So many times in the past the playoffs have functioned almost as a second season. Teams left for dead have inexplicably overcome all odds to hoist the Lombardi trophy. There have also been years where the favored frontrunners secure their place in history with dominant playoff runs.
Who will it be this year? Will the Green Bay Packers repeat or will a wildcard shock us all?
Here are my predictions on how the NFL Playoffs will unfold.
The NFL Playoffs begin Saturday afternoon with two AFC teams that have very little postseason experience. The Houston Texans will be playing their first playoff game ever, an amazing fact given the amount of injuries they suffered this season. Their opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals, a young team that has done far better than expected this season.
The deciding factor of this game could easily be the play of rookies. T.J. Yates, the Texans' rookie quarterback was supposed to be on the practice squad, but injuries have forced him to start. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is a candidate for offensive rookie of the year thanks in no small part to the play of rookie receiver A.J. Green.
For the most part this game figures to be a toss-up. The Texans enter the postseason very cold reeling from three close losses while the Bengals are 0-7 versus playoff teams during the regular season. Their meeting early in the season was very close, with the Texans winning 20-19 thanks to a last-minute touchdown thrown by Yates.
Although I feel the teams are very evenly matched, homefield advantage should play a part here. The Texans are better than their last three games where they had little to play for. With everything on the line, they should defeat a Bengals team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1991.
Saturday night's game is one for those who love offense. The Detroit Lions are making their first playoff appearance since 1999 thanks mostly to an explosive offense led by Matthew Stafford in his first full season as a starter. The New Orleans Saints' offense has been running like a machine under the guidance of the red-hot Drew Brees.
As a six seed, the Lions have a difficult challenge playing in New Orleans. The Saints finished the season 8-0 at home where they typically look completely unbeatable. The Lions failed once before in New Orleans this season, losing 31-17 on Sunday Night Football.
One big difference (no pun intended) between these two games was the absence of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Perhaps the Lions' best hope for a victory will be if Suh and his teammates on the defensive line can get some pressure on Brees. That will be a difficult task with three Pro Bowlers playing on the Saints' offensive line.
This game looks to be a mismatch on paper. During their eight-game winning streak, the Saints offense has scored over 30 points five times and this is a Lions defense that just gave up 45 points to the Packers' backups. The Saints also have an excellent three-headed running game to balance their offense while the Lions' lack of a running game could hurt them if the Saints go all-out to stop the pass.
The Saints will easily prevail again as the Lions will be unable to keep up offensively.
This game is perhaps the biggest playoff mismatch in years. At 12-4 the Pittsburgh Steelers would have won most divisions while at 8-8, the Denver Broncos have no business being in the playoffs. Even with the mighty Tim Tebow's tendency to lead 4th quarter comebacks, only the most diehard Broncos fans are expecting a win this week.
However, the game is in Denver which can be a hard place to play. The last two 8-8 or worse playoff teams to host playoff games were able to beat heavily favored wildcard teams. So what do the Broncos have to do to keep that trend alive?
Well, for one thing the Broncos need to generate something on offense whether it's through their league-best run game or their dormant of late pass game. That will be extremely difficult against the elite Steelers defense which is ranked first overall and first against the pass. Expect the Broncos to utilize both Tebow and Willis McGahee against the Steelers' somewhat weaker rush defense.
For the Broncos to win they likely need a low-scoring affair determined by special teams and solid defensive play. That will be difficult considering the Steelers' pass-happy offense and the fact they just lost starting running back Rashard Mendenhall for the rest of the season. Ben Roethlisberger has been playing hurt for awhile but with receivers like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown going against the Broncos' 18th ranked pass defense, he shouldn't have to make as many plays with his feet as he usually does.
The Broncos will give the Steelers everything they have and even scare Pittsburgh with a last-minute scoring drive. But the Steelers' playoff experience gives them the win in a game that will become a playoff classic.
The New York Giants were the last team this year to clinch a playoff berth, needing a Week 17 win against the Dallas Cowboys to claim division title. With the win, the Giants have gotten back to the playoffs after missing it two straight seasons, both with agonizing late season slides. Thanks to their dominant passing game and never-say-die attitude, the Giants have the look of a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
But first, the Giants need to beat the Atlanta Falcons. Coming off their franchise record fourth consecutive winning season, the Falcons enter this year as a wildcard, and are largely overshadowed in their own division by the Saints. Though they've had a good season this year, the Falcons will need to overcome the stigma of being unable to win in the playoffs (0-2 in the Mike Smith era).
