The Green Bay Packers could get people talking dynasty if they can win a second title in three years
Sorry, East Coast biased fans that deify the NFC East every year, but the North is the best division in each conference. They will prove it by placing three teams each with over a .500 record like their more-ballyhooed counterparts, but with a better overall record.
The Baltimore Ravens earn the top spot in the AFC, fighting their way to the brink of another division title if Terrell Suggs returns before the end of the season. The Cincinnati Bengals would make the playoffs in any other AFC division, but lose out to the Buffalo Bills thanks to the much easier AFC East schedule.
The Chicago Bears will make one more great push to challenge the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. Their bolstered offense will more than make up for their aging defense—remember they were 7-3 before Jay Cutler went down—and help them grab the top wild card spot.
The New Orleans Saints received good news Friday that their players won their appeal and will be allowed to play. However, this is not over. There is a good chance that some time will be lost for the three suspended players, and at the very least Jonathan Vilma will miss some time recovering from injury.
Even without players suspended, the losses to the coaching staff will hurt. There will be a transition to the new defense that teams no longer have to fear for personnel or punishing style of play. Thus, I am staying with my original pick of the Atlanta Falcons winning the South and the Bears taking the higher wild card seed.
The Packers will beat out the San Francisco 49ers for the first seed by virtue of Sunday's season-opening win (24-23—UPDATE: Niners won 30-22, and should capture the top seed now). The Philadelphia Eagles will earn the third seed and the Falcons the fourth.
The New England Patriots earn the top spot in the AFC, with the Houston Texans a close second. The Pittsburgh Steelers take the third seed despite a loss to the fourth-seeded Denver Broncos in Week 1.
Now that the playoff matchups can be determined, what should we expect in each game?
The age of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been used as an excuse for writing them off since Aaron Rodgers abused them in Super Bowl XLV. But after giving up 35 in their season opener in 2011, they never surrendered more than 24 again.
In reality, their offensive line is far more of a concern. They bolstered their offensive line through the draft, and should be getting one of those two players back before the end of the year.
While the Buffalo Bills have improved their own defense, it is not going to be appreciably better than Pittsburgh's. They have little playoff experience on their roster, an injury-prone running back, an immature top receiver and a quarterback that has never finished a season with a passer rating above the low 80s.
Picking Joe Flacco over Peyton Manning may seem insane, especially with the four-time MVP playing at home. However, the numbers would suggest otherwise...
Manning has lost the first time he stepped onto the field in the playoffs seven times, with a 9-10 record that includes multiple home losses. His playoff passer rating is just 88.4—6.5 points lower than his regular season numbers. No one really knows how well the 35-year old will hold up by season's end after spending all of last year out with a neck injury that required four surgeries.
Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons. His overall record of 5-4 is all the more impressive considering that he has played just one home game.
Of course, his post-season passer rating is just 70.4—a drop of 15.6 —which exemplifies why I am picking him to win...you win and lose as a team, and quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame. The Ravens' better personnel at every other positions trumps QB even in a pass-driven league.
Both NFC Wild Card games are tough to pick.
The Philadelphia Eagles have an outstanding running game and should have a pretty good defense this year. The New Orleans Saints should have full personnel, a full season to recover from the bounty disruption and all but one coach back.
Variables could go either way. If the weather is bad in Philly, the Eagles strong running game slices through the Saints front seven. But there is almost as much chance that Michael Vick is out for this game as that the weather actually affects anything.
The thing that swings this if those variables do not come into play is the experience of the Saints. They are on a mission, have the horses to outscore almost anyone and are up against a team that has come up small in some big moments.
If you know I am a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers, you might think I am going with my heart on this one. You would be wrong.
First, my days of hating the Chicago Bears are long gone, as you can see by my piece in May of 2009 listing why the Packers are the greatest franchise in the history of sports.
The Bears are the oldest team in the league and the second half of the best rivalry in the NFL. Moreover, Pack is 6-1 vs. the Bears after the 2008 season, so I appreciate their help.
In fact, I root against Matt Ryan through no fault of his own—he did not give himself the nickname, "Matty Ice." But after hearing Teddy Bruschi of ESPN use it again, I was reminded how wholly inappropriate a moniker that is for one without a playoff win despite having the top seed in 2010.
His tight end, Tony Gonzalez, will likely be having his last, best chance at a first playoff victory. While the Bears are a legit contender, the Atlanta Falcons upgraded their defense this season and should be able to exploit a shaky Bears offensive line. Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones are all developing together.
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots do not have a Super Bowl win since they were caught illegally taping walk-throughs. Do not tell me it did not make the difference of one field goal in those three title games they won—if it can't get the slimmest advantage, why were they doing it?
