Where did the last 17 weeks go?.
It seems like just yesterday, there were discussions of Tebow's role in New York, Peyton's return to the gridiron and the hype surrounding rookie phenoms Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. After 17 weeks and 512 football games, the final 12 teams have gotten through the gauntlet that is the NFL regular season and will compete for one goal: to crown themselves as Super Bowl champions.
They say that once the playoffs begin, anything can happen. But one thing is for sure, there will be a new champion crowned on the night of February 3.
This year's playoffs include some obvious favorites: the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers. But, like every NFL season, there are the teams that crash the playoff party such as the Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings.
Will Tom Brady lead his Patriots to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance? Can Peyton Manning continue his spectacular comeback by riding the Broncos into New Orleans? Can Matt Ryan and the Falcons win a playoff game? Will one of the three rookie quarterbacks make a remarkable playoff run? The answers to these questions and a Super Bowl prediction will be made in this 2012 playoff preview.
(6) Cincinnati Bengals at (3) Houston Texans
The Texans are limping into the playoffs. Houston has lost three out of four games and has dropped two straight to the Vikings and Colts. The Texans offense is one of the most balanced attacks in the league led by Arian Foster, who rushed for over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Matt Schaub is coming off a very good year in which he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Schuab threw for over 4,000 yards, 1,598 of those yards going to star wideout Andre Johnson.
Houston's defense has been superb most of the year, and Wade Phillips' unit has one of the strongest front sevens in the league. It is ranked in the top 10 in yardage allowed and gives up only 20.2 points per game.
If there is a weak link to the Houston defense, it is its secondary. The Texans are ranked 16th in the league in passing yardage allowed and have given up 27 touchdowns through the air.
Cincinnati had a very quiet 10-win season and is looking for revenge for the drubbing it received from Houston in the playoffs last season. Andy Dalton threw for over 3,600 yards and tossed 27 touchdowns. Dalton's main target is A.J. Green. Green had a tremendous second season as a pro, catching 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 scores.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis proved to be a great signing for the Bengals. The Law Firm rushed for almost 1,100 yards and six touchdowns.
Cincinnati's defense is one of the most underrated units in the league; it is sixth in the league in yards allowed and gave up 20.2 points per game. It also recorded 44 sacks and 26 turnovers. Geno Atkins is the anchor on the defensive line and can plug holes and also rush the passer.
The Bengals are coming into the playoffs much hotter than the Texans. The Bengals have won seven of eight and have a bit of experience under their belt from last season. Houston hasn't played great as of late, but still has the better playmakers on both sides of the ball.
The game will come down to the quarterback play. A.J. Green will find plenty of holes in Houston's secondary, but the lack of playmakers around him will doom the Bengals. Arian Foster will find a way to get 100 yards on the ground, and Houston will prevail 23-16.
(5) Indianapolis Colts at (4) Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens defense has been riddled with injuries, while the offense has been riddled with inconsistency. Baltimore has lost four of five and are hoping to have Ray Lewis back for this game. Joe Flacco had a solid season, but it was also a roller-coaster season. Flacco threw only 22 touchdowns, and the offense sometimes relied on his arm too much. Ray Rice had another outstanding season, recording over 1,600 all-purpose yards and 10 scores.
Flacco has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith combined for over 1,700 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns.
The defense has been suffering from the injury bug all season. Terrell Suggs started the year injured, and once he recovered from his torn Achilles, Ray Lewis went down with a torn biceps muscle. Lewis has been rumored to return for the past couple of weeks and should be able to play against the Colts.
The Ravens gave up over 360 yards per game, but only let up an average of 21.7 points per contest. This was in part due to the 25 turnovers forced by Baltimore during the season. Haloti Ngata is a force in the middle of the line, and Andrew Luck better keep an eye out for Ed Reed.
The Colts have been one of the best stories of this season. After a 2-14 season, the firing of their head coach, the departure of the greatest player in their franchise's history and the loss of their new head coach for most of the year, the Colts managed to win 11 games.
Andrew Luck is in the running for the Rookie of the Year award. Luck threw for over 4,300 yards and 23 touchdowns in his rookie campaign and led numerous game-winning drives. Luck's presence revitalized Reggie Wayne, who caught over 100 passes for 1,315 yards.
The Colts running game struggled, as Vick Ballard and Donald Brown combined for over 1,300 yards and only two scores. The single blemish on Luck's impressive season is that he threw 18 interceptions and has not been as productive on the road as he has been at home.
The Colts defense is mediocre at best. Indianapolis has surrendered over 375 yards per game and 24 points per game. The Colts have only gotten 13 turnovers all season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will have to put pressure on the quarterback and force some turnovers.