2011 saw a change in the Giants offense as they became way more pass happy. Part of this was due to injuries to running back Ahmed Bradshaw, but so far it's worked great. Eli Manning has never had as many weapons as he has this year, with breakout second-year receiver Victor Cruz and fellow starter Hakeem Nicks.
The Falcons meanwhile have a good quarterback of their own in Matt Ryan. For all his success in the regular season though, he's been terrible in two postseason losses, and a third one could bring about unfair offseason criticism from the Atlanta fanbase. The Falcons' offensive line will need to protect Ryan from the overpowering Giants defensive front.
This game should be close and high scoring. But misery will return to Atlanta, as they make an inexplicable first round exit from the playoffs yet again.
The Saints' win will bring them to sunny San Francisco to take on the surprising 49ers. The 49ers are arguably one of the few teams better than the Saints, despite both having a 13-3 regular season record. However, the 49ers had the tiebreaker that gives them the bye and homefield advantage.
Both teams are very different and a huge key to this game will be what team dictates how the game is played. The 49ers want to slow the Saints' offense and play a tough defensive game where they can milk the clock with Pro Bowler Frank Gore. The Saints want a shootout because the 49ers don't really have the personnel to keep up with them.
The 49ers definitely have the edge in this game since they will be playing at San Francisco and not at the Superdome. The Saints have been a lot better at home than on the road, especially when it comes to the playoffs where they have never won a road playoff game (not counting their 2009 Super Bowl victory.) If Alex Smith can continue to play as the ultimate game-manager, there are a lot of reasons to like the 49ers in this game.
Every year though it seems that some team with a first-round bye inexplicably comes out flat. The 49ers will make some early mistakes and as a result spot the Saints the lead. Although the 49ers are lights out against the run, it won't matter because Saints are so good at passing, and frankly I don't know if anyone can stop Drew Brees right now.
The Saints win in a game that will be low-scoring for them, but high-scoring for the unfortunate 49ers.
Without a doubt the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the most successful AFC teams of the past decade, with one of these two teams appearing in seven of the last 10 Super Bowls. Despite their intense rivalry, it's been awhile since they met in the playoffs. Their last postseason meeting was the AFC Championship in the 2004 season where the Patriots won 41-27.
The Patriots and Steelers were both among the AFC's elite teams for the entirety of this season. Their heavily anticipated Week 8 meeting was surprisingly dominated by the Steelers. The Patriots hung around, losing only 25-17 in what was their worst game in a very successful season.
This time around the game will be in New England with the Patriots coming off of two weeks of rest. The Steelers will have to hope that their top ranked pass defense can slow down Tom Brady and company. That's a tall task particularly when looking at the talented Patriots receiving corps.
The Steelers will also have to overcome history. Although they have been very good in the playoffs, the Patriots have historically had their number. The Steelers have gone 1-3 against the Patriots in the playoffs, the last two meetings being crushing AFC Championship losses.
Every trend has to end eventually. The Patriots have a woeful defense that will prove to be their fatal weakness. They've also lost two straight playoff games at home, and a upset to the Steelers will make that three losses, leaving Patriots fans wondering what could have been.
It'll be a close one but the Steelers prevail, going to their third AFC Championship in four seasons.
The other AFC divisional game will also be a rematch. For the second time this season, the Houston Texans will travel to M&T Bank Stadium to play against the Baltimore Ravens. Revenge will be a motivating factor for the Texans, who lost to the Ravens 29-14 and are 0-5 against them all time.
During this previous game, the Texans still had Matt Schaub as their starting quarterback. With only two losses to that point, they looked to be one of the best teams in the AFC. However the Ravens' victory proved to be humbling and with Schaub gone, the Texans don't have a very good chance of beating the Ravens.
The Ravens' defense absolutely thrives on pressuring rookie quarterbacks and forcing them to make mistakes. T.J. Yates has been solid albeit unspectacular thus far but he will struggle mightily against the Ravens. With the Ravens' defense so stacked across the board, the Texans will have to hope their defense can shut down the Ravens' offense to keep the game low scoring.
Another factor working against the Texans is the Ravens' dominance at home. They are 8-0 there this year and only lost one game there in all of 2010. Plus with this being the Ravens first home playoff game since 2006, you've got to think the fans will be extremely hyped up, creating a very hostile environment.
It's a shame that Matt Schaub got hurt this season. With him, the Texans are viable Super Bowl contenders. Without him, they will fight their hardest and give it their all, but will still fall just short to the Ravens.
