NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Elite 8 BCS Style

Alan ZlotorzynskiCorrespondent IIIJanuary 13, 2012

NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Elite 8 BCS Style

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    Power polls, rankings and any other form of trying to determine the best, and for that matter, the worst in any sport, is a debate that has raged on since the beginning of sports time.

    Most notably, college football is often front and center in every rankings controversy simply because they do not have a playoff system to determine its champion.

    If you watched the BCS National Championship game, than you awoke the next day, and once again felt unfulfilled, and even more grateful for the NFL and their playoff system. 

    While most concede that LSU and Alabama were the best two teams in the land prior to the BCS Title game, one wonders that if the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) had a plus 1 system, would the Tigers, Crimson Tide, or neither even been in the Big Easy to compete for the most prestigious trophy in all of college sports.

    That is a debate that will rage until there is a playoff of any kind in division one college football, but this slide show is about ranking the remaining eight NFL playoff teams using a BCS style point system.

    Even with a playoff system, fans still clamor to see where their favorite NFL teams are ranked every Tuesday afternoon when ESPN, the NFL, and the Bleacher Report release their power polls during the regular season.

    Like the BCS system, none are perfect, and are flawed in some way. This one is no different, but I feel this system evens the playing field by highlighting a team's flaws as much as their strengths. This ranking system is simply similar in strategy to how the BCS uses numbers to rank teams, and is not an exact science.

    With their high-powered offenses, and superstar quarterbacks, it is easy to say that the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints are the best teams in the NFL. However, wasn't the 2007 New England Patriots also in that class with both?

    Where does strength of schedule fit in, and what does it mean to beat the Panthers, Buccaneers and Falcons as opposed to the Steelers, Browns, and Bengals twice in one season.

    How will a team with a great defense and rushing attack like the Baltimore Ravens, and Houston Texans compare to the top flight passing attacks and mediocre defenses of the above mentioned teams, and what does it all mean.

    Well, over the next 11 slides, I will try to put into perspective what all of these numbers mean, and rank each team accordingly.

    Accompanying each slide will be some strengths, weaknesses, and intangibles that may or may not have each team on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium on the first Sunday in February.

    This is a very comprehensive look at the NFL's Elite 8, and their matchup this weekend. As always, feel free to leave your comments, but please stay within the boundaries of good taste.

     

    *Game Day press releases from each team assisted with stats for this slide show

How We Get to No. 1

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    The Point System:

    The point system for ranking playoff teams is a little different than what it is used to rank the teams during the regular season. During the regular season in order for a team to qualify they must be leading their division or have a record better than .500. Those teams are then ranked into categories worth five points.

    Let’s say that one week there were 15 teams that met the criteria, which would mean that being ranked No. 1 in any category such as offense or defense would be worth 75 points (15 x 5= 75). 

    With eight teams remaining, each spot will be worth 10 points, meaning that being ranked No. 1 is worth 80 points. The following categories from the regular season will be used in the post season.

    1.  Strength of victory/schedule

    2.  Points for

    3.  Points against

    4.  Net difference in points

    5.  Offensive rank

    6.  Defensive rank

    7.  Final record

    8.  Intangibles*

    Intangibles are the only category in which an opinion matters. In order to determine which team has the best intangibles, a variable of factors was used.

    When you consider that three of the past six Super Bowl winners were Wild Card teams, end of season winning streaks, or losing streaks matter. It is not always the team with best record or talent that wins the big game, but the team that is simply the hottest.

    Other factors such as, which team has the best kicker, do they play at home or on the road over the next two weeks, and which team has the most playoff experience, is all factored in to determine which team earns the 80 points for this category.

    Lastly, there were points given and taken away for quality of wins and losses during the season, as well as Wild Card weekend. Here is how those points break down.

    Wins:

    1.  5 pts.- Division win on the road

    2.  4 pts.- Non- division win on road

    3.  3 pts.- Division win at home

    4.  2 pts.- Non-division win at home

    Losses:

    1.  -5 pts.- Non-division loss at home

    2.  -4 pts.- Division loss at home

    3.  -3 pts.- Non-division loss on the road

    4.  -2 pts.- Division loss on the road

    There are bonus points. If a team ranks No.1 in more than category, they received 10 points for every extra category in which they were tops in.

    If you’re still with me and care to see where your team ranks amongst the NFL's elite eight, then enjoy. If I've lost you, you’re not the first, but see if your team ranks higher or lower than you may have expected. 

No. 8 Denver Broncos

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    POINTS: 272

    Next Game: At New England Patriots Saturday night (8 p.m. EST CBS)

    Line: Patriots -13.5 points Over/Under 50.5

    Whether you love Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow, or hate him, you can't deny his popularity. According to the USA Today, Tebow mania is once again in full swing.

    His overtime winning touchdown pass to beat "America's New Team", the Pittsburgh Steelers, drew an amazing 25.9 overnight rating, the best for a wild card football game in almost 25 years.

    According to the same article, sports websites were crippled with hits of Tebow hours after the game. NFL.com reported views of videos in the hour after the game up 385 percent over Wild Card Sunday last year.

    Tebow hit more than 1 million mentions on Twitter. Sunday night, the rate of tweets announcing the victory hit 9,420 per second.

    Tebow did not set the all-time record, but he beat the 8,868 tweets-per-second rate reached when Beyoncé announced her pregnancy during the 2011 MTV Music Awards

    This Saturday night, Tebow leads the Broncos into the seventh largest TV market in the country (Boston), as well as Gillette Stadium to play Tommy terrific, and the New England Patriots.

    When you consider that Pittsburgh is the 24th largest TV market, and the Patriots could be as popular as the Steelers, CBS could have one hell of night of ratings, and money making advertising opportunities. 

    As a Ravens fan, I can only hope that Tebow mania continues past this Saturday night's game, and Baltimore can beat the Texans on Sunday.

     

    Strength: Rushing attack

    RB Willis McGahee totaled 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth time in his career and produced seven 100-yard rushing games this season to tie for the NFL lead in that category. The Broncos, who ranked 25th in the NFL with 86.8 rushing yards per game through the first four weeks of the season, finished with the league’s top rushing attack after averaging 190.4 yards per game on the ground in Games 5-16.

    Denver has produced the most regular-season individual 100-yard rushers (18) in the NFL since 1995, while leading the league with 136.0 rushing yards per game during that stretch.

    Tim Tebow's confidence has to be riding high after falling an extra point shy of hanging 30 on the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense. Team President and Hall of Fame former Broncos QB John Elway said pull the trigger, and like the god boy Tebow has always been, did as he was told.

    The former Heisman Trophy winner from Florida passed for 316 yards, and accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) against the Steel Curtain.

     

    Weakness: Passing game

    The Ghost of Paul Revere could be heard once again riding past the Old North Church in Boston on Sunday night shouting "the Tebow’s are coming, the Tebow's are coming."

    This time he hung two lanterns to signify that the Patriots secondary must now be on the lookout for a passing game to match the NFL's No.1 rushing attack, but the potential loss of the Broncos' leading receiver, Eric Decker, could have devastating consequences to what many are calling an emerging attack.

    Decker, who injured his knee following a legal but low hit by the Steelers' James Harrison (what a surprise) totaled five receptions for 113 yards (22.6 avg.) with two touchdowns in his NFL starting debut against Cincinnati during a week two win.

