2012 NFL Playoffs: Ranking Every Team in the Postseason Field
The time is here. We are just three days away from the start of the 2011/2012 NFL Playoffs, and it is shaping up to be one of the more interesting tournaments of recent memory.
The playing field is populated by record setters, rookie quarterbacks, seemingly invincible teams and franchises that haven't seen the playoffs since the 1990s.
Will we see a repeat of last year, where a team lucky to be in the playoffs upsets a true contender? Will the conference title games just end up as a No. 1 vs. No. 2 affair? We'll have to wait and see.
For now, here are the rankings for the 12 teams of the 2011 playoffs.
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12. Denver Broncos
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Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos are beyond lucky to be playing the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend. Or anybody for that matter.
The fact that this team has a home playoff game on top of that is rather disturbing, considering they shouldn't be in the playoffs at all.
From Nick Novak pissing on the sidelines, to Marion Barber running out of bounds, to the New York Jets doing what they do, everything seems to have gone the way of Tim Tebow and his teammates this year.
Their true colors have shown in three consecutive losses, where it seems the NFL has finally figured out the option offense centered around Tebow, and their defense has lost some of its competitive fire.
This 8-8 team is just lucky they play in the AFC West.
Tebow has been a nice story, and it is funny that the worst quarterback in this playoff tournament is probably its most popular player, but his 2011 saga should end this weekend.
The saying is true that defense wins championships, but your defense can't win you a title if your offense can't score. The Broncos have more work to do before they can think to contend.
Then again, it is playoff football, and it is Tim Tebow. You never know what might happen.
The smart money is on an early exit though.
11. Cincinnati Bengals
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The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs with a totally new-look team after missing out last year. What Andy Dalton and A.J Green have done with their offense is nothing short of remarkable, and their defense has been one of the league's stoutest units in 2011.
Still, despite their regular-season statistics, few members of this team have any meaningful playoff experience. That will hurt them as rookie quarterback Dalton tries to lead them to the Super Bowl in his very first NFL season, something which has never been done.
The Bengals are going places, but it probably won't be this year. They certainly have a chance to beat the Texans and get past the first round, but that is probably as far as things will go.
10. Houston Texans
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If you had asked me months ago, the Houston Texans were my AFC Super Bowl team, even before Peyton Manning's injury came to light. Obviously that isn't the case anymore.
Even with fifth-round rookie quarterback T.J Yates at the helm, this team has potential to be dangerous. They possess the second-strongest running game in the NFL with Ben Tate and Arian Foster, and unlike Tim Tebow, Yates can make plays with his arm in any of the four quarters.
With Wade Philips returning from medical leave to coach the defense, you can bet that this team has the ability to defeat the Bengals and make some noise in the AFC before being eliminated.
Yates has two playoff-savvy veteran quarterbacks to help coach him, so the biggest fear with this team is that they will become complacent having made the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
9. Detroit Lions
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The Detroit Lions are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. That in and of itself is like a Super Bowl victory for a franchise that became the first ever 0-16 team just three years ago.
They possess the league's fourth-ranked passing attack, where Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards in his first healthy NFL season. They have the best offensive weapon in football with Calvin Johnson.
However, their vaunted defense has faltered recently, giving up large point totals to Green Bay and Oakland. They were also blown out by their upcoming opponent in New Orleans, but that was without Ndamukong Suh, for what it is worth.
This team has the talent all over the field to beat anybody if they play right, so the biggest danger this team faces is themselves. Young and brash as they are, they will likely fall prey to the mistakes of inexperienced players who have never been to the tournament.
If anybody can stay in a shootout with the other NFC playoff teams though, it is the Lions. Though they will likely be out in the first round, they are sure to give us a great game.
8. New England Patriots
Based on the New England Patriots' record and Tom Brady's insane production on offense this year, this probably doesn't make much sense at first.
However, this Patriots squad is practically identical to the one-and-done team they fielded in the 2010 playoffs, and are primed for yet another early exit.
This team hasn't won a playoff game since their 18-0 run in 2007, which is coincidentally the last time they had a good defense. They are 31st in the league currently in total yardage defense, 28th in the league in third-down conversion percentage and 14th in the league in sacks.
Through their last six games, the Patriots have allowed at least 20 points per game, during which time the only playoff team they faced were the offensively inept Denver Broncos. In fact, they have faced only three playoff teams this season period, and the Broncos were their only victory.
In the cold weather, the Patriots will need more help from their defense than they are going to get. They will be facing either the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos or Pittsburgh Steelers, none of whom are a favorable matchup for New England in winter football.
Expect an exit eerily similar to their defeat at the hands of the New York Jets in the 2010/2011 playoffs.
For the icing on the cake, their defense last season was actually better than it is currently. Take from that what you will.
7. Atlanta Falcons
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The Atlanta Falcons are a well rounded team, deserving of their 10-6 record and playoff spot. However, while they are explosive on offense with Julio Jones and Roddy White, the fact remains that they lack defensive prowess and Matt Ryan is 0-2 in his postseason career.
They rank 20th in sacks, 20th against the pass and have shown the potential to allow a lot of points when playing strong offenses.
They are a dome team, which is going to hurt them playing in potentially harsh conditions in New Jersey this weekend. They match up well with just about any team in the NFC, but with a lack of significant playoff experience, the Falcons will be hard pressed to earn Matty Ice a playoff win this weekend.
