NFL Playoff Bracket 2012: Which Teams Are Headed Home?

Marc FreshmanContributor IJanuary 7, 2012

If the Patriots play well, then everybody’s headed home.

That’s what has Patriots fans on pins and needles. Will the Patriots play the way they’re capable of playing?

New England remains the ultimate mystery of the upcoming postseason. In a playoff deck of jacks, queens and kings, the Patriots are the joker.

What’s a joker worth? Nobody knows the answer; we only know the answer will affect everything.

Fans and analysts know exactly what to expect from the Steelers and Ravens. They know what to expect from the Saints and Packers.

But what should we expect from the Patriots? That’s the most significant question of the postseason.

The four best players on the Patriots are Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and (arguably) Patrick Chung. If these guys play great football, then the Patriots will be fine. But these four guys must play like superstars. Anything less won’t be enough.

Last season, even though we had experience with the Jets, the Patriots weren’t ready for Rex Ryan’s game plan. It was clear the Patriots spent their time preparing for a different attack. They couldn’t adjust. They couldn’t neutralize what the Jets were throwing at them. And they had a similar problem with the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

But things are different now. The story of this season has been New England’s ability to adjust in the middle of a game. All season long, they have used the second quarter, halftime, and the third quarter to correct their errors.

The Patriots have done a remarkable job of taking a team’s best punches upfront, absorbing the hits, figuring out why the opponent is landing such hard hits, then changing their approach to neutralize the attack. That’s when they start punching.

And when the Patriots start punching, they hit harder than anyone else in the NFL.

To break it down in ridiculously basic terms, all we need is for the Patriots to punch. They didn’t punch the Giants or the Jets. We need them to punch now.

The Ravens are definitely a team that’s capable of beating us. They have before. But again, the Patriots should already know Baltimore’s game plan heading into this. Like the Steelers, the Ravens have an established identity.

When the Giants and the Jets beat us, they were creating their identities on the fly. We didn’t know what to expect from them. We guessed, and we guessed wrong.

I’d rather play a team with an established identity, which is why I feel good right now. Bill Belichick knows what must be done to beat the Steelers and the Ravens.

Of course it’ll be monumentally difficult, but it’s better to play a great team that you expect greatness from, rather than a mediocre team who suddenly flip the tables on you.

For the Patriots to win, their approach is simple. Punch. Take some hits. Make some adjustments. Punch harder. Move on to the next round.

The Steelers are who they are. The Ravens are who they are. The Packers are who they are. No surprises. You either play better than them or you don’t. That’s the name of the game.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Aaron Hernandez, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater, Brian Waters, Sterling Moore and Brandon Spikes are the backbone of the team. These guys don’t have to play like superstars; they just have to play hard and be themselves.

The same goes for our unsung heroes. When the games get tough, and the momentum feels like it’s swinging away from New England, we have the guys to swing it back. Rob Ninkovich, Stevan Ridley, Mark Anderson, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty and Danny Woodhead are those guys.

But to beat the Steelers and the Ravens, it really comes down to the big four. They must play better than Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Troy Polamalu. They must play better than Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

If Brady gets great pass protection and plays like the Tom Brady we know, then the Patriots will be fine.

If Chung stays healthy and leaves his fingerprints all over these games, the Patriots will be fine.

If Welker and Gronkowski put points on the board and do it in style, then the Patriots will be fine.

If the Patriots can roughly follow that script for three games, then everybody who doesn’t play for New England is going home.

Which means the Steelers and the Ravens will be packing their bags, along with the Texans, the Bengals and the Broncos.

The Lions and the Falcons are headed home too.

The 49ers are an interesting postseason question. Teams fear the 49ers. They’re strong, they have a terrific running game, and their defense is remarkable.

But they don’t have an elite quarterback.

That could come back to bite them. This postseason is loaded with elite quarterbacks. The odds of one of these elite guys not winning it all is slim.

To put it in context of how great the quarterbacks are this year, Matthew Stafford threw over 5,000 yards. He’s not even an elite quarterback! Incredible.

In the modern passing league, Alex Smith could run into the same trouble as Tim Tebow and Michael Vick. Vick probably has the best arm of the three, but none of these guys are known for passing.

Alex Smith has blended into the 49ers power attack, but he hasn’t done it with his arm. I wonder if he can keep that momentum going in a playoff situation. Against a team like the Saints, the power attack will probably crumble.

The 49ers are going home.

The NFC comes down to the Packers, the Saints and the Giants. The Saints are amazing, but the Packers can outscore them, and the Giants can out-muscle them.

The Saints are going home.

The Packers are a better team than the Giants. Aaron Rodgers is a better quarterback than Eli Manning. And when it comes to offense, there’s no team I trust more than Green Bay.

Having said all that, I think New York’s physical prowess will make that game a dogfight. The Packers should win, but they’ll have to score five touchdowns. They’ll have to play perfect offense. Anything less than perfect will cost them the game.

It’s a Patriots versus Packers Super Bowl, or a Patriots versus Giants Super Bowl. Either way, if the Patriots play their game, then Green Bay and New York are headed home.

It all comes down to the Patriots.


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