    He became the first player in team history and just the fifth player in the league since 1987 to post 100+ receiving yards and two plus receiving touchdowns in his first pro start.

    Decker finished the season tied for 11th in the league with eight receiving scores, which represents the second-most in team history by a rookie or second-year player. Tebow will need all hands on deck for the league's 31st-ranked passing attack.

    It helps that he is facing the league's second-worst passing defense, and second-worst passing defense in NFL history as well, but if you have watched the Denver passing game consistently, then you know they could always use all of the help they can get.

     

    Intangibles: God's QB earns all 80 points

    The Broncos earned the 80 points for this category. I mean could anyone else but a team with God's favorite player get the top spot for having the most intangibles.

    The Broncos lost to New England during a Week 15 contest in Denver, but the 41-23 score wasn't quite as big a blow-out as that score would indicate.

    Denver led 16-7 at one point, and self-destructed vs. Tom Brady, giving the Justin Bieber lookalike short fields at times. Brady can lead drives from anywhere on the planet, and he led the Pats to 27 unanswered points.

    Denver will have to play mistake-free football if they are to win Saturday night, but they did play better on the road than at Mile High this year. Tebow and his mates were 3-5 at home, and 5-3 on the road. 

    New England has not defeated Denver twice in one season since the two played in the American Football League together before the merger.

    The Boston Patriots behind Gino Cappelletti beat the Broncos 39-10 and 12-7 during the 1964 season. Denver is 25-17 all-time vs. the Pats during the regular season, and 2-0 in the post season.

    Champ Bailey was a part of a Broncos team that beat the Pats in this same round of playoffs exactly six years to the date of Saturday's night contest.

    Bailey's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, and the Patriots' five turnovers, helped the Broncos end Tom Brady's 10-game playoff unbeaten streak.

    It was the first playoff game that Denver won at the then-new Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium and the first playoff game the Broncos won since John Elway retired in 1999.

    Karma and “belief” can be a beautiful thing, and Denver seems to have a lot of both. 

No. 7 New York Giants

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    Points: 320 Points

    Next Game: At Green Bay Packers Sunday (4:30 p.m. FOX)

    Line: Packers -7.5 Over/Under 52.5

    A lot of the talk surrounding the Giants this week is how eerily similar their game vs. the Green Bay Packers feels to their Super Bowl game vs. the New England Patriots back in 2007.

    In the words of another great New York sports legend, "it's deja vu all over again" when it comes to the 2011 Giants. During the 2007 season, the Giants had a chance to derail the New England Patriots' perfect season as they hosted the Patriots during the final week of the regular season.

    New England won the game to complete their perfect 16-0 season, but just 36 days later the wild card Giants met the now 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona.

    The Giants would win the game behind a ferocious pass rush that saw New York's front four, led by Michael Strahan, sack Tom Brady five times en-route to a 17-14 victory.

    Eli Manning, the game’s most valuable player, engineered a drive that saw the most amazing catch in Super Bowl history, and ended with a game winning TD pass to Plaxico Burress with little time remaining. The outcome solidified the much maligned younger Manning as a legitimate top-notch elite NFL quarterback.

    The deja vu I speak of occurred Week 13 this season, when the struggling Giants met the then-undefeated Green Bay Packers. Like the experts did in 2007, no one gave the G-Men a chance as they entered the contest this season on a three-game losing streak.

    However, Manning and Co. gave Rodgers and the Packers everything they could handle, and despite losing 38-35, which was the same score the Patriots won their 2007 regular season meeting by with the Giants, New York appeared more impressive in the loss than they had during a few of their wins this season.

    Heading into Sunday's contest, one gets the feeling the Giants, who were not completely healthy on the defensive line when the teams first met this season, have a lot of confidence heading into Lambeau Field.

    In case you need more irony, the Giants defeated the Packers there to win the NFC Championship the year they beat New England in the Super Bowl, intercepting Brett Favre’s final pass as a Green Bay Packer in overtime of the third coldest game played in NFL history.

    Strength: Tough Schedule, pass rush and Eli:

    While the New York Giants defense ranks 27th, they know how to get after top-notch NFL quarterbacks. If there is a defense for the Giants final defensive ranking, it is that they played the toughest schedule of any team remaining in the postseason.

    The combined record of their opponents was 133-123 (.519), and are the only team in the post season to play a schedule where their opponents won more than they lost.

    New York is the only team to play all three 13-win teams, and the 15-win Packers. Even though they went 1-3 in those games, the experienced gained showed through in crunch time when they buried the Cowboys for the NFC East crown. In 10 of their 16 games this season, the Giants played teams that finished the season 8-8 or better.

    Despite playing against superstars such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo, the Giants are tied for second with 44 QB sacks this season. They registered two more this past Sunday during their win over the Falcons.

    Because of their stiff pass rush, New York forced Aaron Rodgers into an uncharacteristic 60 percent completion percentage during their Week 13 matchup, but he still managed to find eight receivers for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

    Eli Manning is capable of winning a shootout against Aaron Rodgers. He destroyed the Packers secondary (and who hasn't) for 347 yards, and threw three touchdowns in their earlier meeting. The Pack can be had, and the Giants are the perfect team with just the right amount of experience to beat them. If any game this weekend smells of an upset, it’s this one.

     

    Weakness: Secondary and untimely turnovers:

    The Giants are lucky to have the pass rush they do because they need itTheir secondary has been battered at times this season, and although he practiced Wednesday, CB Aaron Ross left Sunday's game with a concussion. The Giants have no fewer than four defensive backs listed on their injury report. 

    While Eli has cut down on his interceptions immensely this season, he still has a knack for turning the ball over at the wrong time. Take the Week 13 matchup with Green Bay. Manning threw just one interception, but it was returned 38 yards by Packers linebacker Clay Mathews for a touchdown in the second quarter. He also lost a fumble to Matthews that was significant.

    The Giants lost by just three points, so to call both of these turnovers critical is a gross understatement.

     

    Intangibles:

    The Giants get 30 points for having the feel of a team that can go into Lambeau and pull the upset. Under Tom Coughlin, the Giants have been the type of team where you should not be surprised if they lose to a winless team, or as they did in Super Bowl 41, beat an undefeated one.

    I like Manning’s confidence, and I liked his approach during their four-game losing streak, he was simply unphased as New York was mired in their usual second-half swoon. 


No. 6 Houston Texans

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    POINTS: 342

    Next Game: At Baltimore Ravens (Sunday 1pm EST CBS)

    Line: Ravens -7.5 Over/Under 36

    Gary Kubiak should be a serious candidate for NFL head coach of the year.

    When you consider that the Texans have seen a starter, key contributor or coach go down with injury in 11 of their last 13 games and have not had their starting quarterback, running back, All-Pro wide receiver, and best defensive player together for more than five quarters, then the former Broncos quarterback should be an obvious choice, even in the Manning-less AFC South this year.

    It all began when last year’s rushing champ, Arian Foster, missed the first and third game with a hamstring injury before returning to shred the Steelers defense for 155-yards during a Week 3 victory at home.

    As soon as Foster hit his stride, two time All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson went down quickly during the second quarter of the victory over the Steelers, and missed four games with a left hamstring injury.

    He returned in early December before injuring his right one. He missed three more games before returning during the Texans final game of the season, a loss to the Tennessee Titans.

