New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
The 2012 postseason is still six weeks away. However, six of the eight divisional races are all but over. The Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos are all near locks to win their respective divisions. Furthermore, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are both 7-3 atop the NFC North and will play the rest of the season to determine who wins the division and who earns a Wild Card berth.
At this point of the season, the playoff picture is coming into focus and we are starting to see the cream rise to the top. The Packers have overcome their early struggles, Peyton Manning is tearing up the league again and the New York Giants are in the midst of their annual November collapse.
It's that time of year again, folks.
In the next six weeks, we will finally determine who is for real in 2012 and who was a preseason mirage. As football fans, this is what we live for. These next six weeks are what make it worth getting out of bed during the dog days of summer to see if your team made a roster move, or how their first-round draft pick looks in mini-camp.
It's going to be a wild ride to the conclusion of the 2012 season. Let's take a look at four bold, yet realistic predictions that may come as a surprise to fans.
Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub hands off to Arian Foster.
It's hard to knock the Houston Texans for their play this season. Defensively, they rank second in the NFL in least rushing yards allowed and seventh in least passing yards allowed.
On the offensive side of the ball, Houston is the 12th ranked passing offense and the eighth overall rushing offense. The Texans are a solid football team from top to bottom and will be a formidable opponent come playoff time.
However, out of Houston's nine wins in 2012, they have only beaten three teams with a winning record. Furthermore, the Texans have only played teams with a winning record in back-to-back weeks on one occasion.
After getting massacred by the Packers in Week 6, Houston returned the favor to a Ravens team coming off the loss of both Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb.
The Texans can only play the teams on their schedule. It's not their fault that they have so few quality wins this year. However, it could come back to haunt them come playoff time.
The playoffs are not about who has the most wins in the regular season. They are about who is the most prepared, well-built team in each particular game. Houston is talented enough to win every game they play. However, they will not be used to the gauntlet of physical, talented football teams that they will need to defeat on their journey to Super Bowl glory.
Look for the Texans' early-round exit to be the first shocker of the 2012 postseason. This team is good, but they have played a cupcake schedule so far and will not be ready for playoff football.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
The New Orleans Saints began 2012 in disastrous fashion. Still reeling from the ramifications of bountygate, the Saints lost their first four games of the season. It's still an uphill battle for New Orleans to make the playoffs, but their recent play suggests they can get there.
The only other team in NFL history to make the postseason after beginning the season 0-4 was the 1992 San Diego Chargers. Those are extremely long odds to overcome. However, the Saints have an elite quarterback surrounded by some of the most talented playmakers in the NFL.
New Orleans can score with anybody, which makes them a threat to make a run at the postseason.
The Saints are currently 5-5 and sit in third place in the NFC South. The team has won five of their last six and will likely have to match that mark over the final six games to make it to the playoffs. There are winnable games on the schedule that make that scenario increasingly likely.
New Orleans must win one of their next two games against the 49ers and Falcons, respectively. After that, the team needs to win out against the Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. It's a tough situation for any team to be in, but not an impossible one.
If New Orleans squeaks into the playoffs, they are an experienced team that has the ability to beat anyone they play. Don't be surprised to see the Saints winning at least one playoff game in the postseason.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
The Broncos are hitting on all cylinders right now. The team has won five straight games after struggling early. Peyton Manning is lighting up the stat sheet and the defense has finally started to realize its potential. As we've seen in the past, a star quarterback combined with a stellar pass rush can make for postseason success.
Manning has led Denver's offense to at least 30 points in each of the team's last five games. He has a touchdown-to-interceptions ratio of 24-7 and has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes.
Manning has flown under the radar as one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the NFL this season. His play has sparked a marked improvement over the Tebow-led gimmick offense that plagued Denver a season ago.
Defensively, the Broncos have sacked the quarterback 35 times in 10 games. Von Miller has gotten to the quarterback 13 times this season and is on pace to break into the top-five on the list off all-time single season sack leaders. Miller has been the anchor of Denver's defensive resurgence over recent weeks and will be a key for the Broncos come playoff time.
The Broncos are the most complete team in the AFC right now. The Patriots have a suspect defense and just lost Rob Gronkowski for an extended period of time. The Ravens must continue to cope with the loss of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. The Pittsburgh Steelers are not healthy and the Texans have played a weak schedule.
Denver has a battle tested, veteran quarterback to lead them against the best the NFL has to offer. The Broncos have to like their chances of making it to the Super Bowl in 2012.
New York Giants celebrate their Super Bowl XLVI victory at the White House..
We have seen two very different sides of the New York Giants this season. There is the team that came out on the road and smacked the 49ers by 23 points. There is also the team that allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to embarrass them 31-13 in Week 10.
The Giants are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.
That is, of course, until playoff time. Big Blue is 8-1 in their last nine playoff games under Tom Coughlin, including two Super Bowl victories. In fact, they won the Super Bowl last season after finishing last in the league in rushing and only winning nine games.
You can call it lucky, a fluke or anything else your heart desires, but this team knows how to win high-pressure playoff football games.
The horrendous, uninspired play from the Giants as of late is in no way indicative of how they will fare in the postseason. If and when Eli Manning gets back on track and the pass rush begins to wreak havoc on opponents, the Giants are going to be extremely dangerous for any team they play.
An Eli vs. Peyton Super Bowl would be a spectacle. However, it's not an unrealistic scenario at this point of the season. Both teams are experienced and talented enough to get to the big game, and it should not come as a shock to anybody when Eli defies the odds to claim his third Super Bowl ring.