For the final game in the divisional round, the Super Bowl favorite Green Bay Packers will make their 2011 postseason debut. After two weeks rest and playing at home where they are unbeaten, they are a very intimidating team. Even though they only lost by three points the last time they played them, the Giants will very much be the underdog in this game.
Like many other games at Lambaugh Field, this one will be heavily influenced by the freezing cold January weather. The Giants are no strangers to this, playing in a cold weather city themselves and having defeated the Packers in Green Bay during the memorable 2007 NFC Championship. Both teams will be suited to deal with the elements, although these elements could perhaps affect what would be a very offensive game otherwise.
Both the Packers and Giants are known for having high-powered offenses, particularly in the passing game. With cold weather and maybe even some snow, whichever team can successfully run the ball will have the advantage. Both teams have been awful at running the ball this year, but the Packers are slightly better with the 27th best rush offense, as opposed to the Giants 32nd ranked rush offense.
Defense could also play a role in this one, since both teams' defense have struggled this year. That has been the main knock on the Packers viability as a Super Bowl candidate. However as bad as the Packers' defense has been this year, they have been opportunistic in getting turnovers which gives the Packers another advantage over the Giants.
It'll be low-scoring but it will still be an intense game. And the Packers will prevail thanks to a last-minute touchdown.
How fitting that the AFC Championship comes down to these two teams. The Ravens and the Steelers are the two best teams in the NFL's best division, and two bitter rivals that hate eachother's guts. They are also perhaps the only two teams with the defense that could slow down the Saints or the Packers.
This will be the third time in the last four years the Ravens and Steelers have met in the playoffs. The Steelers defeated the Ravens in both of their previous postseason meetings, and also in the 2001 Divisional Round. This time though, the Ravens will be favored thanks to homefield advantage and the fact that they swept the Steelers during the regular season.
Injuries will be a factor, as they always are when the Ravens face the Steelers. The Steelers will likely be feeling the effects of a long wildcard campaign and Ben Roethlisberger will likely still have an injured leg. Therefore the Steelers may need the defense to step up and even win the game.
But they could be up for the challenge. Joe Flacco has struggled in the playoffs, particularly against good defenses. If the Steelers effectively shut down Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat them, he might not be up to the task.
It will be a very low scoring game, showcasing the two best defenses in the league. But the Steelers will win, making therapist offices very busy in Baltimore.
For this year's NFC Championship, arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL today go head-to-head. These two teams met in the first game of the regular season, which was one of the best games this year. The Packers won on a goal line stand with a final score of 42-34.
This rematch could be even better. Again there is the potential that this game will heavily impacted by the cold weather in Green Bay. For that reason this game will likely be lower scoring.
Obviously the storyline this game presents is which quarterback is better? Both quarterbacks are viable MVP candidates, Aaron Rodgers has 45 touchdowns and an insane 122.5 quarterback rating. Drew Brees set an NFL single season record with 5,476 passing yards.
Rodgers will likely win the MVP, if only due to the Packers 15-1 regular season record. The Packers also will have the advantage in the NFC Championship. In this shootout Rodgers will just narrowly outduel Brees.
The Packers win narrowly in a shootout to set up a Super Bowl rematch with the Steelers.
It has been rare indeed that there has been a Super Bowl rematch. There have only been five of them thus far and only once did the rematch occur the year after the original game. However, the Steelers and Packers will give viewers another rematch less than a year after the Packers 31-25 Super Bowl victory.
This game will be a very similar one to last year's. The Steelers will have to make adjustments as Aaron Rodgers badly burned their secondary last year. A major difference this year will be heathy players Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant, who at the very least give Rodgers more weapons to give the ball to.
For once the Steelers will get rest thanks to the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. As lopsided as last year's Super Bowl was early, the Steelers came back and made a game of it. If they can pressure Rodgers and keep this game closer, the Steelers will have a viable chance of winning.
Like last year, viewers will get another shootout. And the result will be very much the same. The Packers will win their second consecutive Super Bowl, starting the talk of a new dynasty in Titletown USA.
The Packers have finished their regular season at 15-1. Surprisingly not as many experts are predicting them to win the Super Bowl, instead making the Saints and the Patriots popular picks. It's true that the Packers' defense is awful, to the extent that they would be the worst defensive unit to win a Super Bowl. But the fact remains that Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL today, and the Packers have been the NFL's best team the entire season.
They have found ways to win the whole season and I expect that to carry into the postseason.