    The news went from bad to worse the week after the Texans beat Pittsburgh. While making his then team leading fifth sack of the season, Houston's former No.1 overall pick, as well as the best player on the Texans defense, Mario Williams, tore his pectoral muscle and was lost for the season.

    The injuries continued to mount, as Houston listed 23 players on their week 10 injury report, but the following week they would lose another superstar player, and this one may be the reason the Texans do not win, or compete for the Super Bowl this season.

    Following a quarterback sneak coming out of the end zone late in the second quarter of Houston's 37-9 win over Tampa Bay on Nov. 13, quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury. He stayed in the game, but threw only three passes.

    Lost for the season, the Texans turned to former Heisman trophy winner and USC standout Matt Leinart, but his rebirth in the NFL lasted just one half as the former embattled QB of the Arizona Cardinals fractured his left collarbone during the second quarter of Houston's 20-13 win in Jacksonville on Nov. 27.

    From there, it’s been rookie TJ Yates, who by the way is also currently playing injured. Yates suffered an injury to his non-throwing shoulder during the team’s final game of the season.

    Enter Jake Dellhome, the former QB of the Carolina Panthers, but because the injury was to his non-throwing shoulder, Yates returned to play, and threw for 159 yards, and one nice 40-yard touchdown to the healed Andre Johnson last week in the wild card game.

    Aside from the above-mentioned names, the Texans have also lost, or had miss time the following players: special teams ace SS Dominique Barber, starting FS Danieal Manning broke his fibula while making an interception at Tennessee, putting him out of action for three games, and top reserve ILB Darryl Sharpton suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury.

    In Week 13, P Brett Hartmann was lost for the season with an ACL injury and in Week 14, RG Mike Brisiel played through a lower leg injury that required surgery. Even coaches were not immune this season, as Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips missed Weeks 15 and 16 with a surgical procedure.

    Despite this, the Texans beat a surprisingly unprepared Cincinnati Bengals team 31-10 during Wild Card Weekend, but playing in Baltimore, where the Ravens have won 10 in row, is lot more difficult than winning a home playoff game against a young team filled with rookies and second year players at key positions.

     

    Strengths: Defense and Rushing attack

    The Texans are a football team seemingly built to make a deep run in the playoffs. It is no secret amongst NFL head coaches that a solid defense and a great rushing attack are two huge components for playoff success. The Texans have both and use them really well.

    Led by Arian Foster, who followed up his breakout performance in 2010 with another great season, Houston finished the regular season with the second-rated ground game in the league. 

    Despite his limited play to start the year, Foster, was elected to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, and with 141.6 yards per game, led the NFL in scrimmage yards per game.

    He was the only running back in the NFL to have two 100-yard receiving games in 2011, and had seven 100-yard rushing performances, including 155 yards against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense and 111 yards against Atlanta’s sixth-ranked run defense. 

    Foster was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October, and became the fourth player since the 1970 merger to score three touchdowns and have more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in a single game in the Texans’ 41-7 win at Tennessee in Week.

    He became the seventh undrafted player to rush for more than 100 yards in a playoff game with 153 yards on 24 carries against Cincinnati in the Wild Card round. Foster’s 153 rushing yards were the third most by an undrafted player in NFL history and were the most in the first round of this year’s playoffs. 

    While Foster must come up huge on Sunday, the defense must stop Ray Rice, which it failed to do back in the Texans-Ravens regular season meeting back in Week six. Rice rushed for 101 yards, and contributed 1612 total yards, as Ravens QB Joe Flacco threw for over 300-yards as Baltimore pulled away and won 29-14. 

    Houston’s second-ranked defense ran away as the NFL’s most improved unit in 2011, giving up 285.7 yards per game compared to 376.9 yards per game in 2010. With 91.2 yards allowed less per game this season, the Texans defense had the third best average yard per game allowed improvement since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Houston’s 2011 pass defense was light year’s better than the 2010 unit.

    The Texans were third in the NFL in overall pass defense, allowing 189.7 passing yards per game compared to the 267.5 net passing yards the 2010 defense allowed, which ranked last in the NFL. In addition to cutting down the number of yards it allows through the air, Houston’s defense improved in every significant passing category.

    Houston led the NFL with a 51.9 opponent completion percentage and had the second-lowest opponent passer rating, 69.0. Houston had more interceptions (17 to 14) and sacks (44 to 30) than it had the previous year. 

    The Texans’ turnaround on defense has relied heavily on young talent, especially when pressuring the quarterback. Of Houston’s franchise record 44 sacks, 31.5 (71.6 percent) came from players with three years of experience or less.

    The Ravens cannot turn the ball over as The Texans ranked 12th in the NFL with 27 takeaways in 2011 but ranked fourth in points off turnovers with 119. Houston converted 20-of-27 turnovers (74.1 percent) into points in 2011, which was the third highest percentage. 

     

    Weakness: TJ Yates

    Sorry, rookie, but the Ravens can and probably will stop, or seriously limit Arian Foster. If that happens, Yates will have to beat the Ravens secondary, which is filled with a great mix of veteran leadership and youth.

    Although Yates didn’t make many mistakes during his six starts, he wasn’t required to beat teams throwing the ball, and he certainly has yet to face a defense like the Ravens, who are traditionally very tough on young quarterbacks. 

    M&T Bank Stadium is a tough place for any quarterback to play, and opposing quarterbacks have won just twice in their last 20 trips into the big ATM. That was Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, who has combined to play in five Super Bowls during the 2000’s, winning three of them. 


    Intangibles:

    Houston received the lowest available score (10 points) for intangibles. Yes, they had a huge feel-good franchise-first playoff win last week, but this is another week, and even if they own edges in special teams, and coaching, it won’t make any difference in Baltimore on Sunday. 

    Many prognosticators would probably find it tough to pick the Texans if Schaub and Williams were playing, much less a rookie quarterback.

No. 5 San Francisco 49ers

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    Points: 382

    Next Game: Vs. New Orleans Saints (Saturday 4:30 p.m. FOX)

    Line: New Orleans -3.5 Over/Under 47.5

    Thirty years ago this week, the San Francisco 49ers began a run in which they became one of the most influential, followed, adored, hated and talked-about pro football teams in the history of the NFL.

    It began with QB Joe Montana rolling right, and finding tight end Dwight Clark in the back right corner of the end zone, as the 49ers won the NFC Championship, beating “America’s Team.”

    "The Catch" began a run of winning five Super Bowls, and producing such legendary names as Montana, Rice and Young in the process.

    The Niners were led by head coach Bill Walsh, who was a member of the Paul Brown coaching tree, and a genius in his own right. As the father of the West Coast offense, Walsh's system produced numerous hall of fame players.

    The Niners were so stacked with talent throughout the years that their new head coach, Jim Harbaugh, is the third head coach in franchise history, joining George Seifert in 1989 & Steve Mariucci in 1997, to win the division title in his first year.

    Since the “The Catch,” the Niners have established themselves as one of the NFL’s most dominant franchises. The 49ers won more Super Bowls (5), claimed more divisional titles and made more playoff appearances than any team in the league over that 32-year stretch.

    Since the DeBartolo Corp. purchased the team in 1977, the 49ers made one of the most dramatic turnarounds in sports history, rebounding from back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1978-79 to Super Bowl Champions in 1981.