Think how different their legacy would be without those titles. (Okay, give them the one over the Carolina Panthers since half their offensive line was on steroids.) Maybe people would see them as human.
For instance, how have Belichick's defense been lately? Some genius.
And foolish blowhards like Skip Bayless want to grovel at Brady's feet, claiming he has so much less to work with than Aaron Rodgers. Right, he only had Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker last season.
More importantly, he had a very good offensive line. Can you imagine him playing behind the Pittsburgh Steelers or even Green Bay Packers line?
The reason he is 2-4 since winning his conference in 2007 even though he has not played one game in hostile territory is that he is only average (that's right, you heard me!) when teams can get to him with a four-man rush.
There are not many of those teams in the league, but most of those in the playoffs fall into that category. The Baltimore Ravens certainly fit that bill (especially if Terrell Suggs returns), have already beaten the Pats in Foxborough and will do it again.
The Houston Texans are a scary team.
They were a legitimate contender until Matt Schaub went down last season, and still could have competed for a playoff win with Matt Leinart. They finished capturing the division crown with their third-string quarterback, learning the all-important lesson of perseverance.
Now they return one of the top defenses in the NFL, and have a potent, balanced offense to boot. They have multiple backs capable of 100 yards rushing, an outstanding wide receiver (when he's healthy) in Andre Johnson and a good tight end in Owen Daniels who help Schaub regularly be among the league leaders in passing yards.
Their offensive line and running game are better than what the Pittsburgh Steelers can boast. They may have even passed them defensively. They are comparable at quarterback and on special teams. And they will have the home field advantage for a city ready to explode for football success.
The Green Bay Packers pass defense was the worst in NFL history last year. It faces the record-breaking quarterback. How can this work out for us Cheeseheads?
It worked pretty well to kick off last season. And by the way, that pass defense was in no way the worst just because it gave up record yards...
1. Only eight defenses had a better opponent passer rating.
2. Teams spent most of the second half passing to try to keep up with an historic offense.
4. The rookie quarterback by which all future rookies will be measured also exemplified what the Packers pass defense was really like, passing for over 400 yards but throwing four picks. No defense finished with more interceptions than Green Bay.
The Packers have made the upgrades to the pass rush and are likely to be closer to the defense that finished second in points allowed than the one finishing 19th last season. The Saints defense will not be any better, their offense turns the ball over more and any weather that hurts the Packers will hurt New Orleans more.
Alex Smith was the ninth-rated passer in the league last season and combined with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to carry the San Francisco 49ers to victory over the New Orleans Saints in last year's playoffs.
Imagine what he can do with wide receivers to throw to? The Niners still do not have the passing game of the Atlanta Falcons—Randy Moss is 35 and was out of the league last year, Michael Crabtree is still unproven and Mario Manningham is good but not special.
However, the running game is more important in the Bay Area come January, and they are deep in the backfield. More to the point, their defense was historically good last year and returns all but one starter, and maybe no one in the league has as strong a special teams unit.
One could make a case for either team being stronger at quarterback, wide receiver, running back or even defense. When teams are evenly matched, intangibles like home field and history come into play.
The Houston Texans are will host the AFC Championship Game, and it will be hard for Joe Flacco to keep his road playoff resume clean in that dome. The Ravens do have more experience, but that has not made much of a difference in recent years—three straight Super Bowls have gone to the less experienced team.
Two outstanding coaches. An historic Green Bay Packers offense against a historic San Francisco 49ers defense. A rivalry renewed.
We were supposed to see all these things clash last January, but the New York Giants had other plans. Like last season, Green Bay should host this game by virtue of the season-opening win over the Niners.
That could actually help the Niners. Even though they are less prepared for the cold, bad weather can ground the Packers passing attack.
But predictions are based on who plays whom, and the Packers own the Niners. By this time, they will have dropped 10 straight and 14 of 15 (with the only win coming because the refs lacked the courage to call Jerry Rice for a fumble) to the Pack.
Green Bay has been there. Aaron Rodgers is the better quarterback in a league driven by that position. He can take most of the Niners great linebackers off the field with three- and four-receiver sets, exploiting the matchups the deepest receiving corps in the world brings.
The Green Bay Packers want to be the NFL's last dynasty. Two titles surrounding a 15-1 year would be an unprecedented run in the Super Bowl era.
Aaron Rodgers is the best football player on the planet. In the wake of being passed over for Division I college football and then for 23 picks of the 2005 NFL Draft before enduring all the "he ain't Brett Favre" criticism, there is no one to whom a legacy is more important.
Against a Houston Texans team that has won just one playoff game led by a quarterback who has never even started one, the smart money is on Green Bay.
Too many things can happen to derail a season to make betting on the Packers to win the Super Bowl a good idea. But no team has a better chance.