6. New York Giants
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This may be a little high for a team that had to limp into the playoffs, but it is hard to find a team as confident and hot as the New York Giants are right now.
With decisive wins to knock out the Jets and Cowboys and close the season, the Giants are rolling into the playoffs looking improved on both sides of the ball.
The defense, which has struggled mightily all season, held the Jets and the Cowboys to just 14 points each the last two weeks. They remain sixth in the NFL in sacks, and are picking things up against the run, stuffing both the Jets and Cowboys the last two games.
Perry Fewell has fixed many of the problems with the defense by simplifying the pass coverage. Going from his complicated schemes to an easier system built around the pass rush has worked wonders for New York.
Their last-ranked running offense is particularly underrated for these playoffs. Injuries and a curious offensive game plan inhibited Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw this year, who combined for less than 400 touches on the season.
The Giants' running game has picked up and gone over 100 yards in the past two games. This is all without saying that their running backs both have Super Bowl experience, not something to be undervalued in the playoffs.
This is a team with momentum and confidence riding into the postseason, with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback who now holds the record for single-season fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
They will be dangerous to play against.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most dangerous Wild Card teams you will ever see. Simply a wild card by virtue of their division, they can play with any team in the NFL and come out on top.
Even with sickle cell syndrome sidelining stud safety Ryan Clark, the Steelers No. 1 defense should have no problem handling Tim Tebow and the Broncos on Sunday.
The two glaring concerns for this team is the lack of Rashard Mendenhall (ACL), and the health of Ben Roethlisberger.
Still, there should be nothing to keep this elite group from having a good chance to return to the big stage for the second year in a row.
Other than the Baltimore Ravens that is.
4. San Francisco 49ers
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The San Francisco 49ers have a fantastic defense, but their lack of a passing game is slightly disturbing. The divisional round of these playoffs will be a hugely important test for Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith.
Smith has been called nothing more than a game manager all year, and that kind of thing doesn't cut it in the postseason. If he and Harbaugh can win in their first game and advance, that alone will be a massive triumph.
Unlike the rest of the NFC playoff teams, the 49ers will need to rely on strong defense to move forward. Their top flight defense is going to be facing an elite offense of either the Falcons, Giants, Lions or Saints, so if any team is going to prove that defense wins in the playoffs, it will be the 49ers.
3. Green Bay Packers
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This is the first time in over a year that I have ranked the Green Bay Packers at anything less than No. 1. They are still the class of the NFC as the defending champions, but their fire has lessened somewhat in the last few weeks.
They suffered an undefeated season-spoiler against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15, and then spent Week 17 resting their starters. Last season, their magical run to the title was built on the momentum of having to win every game from Week 15 onward. They head into these playoffs with little momentum and a bye week.
Again, it is almost inconceivable that this team won't reach the NFC Championship game, but any belief that they should be coasting to the Super Bowl is gone.
2. Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens have had their best season since the start of the Joe Flacco era, with all four of their losses coming against inferior teams in "trap games". This is the first season in recent memory that they have managed to not end up as the Wild Card with the Pittsburgh Steelers also in the playoffs, which is a bigger step than one might think.
In the 2008 playoffs, they were knocked out of contention in the AFC Championship game playing against the Steelers at Hienz Field.
The same thing happened again in the 2010 Divisional Round.
This year if the Steelers want to advance, the road will go through Baltimore, finally giving the Ravens home-field in the postseason against their hated rivals.
With a combination of stellar smash-mouth defense and the NFL's yards-from-scrimmage champion in Ray Rice, this team has a good chance to go deep this season. Torrey Smith provides them with a downfield threat that they haven't had in the playoffs, and the return of Anquan Boldin will only make Smith a bigger threat.
The Ravens are about to make some serious noise.
1. New Orleans Saints
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Wait, what? That's right, the New Orleans Saints are the best team in the 2011/2012 tournament and are in prime position to make a return to the Super Bowl.
Let's look at the facts: The Saints are as white-hot as you can possibly be, the winners of eight straight games. Of those eight, five have been total blowouts, all coming during the last six games. They have curb stomped three playoff teams in the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons.
This is all without mentioning that they are practically unbeatable at home, where they will be playing in the first round, at least.
On the other hand, we already know that the Packers just barely won against the Lions (resting Rodgers), lost to the Kansas City Chiefs and came within six seconds and a blown call of losing to the Giants.
Most importantly, this is now January football, where teams will be forced out into nasty weather, especially with the road to the Super Bowl running through Green Bay. If the Saints should meet the Packers again at Lambeau Field, no miraculous goal line stand is going to save the Pack.
Winter football becomes a very different animal when you have four running backs to complement the NFL's hottest quarterback in Drew Brees. The Saints can employ Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram for the deepest running back platoon in the entire league. Those four have combined for 2,013 yards rushing, good for sixth in the NFL, third in the playoff picture and best out of the six NFC playoff teams. Only the Texans and Broncos run the ball better, and unlike the Saints they can't really throw.
The road to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis may run through Lambeau Field, but it should be the Saints who go marching in.
Remember, though, no team is invincible in the playoffs, as this team found out against the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. We'll find out if they learned from that game.