    The 49ers unparalleled success continued into the ’90s, winning their fifth Super Bowl in 1994, becoming the first team in NFL history to win five Super Bowl titles.

    Instead of a high-powered West Coast offense, the 2011 49ers won the franchise's 15th division title by playing great defense, and running the football.

     

    Strength: Run defense, and rushing attack

    The 49ers ranked 8th in the NFL and 4th in the NFC in rushing yards per game (127.8). Over the final three months of the season, San Francisco averaged 141.2 yds. per game on the ground, ranking 6th in the NFL, and rushed for 1,835 yards on 413 carries (4.4 YPC) and 11 TDs. With a game managing passing attack, the Niners offense is led by running back Frank Gore.

    In 2011, Gore became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher after passing RB Joe Perry on In December. Gore now has 7,625 career rushing yards yds. and is just the third 49er to rush for over 7,000 yds. in team history.

    The seventh-year back rushed for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Gore recently earned his third Pro-Bowl selection, and has been the overdrive gear for Niners offense since his arrival from Miami in 2005.

    Since his rookie season, the 49ers are 27-5 when Gore has 20 or more carries and 22-7 when he breaks the 100-yard plateau. The Niners' rushing defense would probably have no problem stopping Gore, as they had no problem stopping just about every back they faced this season.

    In 2011, the 49ers defense was one of the best in the NFL. The 49ers became the first team in NFL history not to allow a rushing TD through the first 14 games of a season.

    San Francisco’s defense finished the season ranked 2nd in the NFL in opponents' points per game (14.3), first in rushing defense (77.3 yds. per game) and tied for first in takeaways with 38. (23 INTs and 15 FRs).

    The 49ers defense also ranked fourth in the NFL and first in the NFC in total defense allowing 308.2 yds.per game.

    Allowing just 23 touchdowns in 2011, the 49ers defense was tied for first in the NFL. The defense did not allow a running back to gain over 100 yards. in 36 games from Nov. 29, 2009 through Dec. 12, 2011. The 36-game streak is tied for longest streak in franchise history. The Niners streak of 36 games without allowing a 100-yd. rusher ranked tied for second in the NFL, since 2000.

    San Francisco’s rushing defense ranked first in the NFL allowing just 77.3-yards per game. They allowed just three rushing TDs in 2011, which is the fewest allowed by any team in one season since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, and is tied for fifth all time in NFL history.

    The Niners are aggressive on defense and in 2011 had a +28 turnover differential, ranking 1st in the NFL, including winning the turnover battle in 14 of the 16 games. Since 2009, the 49ers are 24-3 when winning the turnover battle.

    They will need to create turnovers with the New Orleans Saints coming to Candlestick Park on Saturday. Drew Brees and company will look to carve up the Niners one week spot on defense, their 16th-ranked pass defense.

    Weakness: Alex Smith

    If you know the story of 49ers QB Alex Smith, than you know this is a feel-good story that many hope will come to an end in Indianapolis this season.

    However, it’s likely that in order for the Niners and Smith to be playing at Peyton’s place on the first Sunday in February, he will have to win at least one, if not two shootouts vs. two quarterbacks coming off record-breaking passing seasons.

    If Smith and the Niners' 29th-ranked passing attack can outduel the Saints and Drew Brees' first ranked aerial attack, then duplicating that feat in Lambeau Field, or even at home versus Eli Manning, may prove to be difficult.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh has to be looking to control the clock with Gore and the running game. The 49ers had an average time of possession of 32:03 per game, which ranked third in the NFL.

    The best defense against Drew Brees is not having to play any defense at all against him. If the Niners offense can keep Brees watching from the sidelines, than they have a shot.

     

    Intangibles:

    I gave the Niners 50 points based solely on their special teams. Under the guidance of assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Brad Seely, the 49ers special teams unit emerged as one of the best in the NFL in 2011.

    Along with tremendous performances from K David Akers, P Andy Lee and WR Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers' special teams unit excelled in every phase of the kicking and return game.

    The Niners were the only team in the NFL not to allow a return of any kind for a TD, in 2011. Kicker David Akers helped his team win the battle of field position all season, which could loom large Saturday.

    The 49ers ranked first in the NFL in 2011 with an opponent’s average starting field position of the 24.3-yard line.  At home, the 49ers opponents had an avg. starting field position of their own 20.8-yard line, which ranked first in the NFL.

    Ginn ranked second in the NFC and third in the NFL with 27.6 yards per kickoff return in 2011, and finished ranked third in the NFC and fourth in the NFL averaging 12.3 yds. per punt return. He returned not one, but two kicks for touchdowns.

    During the opening game of the season, Ginn returned a kickoff 102 yards for a TD and then a punt 55 yds. for a TD. Punter Andy Lee posted a net punting avg. of 44.0 in 2011, setting the NFL single-season record. His efforts earned him 1st Team AP All-Pro and NFC Pro Bowl honors.

    If the game is close, and comes down to a field goal, you have to like your chances with Akers. The former Eagles kicker, who set NFL records in FGs made (44), FGs attempted (52) and points (166), earned First Team AP All-Pro and NFC Pro Bowl honors for his efforts this season.

    The highest scoring NFL player in the 2000s decade was also named to the NFL’s All decade team. San Francisco must play their game, and while I know that sounds like such a cliche, they can ill-afford to try and play the Saints. In fact, they can't.

No.4 New England Patriots

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    Points: 387

    Next Game: Vs. Denver Broncos (Saturday 8:30 pm EST CBS)

    Line: Patriots -13.5 Over/Under 50.5

    If you believe the saying, "Defense wins championships" is fiction, and not apart of today's NFL, than chances are you’re wearing a slice of foam cheese on your head, or you’re a fan of the No.4 team in this poll, the New England Patriots.

    While we discussed in the previous slide the accomplishments of the 49ers during the past 32 years since "the Catch", the Patriots have gone on quite a nice run since the famous, or infamous tuck rule call during the 2002 AFC divisional playoff game,

    With less than two minutes left to play on a cold and snowy night in New England, what should have been Oakland Raiders ball, and the end of the Patriots season, was reversed to allow the legend of Patriots place kicker Adam Vinatieri, and quarterback Tom Brady to be born.

    As the Pats were driving, but still a little out of Vinatieri range, Brady dropped back to pass. Blitzing on the play was Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, who got to Brady and forced what, was called a fumble on the field and recovered by linebacker Greg Biekert.

    With less than two minutes remaining, the "booth upstairs" reviewed the play, and as a result referee Walt Coleman announced that the call was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass. The Raiders never regained their composure, and a few plays later, with just 27-seconds remaining, Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard line drive dart to tie the game, and then won it in overtime for New England with a 27-yard chip shot.

    Since then, the Patriots have won 77 percent of their regular season games, and have posted a 13-5 record in the post season, winning three Super Bowl titles. Along the way, they became just the second franchise in NFL history to go undefeated during the regular season when they were 16-0 during the 2007 campaign.

    They too are led by a genius in head coach Bill Belichick, who hails from the Bill Parcels coaching tree. New England has the best home field advantage in the NFL in terms of wins since moving into Gillette Stadium back in 2002.

    Since the Patriots moved to Gillette Stadium in 2002, they have more regular season and postseason wins (74) than any other team in the NFL. The Patriots have the highest point differential at home (826) during that time, and are among the top three offensive and defensive leaders at home. 

