saw two underdog teams, the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, face off in the NFC Championship Game and in 2007 the heavily favored 19-0 New England Patriots fell to the 13-6 New York Giants.
The list goes on and on. The point is in football anything can happen. Every team that makes the postseason has something special; otherwise they would not have made it that far. And in a win-or-go home playoff format, the team that starts clicking at the right time can make it all the way.
Who will it be this year? Will it be the Atlanta Falcons, who boast a very talented and balanced roster and were overlooked all season long?
Will it be the New York Giants, who are featuring a quarterback playing the best football of his career and are hot coming off a must-win game against their hated divisional rival?
Or how about the Houston Texans, a team that has finally gotten the monkey off its back and made it to the playoffs and, boasting a very potent running game and one of the league's best defenses, is eager to make the most out of its opportunity?
One team will emerge and surprise us all. That much I can almost say with certainty. The only question is, which team will it be?