    Strength: Tom Brady and the Patriots offense

    Tommy terrific was just that this season under center in New England. Tom Brady finished the season with 5,235 passing yards, and joins Drew Brees (5,476 in 2011 and 5,069 in 2008), Dan Marino (5,084 in 1984) and Matthew Stafford (5,038 in 2011), as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to reach 5,000 passing yards in a single season. 

    He finished the season with 39 touchdown passes, marking the second highest total of his career, trailing his NFL-record 50scoring tosses in 2007. Brady joins Dan Marino (48 in 1984 and44 in 1986) as the only players in NFL history with at least two different seasons with 39 or more touchdown passes.

    On of Brady’s favorite targets this season was his tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady and Gronkowski were lethal at times. The big and fast second year pass catcher from Arizona finished the season with 17 receiving touchdowns to set the NFL record for most touchdown receptions by a tight end in NFL history.

    He actually finished with 18 total touchdowns this season, which is still the highest number of combined touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history. Gronkowski finished with 1,327 receiving yards, surpassing Kellen Winslow‘s record of 1,290 receiving yards with San Diego in 1980 for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end. 

    Gronkowski wasn't the only pass catcher to break a few records. Wide out Wes Welker finished the season with 1,569 receiving yards to set the franchise record, topping Randy Moss who had 1,493receiving yards in 2007.

    Welker finished the season with 122 receptions, a total that is tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history. The 120-plus catch season was the second time in Welker‘s career he has passed the 120-reception mark (123 in 2009 and122 in 2011), joining Cris Carter (122 in 1995 and 122 in 1994)as the only players to have 120-plus receptions twice in a career. With over 100 receptions in 2011, Welker joined Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice as the only NFL players with four 100-reception seasons. 

    Both Welker and Gronkowski rank first and second respectively in the AFC in receiving yards. They are the first teammates to finish 1-2 in a conference in receiving yards since Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce in 2000 (St. Louis). The Patriots offense finished second in the NFL in total yards, and has finished in the top 10 in five straight seasons. Since the 1970 merger, the Patriots offense has finished in the top 10 a total of 16 times, including seven times under Bill Belichick.

    During the Pats meeting with the Broncos back in week 15, Tom Brady completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards with two touchdowns. Brady’s other big fast tight end, Aaron Hernandez had a career day with 9 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.

    Weakness: Defense 

    You can slice this pie any way you like, but the Patriots (4,703) and Green Bay Packers (4,796) for that matter, became the first two teams in NFL history to allow over 4,700 passing yards in a season. The Patriots were obviously ranked next to last in that category and also ranked (17th) in the lower half of the league in rushing yards as well. 

    The Patriots and their fans will have you believe that surrendering a ton of yards means nothing if they don’t allow teams to score. They will also tell you that for most of the year the Patriots played with a lead. I can buy that from a Packers fan, but New England had their problems allowing points early in games, and fell behind in a lot of games to close the season. 

    The Pats D did not close out the season well, and does not march into the playoffs chest thumping by any stretch of the imagination. New England fell behind in five of their last six games against teams that finished with a combined record of 33-47. It was the first time in the history of the franchise that they've had to come back from a deficit of 17 or more points in back-to-back games (Miami and Buffalo), and only their future hall of fame quarterback bailed them out. 

    New England did not face a ton of top flight offenses this season either. The Patriots strength of victory percentage was just .449 (115-141), and faced just four offenses that ranked in the NFL’s top 10. Only one finished better than 8-8 (Giants).

    However, the Patriots finished 15th in the NFL in average points (21.4). Their defense does allow a ton of yards, but sometimes simply bends and doesn’t break. The numbers during the Belichick era support this claim, and who could argue with three Super Bowl titles. During the past 12 seasons the Patriots defense has always ranked higher in fewest points allowed than in yards allowed except for 2007 when both ranked fourth. The Patriots defense was also the most opportunistic in the AFC this season.

    New England led AFC with a plus-17 turnover differential, and was third in the NFL in behind San Francisco‘s plus-28 and Green bay plus-24. The Patriots plus-17 was 10 higher than the second place AFC team (Houston at plus-7).  

    With all of that said the Patriots faced just three teams (Broncos, Steelers, Giants) during the 2011 season that had a winning record, and lost (Steelers, Giants) two of those games. To say that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and company are catching a break by hosting Tim Tebow and company on Saturday night would be a gross understatement.

    Granted, the Baltimore Ravens or Houston Texans offense are not the Saints and Packers, but both could potentially beat up the Patriots front seven pretty good, as Ray Rice and Arian Foster certainly have more than potential to do a lot of damage if the Pats do not get Tebowed.

    If they fall behind on Saturday, and Tebow doesn’t turn the ball over, it could be light’s out in Foxborough, and the Patriots could lose their fourth straight postseason game dating back to their loss in Super Bowl 41. 

    Intangibles: 

    Head coach Bill Belichick and his Patriots don’t rely on intangibles, they usually rely on a few bad calls, and some magic from their Justin Bieber look alike quarterback. However If there was any coach that gave its team the intangibles edge in the coaching column, its Belichick, so the Pats picked up 20 intangible points.

    His .714 winning percentage in the playoffs is the third highest winning percentage in the playoffs in NFL history behind Tom Flores (.727) and the legendary Vince Lombardi (.900), whose name adorns the prize belichick is once again craving.

    His 15-post season wins is the fifth-highest by a head coach in NFL history. Belichick needs five wins to tie Tom Landry for the most wins in the playoffs in NFL history. He has led the Patriots to a winning record for 11consecutive seasons (2001-2011). The only other NFL coach to have at least 10 consecutive winning seasons with one team since the 1970 merger was Tom Landry, who led the Dallas Cowboys to 16 consecutive winning seasons (1970-1985).

    The numbers are mind numbing when you consider that he once failed miserably as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Belichick is the first coach in NFL history with nine straight seasons with at least 10 victories after guiding the Patriots to nine 10-plus seasons from 2003 through 2011. He is also the first head coach in NFL history with 13 or more wins in five different seasons.

    So if anyone has an answer for God’s favorite player, its God’s favorite coach. Look for the Pats to get past the Denver Tebow’s, but fail in their quest to return to the Super Bowl.

No.3 Baltimore Ravens

7 of 9

    Points: 406

    Next Game: Vs. Houston Texans (Sunday 1pm CBS)

    Line: Baltimore -7.5 Over/Under 36

    If there is a team destined to win the Super Bowl this season, it is the Baltimore Ravens. Not because they had the best regular season and not because they are the hottest team heading into the post season, but the irony surrounding this team heading into the playoffs is too great.

    The game is being played in Indianapolis this year, and in case many of you forgot, that blue horse shoe that adorns the white helmet of the host team this year, was once a proud symbol in the city of Baltimore.

    Jim Irsay, the eccentric owner of the Indianapolis Colts, and whose father Robert Irsay, moved the Baltimore Colts  to Indy in the middle of the night recently tweeted, “I'd love 2c Steve B get the Trophy and Baltimore n Indy...got tons of friends there n it's only fitting with my good friend R Berry n tow!”

    R Berry is Raymond Berry, who will be handing out the Lombardi trophy to this year’s winner on the confetti laden podium in the middle of Lucas Oil Stadium was legendary Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas’ favorite target when they played at the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum known as Memorial Stadium located on 33rd St. in East Baltimore.

    Unitas to Berry was as common as Montana to Rice, or Manning to Harrison. Coincidentally the last duo supplanted them as the top QB and receiver tandem in the Colts record books way back in 2002.  Ravens fans still love the Baltimore Colts (I do), hell, my father is still an Indy Colts fan first, but make no mistake, there has been plenty of talk about watching Ravens Owner Steven Bisciotti Hoist the Lombardi trophy in the land where Baltimore’s’ former now plays.

    Even if the players could care less, they have nothing to do with Karma, and whether they realize it or not, they have caught more breaks, and found more luck than any Ravens team in franchise history this season.

    The Ravens are hosting a playoff game for the first time since their offense failed to show up during their 2007 Divisional round loss to you guessed it, the Indianapolis Colts. Even though they swept them during the regular season, this is the first post season that the Ravens and Steelers made the journey together without facing each other at some point. By the way, Baltimore is 0-3 to their hated division rivals in the playoffs, and playing the Steelers for a third time would have been tempting this little fate thing they seem to have going.

    Both teams playing in Sunday’s playoff game in Baltimore caught a huge break this year when Peyton Manning missed the entire season with an injury. The Texans for obvious reasons but the Ravens are 0-2 all-time vs. the Colts in the playoffs, and have been eliminated by either the Steelers or Colts in their last four trips to the post season.  The Ravens are 0-5 all-time vs. both teams in the post season, and dominated the Patriots 33-14 at Foxborough back in 2010.

    The Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs the past four seasons, setting a Baltimore football record. Not even the Unitas led Colts teams accomplished such a feat. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that fate has the Ravens and Broncos on a crash course for the AFC Championship. I’m on one knee with my fist to my forehead praying for it.

    Strength: Home Field and defense

    The Ravens continued their decade long dominance on defense in 2011. For the fourth-straight year Baltimore finished third in the league in fewest points allowed with 16.6 per game. In doing so, they tied an NFL record for consecutive seasons of being in the top three for points allowed.

    The Ravens dominant “D” ranked third in the league in both yards allowed (288.9 ypg) and sacks (48, behind the Vikings and Eagles, with 50 each). No defense was better in the red zone as Baltimore finished first in red zone defense (38.1 TD percentage), as well as containing opposing QB’s. Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and company dominated opposing quarterbacks this season. Baltimore held the opponent’s QB to a 68.8 rating, which was first in the NFL. The Ravens also allowed the fewest offensive TDs allowed (21) and fewest TD passes with 11.

    Baltimore was second in rush defense (92.6 ypg) and third down defense (32.1%) and held nine of their 16 regular season opponents to 17 or fewer points.

    If you notice there was no mention of Ray Lewis. While Lewis is still one of the best in the NFL patrolling the middle on first and second down, he has become a liability in coverage on third and long. Despite leading the team in tackles this season, Lewis did not have his best season, and the Ravens defense seem to play their best stretch of the season as the future hall of fame middle linebacker missed four games with a toe injury. In Lewis’ place, OLB Terrell Suggs excelled as the leader on defense, and had a season worthy of winning the defensive player of year.

    During the Harbaugh Bowl on Thanksgiving night without Lewis, the Ravens dominated the San Francisco 49ers, and tied a franchise record by sacking QB Alex Smith nine times.

    T-Sizzle produced a career-high 14 sacks and a team-record and NFL-high seven forced fumbles this season. The defense is sending four starters to the Pro Bowl, but if you ask  Suggs, Lewis,  Ed Reed and DT Haloti Ngata, they would much rather be preparing to head to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl instead of the beaches in Hawaii.

    Many analysts believe that whichever team can establish its superstar running back will win the game. The numbers favor the Ravens as Baltimore’s rush defense is almost perfect during the post season with Ray Lewis in the middle over the year’s. Baltimore has never allowed a 100-yard rusher in the playoffs, holding opposing RBs under the century mark in 15 straight contests. That mark ranks as the NFL’s third-longest active streak.

    M&T Bank Stadium may not have the history of Lambeau Field, but the Ravens are as good as Green Bay and almost every other team for that matter since John Harbaugh took over back in 2008. For the first time in team history, the Ravens went undefeated at home and became just one of three NFL teams (GB and NO) to accomplish the feat in 2011. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have won 18 of their last 19 home games and are 27-5 in games played in Baltimore. That ranks second to the New England Patriots during that span.

    During the Ravens eight wins at home this season, their average margin of victory was 12.5 points.  Ironically, their average margins of victory during their four road wins was 13.75 points, but if you take out the 30 point win St. Louis, that number drops significantly to 8.3 points.

    Baltimore’s 10-game home winning streak ranks as the longest in team history and is the NFL’s second-longest active streak (GB – 13)

    Weakness: Coaching

    That is not a misprint, and it isn’t supposed to say Joe Flacco. The Ravens offense and their quarterback are not a weakness at M&T Bank Stadium. In fact, dating back to November-29, 2009, QB Joe Flacco has helped lead the Ravens to an 18-1 home record. In those 19 contests, he has compiled 29 TDs and just 8 INTs for a 97.6 passer rating. For his career, Flacco is 27-5 all time at home with a 90 passer rating.

    Although Flacco’s numbers were down considerably both at home and on the road this season, he guided the purple birds to a franchise first undefeated season in the Charm city, and sweep of the AFC North, which was the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. Those numbers are certainly prof enough that the Ravens offense is in good hands at home.

    Aside from defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the Baltimore fans and media have always had a week-to-week relationship with head coach John Harbaugh, and his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron.

    Since taking over for Brian Billick in 2008, Harbaugh has helped guide the Ravens to 44 regular season wins during this span, ranking fourth most in the NFL. The former special team’s coordinator of the Philadelphia eagles has also compiled a 4-3 playoff record and is the first coach in NFL history to take over a sub.-500 team and then win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons.

    Like his quarterback, Cameron has been criticized often this season. Flacco's criticisms are from what is perceived to be his inconsistent play and Cameron for his play calling. However, in 2011, Flacco produced his third-straight 3,500-yard/20-touchdown passing season, while RB Ray Rice led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage.

    Many believe the Ravens should be 14-2, and blame Cameron for losses in Jacksonville and Seattle this season. Baltimore has been a sure thing when Rice touches the football at least 23 times. Baltimore is 11-0 when the fourth year back from Rutgers has at least 18 carries, and 23 total touches in a game this season. During those losses, Rice touched the ball just 13 times in each game, gaining a combined 144-total yards from scrimmage.

    Many Ravens fans fear that Cameron and Harbaugh will try to place Sunday’s game on the arm of Joe Flacco. Hopefully Cameron will stick with what worked during the Ravens 29-14 week six win over the Texans. The Ravens offense produced big time numbers against a big time ranked defense, all set up by the running game.

    Rice rushed for over 100, yards, Flacco threw for over 300, and WR Anquan Boldin had over 100 receiving yards. A repeat like that and the Ravens are off to the AFC Championship game. If Cameron feels the need to get cute, and has a flashback to when he thought his QB was an elite NFL passer, then things could get scary, or maybe not, and that is the mystery of Baltimore’s weakness. The potential unknown of the Ravens offense caused by poor play calling.

    The Ravens are 4-0 under Harbaugh following a bye week, and here comes the irony again; they beat the Texans back in week six following this year’s bye.

    Intangibles:

    In case you need to go back and read, I’ll wait, the Ravens are destined to play in Indy, and with an undefeated record at home, and the Texans starting an injured third string rookie QB, this one could get ugly early. Remember, the Texans lost their last three games of the season, and the Raven chew up and spit out young QB’s. Just ask Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy, and Mark Sanchez to name a few.

    If you’re sick of the karma mentioned numerous times in this slide then consider the following. No team has ever won a Super Bowl that finished outside of the top 25 in offense; goodbye San Francisco. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with a defense ranked lower than 25; it was nice knowing you Green Bay, New England and New York.

    No team has ever won two playoff games that was 8-8 or worse; sorry Tebow lovers. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback, much less the third string quarterback; you were a feel good story Houston.

    Finally, that leaves a Saints-Ravens Super Bowl, and not to be outdone, no team with fewer than 20 takeaways during the regular season has ever won the big game; say hello to your Super Bowl 46 winners, the Baltimore Ravens.

No.2 New Orleans Saints

8 of 9

    Points: 463

    Next Game: At San Francisco Saturday (FOX, 4:30 PM ET).

    Line: Saints-4 Over/Under 47 

    We all know the New Orleans Saints can play offense, and quarterback Drew Brees is as good as any in the history of the NFL, but the question that begs to be answered is, can New Orleans win a playoff game away from the fast track of the Super Dome.

    The Saints are 0-4 all-time in the playoffs away from the Super Dome, including 0-2 with head coach Sean Payton walking the sidelines. Their only postseason win away from home occurred on a neutral field when they won Super Bowl XLIV 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts in Miami's Sun Life Stadium.

    New Orleans has only themselves to blame for this position. For the second straight season, the Saints lost two games against losing teams badly.

    Playing in San Francisco on a slow natural surface, with possible soggy weather conditions will be an equalizer for the Niners secondary. The field conditions at Candlestick Park are historically bad this time of year, and will be no doubt somehow be enhanced if you know what I mean. Last year on the road, the Saints were manhandled in Seattle as the 7-9 Seahawks hung 41 points on a Saints defense that finished the regular season ranked fourth.

    In their other playoff loss on the road under Payton, they were trounced at Soldiers field (II) in the NFC Championship game.

    The Saints have allowed combined 80-points during their two road playoff losses, and both were to less than stellar offenses. Last postseason, nobody mistook the 28th ranked offense of the Seahawks for the 2007 New England Patriots, and the 15th ranked Bears offense was led by the embattled former University of Florida quarterback, Rex Grossman.

    With that said, and since 2006, the Saints under Payton are 31-17 during the regular season on the road. That is the same record that they have at home.

    This year, the Saints will be in a very similar situation as they face the 26th ranked offense of the 49ers, and this time, New Orleans brings a defense to the Bay area that is not nearly as effective as last season’s. They dropped 20 spots this season in the rankings, and are the third worst pass defense in the NFL. They surrendered nine more touchdowns this year than last season.

    If the Saints, who are favored to win, want to escape and make it to the NFC Championship game, they will need a mistake free, and nearly perfect game from their former Super Bowl MVP quarterback. Brees and the Saints offense must be wary of the Niners defense, which were tied with the Packers for the most takeaways (38) in the NFL this season. 

    Strength: Drew Brees !

    Led by record breaking All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints are hoping that their strength will be better than San Fran’s strength, as New Orleans looks to continue its march towards winning its second Super Bowl in three seasons.

    New Orleans has now won nine consecutive games, and seems to be the team getting hot at the right time. Last week’s Brees carved up the Detroit Lions during the saints 45-28 Wild Card victory, and a Saints offense, who achieved numerous offensive milestones during the regular season, continued to rewrite the record books during the contest. New Orleans gained an NFL postseason record 626 yards and tied a league playoff record with 34 first downs.

    Brees passed for 466 yards and is the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 400-yard passing games in the playoffs. He also joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards in two postseason games in a career.

    Speaking of Marino, the Saints’ signal caller set a new NFL single-season record with 5,476 passing yards, breaking a 27-year-old mark that had been held by the great Dan Marino (5,084 yards in 1984). While that mark is amazing, it is possible to break a yardage record heaving the ball all over the field, but Brees did it by completing an amazing 71.6 percent of his passes, another NFL record. Brees also completed a mind boggling average of 29.3 passes per game, which of course is an NFL record.

    For the record, the former Purdue quarterback hold three of the top four spots in that category all-time, and also broke the record for completions, with 468, first downs with 278, and had seven straight 300-yard passing games. He had 13 total, both of which, you guessed it, are NFL records.

    He and Tom Brady both broke the record for average passing yards per game, but Brees finished above Brady with 342.3 per game. Brees now stands on the cusp of one of the oldest passing milestones.

    When Brees enters the 2012 regular season he will be just four consecutive games with a touchdown pass shy of tying Johnny Unitas for consecutive games having thrown a TD pass. Often compared to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Unitas tossed a TD in 47 straight games from December 1956 until December 1960.

    With a late first quarter TD pass to Marques Colston on New Year’s Day, Brees ran his streak to 43 games. For good measure he threw four more that day as the saints trounced the Panthers 45-17.

    While the Saints are grateful to have all-purpose running back Darren Sproles this season, who himself set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards, without Drew Brees, it’s possible New Orleans could be the Indianapolis Colts of the NFC if you catch my drift.

    Weakness: Secondary, and are Saints really battle tested?

    Are the New Orleans Saints truly battle tested for a deep run this post-season. Their strength of victories this season says NO. The Saints can only play the schedule the NFL asks them to, but this season the Saints opponents combined to post a 113-143 record, which is the worst of any team remaining in the post season.

    Granted, New Orleans took care of business as they were supposed to on most occasions. The Saints have won nine straight and posted double digit wins in seven of those games. But does that serve them well against one of the best defenses in the NFL, and on the road?

    As much as the slow playing surface helps the 49ers secondary against the quick and agile New Orleans receivers, it also hinders the Saints secondary and helps the Niners passing attack, which is used to running routes on the clumpy surface of the NFL’S second oldest stadium. Soldier field is the oldest, but has since been renovated including the playing surface; Candlestick has not, and was opened in 1960.

    Last week in New Orleans, the Lions Mathew Stafford threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions were not in catch up mode until the fourth quarter, and only trailed by three points to start the final period. Detroit simple has no rushing attack, and if they did, we could be sitting here talking about the Lions strengths and weaknesses.

    The Saints allowed an average of almost 260 yards through the air per contest, and even though Alex Smith isn’t thought of as a gunslinger, he can get the ball down the field if he has to, especially at home. New Orleans must be aware that Smith completed almost 63 percent of his passes, and threw 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions on the field where Montana and Young carved out their hall of fame careers.

    The Niners have Frank Gore to set up play action, and the saints will be looking to stop him early, forcing San Fran to become one dimensional. That will allow Smith to look for some pretty good targets in WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis.

    Strong Safety Roman Harper loves to attack the quarterback and led the Saints in sacks with seven and half this year. However, he is a liability in coverage, and Smith will test him.

    Intangibles:

    Like most road teams in the playoffs, the Saints do not have the edge, and were awarded just 30 points for the category. Yes, there is Drew Brees, but Mr. Everything not named Brees, Darren Sproles, will have to have a huge day for New Orleans to win. Sproles may need several big kick/punt returns for the Saints if they want to steal the intangible column in this contest. It will be tough to steal momentum from the Niners, who are playing their first home playoff game since January-5, 2003.

    Super Bowl excluded, the playoffs and especially the divisional round, are usually nail biting games that are physical in nature won by very good, if not great defenses. With three amazing offensive teams that possess equally amazing quarterbacks playing on teams that possess bad defenses, it is tough to think that all three teams (Packers, Patriots, and Saints) will win. The Saints are the only one of three on the road so the smart money says that New Orleans could be the ones to go.

    While I believe the Giants can upset the Packers in Green Bay, it is a long shot, but not so much in San Francisco. The Saints may be the great offense with the bad defense that goes down this weekend, especially on the road where they have yet to win in the post season.

No.1 Green Bay Packers

9 of 9

    Points: 505

    Next Game: Vs. New York Giants

    Line: Packers -7.5 Over/Under 53

    The Packers are the only NFC team to make four playoff appearances in the last five seasons. Green Bay is the lone NFC club to advance to the Divisional round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, and their 27 playoff appearances rank tied for third in NFL history.

    The Packers 14 postseason appearances in the free-agency era (1993-2011) are the most of any team in the NFL.  Among teams with three or more playoff games, the Packers own the league’s best postseason winning percentage (.644, 29-16), ahead of the team they defeated last season in Super Bowl XLV, the Pittsburgh Steelers (.611, 33-21). Green Bay trails only the Steelers and the Cowboys (33 each) for the most playoff victories in NFL history.

    Green Bay posted a 6-0 record this season against 2011 playoff teams, and are led on offense by Aaron Rodgers, who has gone 41-21 since taking over for Brett Favre. Last season Rodgers delivered the Pack their first Super Bowl title since Favre and Mike Holmgren defeated the Patriots and Bill Parcells back in 1997.

    While Drew Brees broke all the passing records this season, Rodgers will probably deliver the Packers their first MVP award since Favre won three in a row from 1995-97.

    If you need proof that Rodgers, and not Brees or Tom Brady is the MVP, than look no further than the video that accompanies this slide. Rodgers needed just 58 seconds to lead his team to the game winning field goal, helping his team stay undefeated after the Giants tied their week 13 contest game with a two point conversion. The way Rodgers operated in New York said a lot for how much he means to this legendary franchise.

    Yes, the Packers defense was historically bad, but unlike the Patriots defense, there are some explanations to help explain why. The Packers, who have won 21 of their last 22 games, led all but four of them heading into the fourth quarter.

    The Packers defense was comfortably ahead on many occasions as teams simply lined up and threw at will in an attempt to get back into games. When they happens, huge chunks of yards can be had and were this season as the packers allowed an NFL record ,4796 passing yards.

    Allowing that many yards through air didn’t translate into as many points for the opposition as you would think. The Pack finished 19th, allowing 359 points, or 22.4 points per game.

     Green Bay also faced Matthew Stafford twice, Eli Manning, and Drew Brees this season. While this helps explain the bad, it can also be used to temper the good of the Packers defense. Green Bay tied for the league lead with 38 takeaways this season, and averaged nearly two interceptions per game with a league-leading total of 31. That also tends to happen when teams are forced to throw the football as much as the opposition did this season against Green Bay’s defense this season. That number is big when you consider the Patriots were second with 23.

    The Packers were opportunistic with the turnovers as they ranked fifth in takeaway points with 118. The only game this season in which the Pack did not record a turnover, it cost them their perfect season. The Chiefs protected the ball and were able to hang on and beat Green Bay 19-14 in Week 15. 

    Strength: Really, can it be anything else but the offense

    Green Bay’s scoring total was good for No. 2 in NFL history behind only the 2007 New England Patriots. With 560 points this season, the Packers easily eclipsed the franchise record for the most points scored in a season, destroying the previous mark by nearly 100 points.

    Both the Packers and Saints broke the NFL record (since the merger) this season with average points scored at home, it’s hard to imagine, but the Packers were the team that finished second. However their average of 40.1 points per game at home means a whole lot more than does the Saints 41.1 average, especially with New Orleans playing in San Francisco.

     The Packers scored at least 24 points in every game but one this season and that is tied for the second most in a season by a team in NFL history.

    There is no telling what Aaron Rodgers is going to do this post season as an encore. Rodgers threw for 1,094 yards in the 2010 postseason, good for second in NFL history behind only Warner’s 1,147 yards with Arizona in 2008. His nine TDs in last year’s playoffs tied him for third in NFL postseason history behind only Montana (1989) and Warner (2008), who threw for 11 TDs each.

    With his three-TD passing performance at Atlanta in the NFC Divisional Playoff last January, Rodgers brought his TD total in his first three playoff games to 10, the most in NFL history. That topped the mark of nine held by Jeff George, Daryle Lamonica and Dan Marino in their first three playoff starts.

    The former University of California standout, who dropped like a prison snitch in the 2005 draft after the 49ers chose Alex Smith to lead their franchise, posted a 136.8 rating in the game against the Falcons, the third time he registered a 120-plus rating in three playoff starts.

    He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to post a 120-plus rating in each of his first three playoff starts. No other QB in league history had posted a 120-plus rating in their first two postseason starts.  Rodgers holds both of the top single-game passing yardage marks in postseason history with a 423-yard outing at Arizona in the 2009 postseason and a 366-yard effort last season at Atlanta. This will be the first time Rodgers has faced the Giants in the postseason. In two regular-season meetings, he posted a combined 121.2 passer rating (53-83, 773 yards, eight TDs, one INT).

    If you are looking for a weakness in the Packers offense, there is none. To add insult to injury this season, the Packers ranked first in the NFC and third in the NFL in red-zone efficiency. I’d be willing to bet that the 49ers, Dolphins, and Browns wish they could replay the 2005 NFL entry draft all over again.  

    Weakness:

    This is not a weakness, but the Packers will be playing with a very heavy heart on Sunday. Joe Philbin, the Packers' veteran offensive coordinator, lost his 21-year-old son, Michael, who drowned in the early-morning hours Sunday on an icy river in Oshkosh, Wis. Michael will be buried Friday afternoon in Green Bay, a little more than 48 hours before the kickoff of the first NFL postseason game in Green Bay since the Packers lost 23-20 in overtime to the Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship four years ago.

    That was Brett Favre's final game as a Packer, and fittingly or un-fittingly, his final pass was an interception that helped the Giants drive to set up the game winning kick. While it hasn’t exactly been Brett who since then, Favre’s replacement, Aaron Rodgers has done everything right in helping the Lambeau faithful forget about No.4.

    Intangibles:

    Is there any better home field advantage than Lambeau field, and with home field advantage throughout, the Packers received 70 intangible points. The Packers’ win over Dallas at Lambeau in November 2009 was the first step to a 7-1 finish and a playoff berth for Green Bay. Since that Week 10 victory over the Cowboys in ’09, the Packers have been the best team in the league at home.

    Green Bay is 34-8 (.810) at home over the past 42 regular-season games, good for second in the NFL over that span behind only New England (38-4, .905). Since Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren began the revitalization of the franchise in 1992, Green Bay owns the best home record in the NFL.