The Colts have been arguably the biggest surprise of the 2012 season, and a win in Baltimore wouldn't stun anybody, but Luck will struggle against the Ravens defense and might throw a pass or two to Ed Reed. The Colts allowed an average of 140 yards per game on the ground, and Ray Rice should have a field day. Baltimore is very good at home, and Indianapolis is average on the road.
The Ravens will advance, 27-17.
(6) Minnesota Vikings at (3) Green Bay Packers
The Packers started off the season with a 2-3 record, but have only lost two games since. Green Bay won eight of its final 10 games to capture the NFC North title. Aaron Rodgers had another spectacular season with 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns.
The Packers receiving corps was rarely healthy at the same time; star wideouts Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson missed significant time. Randall Cobb and James Jones emerged as Rodgers' favorite targets. Cobb and Jones combined for 144 catches and 22 touchdowns.
The Packers' weakness on offense is their running game. Alex Green led the team with 464 yards on the ground, but the team's running back position has been a revolving door. Green Bay's defense was much improved compared to last season. The Packers only allowed 21 points per game, but recorded only 23 turnovers.
Minnesota was one of the biggest shockers of the 2012 season. Led by the miraculous resurgence of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings won four in a row to clinch the sixth seed. Christian Ponder wasn't great, but was good enough to win. Ponder threw for 2,935 yards and only 18 touchdowns, but with Peterson racking up over 2,000 yards on the ground, Ponder's play was good enough. Ponder lost his biggest weapon, Percy Harvin, in the first week of November due to an ankle injury.
Kyle Rudolph is an up-and-coming tight end and led the team with nine touchdown catches. Minnesota's defense was average, allowing an average of 350 yards per game and 21.8 points per game. Jared Allen, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison each recorded at least eight sacks this season. Chad Greenway is a force at linebacker, and Antoine Winfield and Harrison Smith lead the team in interceptions.
The Packers will have a rematch with the Vikings a week after the Vikings clinched a playoff spot by beating the Packers in Minnesota. The third meeting will be held at Lambeau Field, and the Packers should be better prepared for the Vikings offense this time around. Green Bay is starting to run the ball better, and Rodgers should have all of his targets playing next week.
If Adrian Peterson can have another monster performance, the Vikings could pull the upset, but with a healthy receiving core and a week to adjust, the Packers will win in another thriller, 30-24.
(5) Seattle Seahawks at (4) Washington Redskins
The Redskins stunned the football world by taking the NFC East with a Week 17 win over Dallas. After starting 3-6, the Redskins finished the season on a seven-game winning streak and won their first division title since 1997. Robert Griffin III proved all of the hype was legitimate and had an excellent rookie season. Griffin threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 815 yards and seven scores. Alfred Morris had a superb rookie season that went under the radar. Morris ran for over 1,600 yards and 13 scores.
Griffin distributed the wealth evenly among his wide receivers, but Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss were his favorites. Washington's defense was one of the strongest in the league against the run, but one of the weakest against the pass. Washington allowed over 280 yards per game through the air, but made up for it by snagging 21 interceptions. London Fletcher was once again the leader of the Skins defense, recording 139 tackles and catching five interceptions.
Seattle was one of the hottest teams down the stretch, winning five straight and finishing a half-game short of winning the NFC West.
Seattle was led by another rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. Wilson, a third-round pick, threw for over 3,100 yards and 26 touchdowns, along with 489 yards on the ground and four scores. The Seahawks were led by running back Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate both had decent seasons with seven touchdowns a piece.
Seattle's defense is one of the toughest in the league; they ranked fourth in the league in yardage allowed per game and gave up a league-best 15.3 points per game. Bobby Thomas had a fantastic rookie season at linebacker with over 140 tackles. Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Marcus Trufant give Seattle one of the deepest secondaries in the league.
This will be a terrific battle of two very similar teams. Both have great rookie quarterbacks, strong running games and strong run defenses. The difference will be the secondaries. Wilson will find holes in the Washington offense, while Griffin may have trouble finding open receivers. Griffin's health also might be a factor if he is unable to run as often as the Redskins would like.
In the end, Seattle's defense will be too tough for Washington, and Seattle will win on the road 17-13.
(4 )Baltimore Ravens at (1) Denver Broncos
Denver captured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by winning 11 straight games. During that streak, it defeated Baltimore on the road 34-17. Peyton Manning came back in style with over 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Manning made wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker stars. Thomas and Decker both recorded over 1,000 yards receiving and combined for 23 touchdowns. Denver's defense is in the top three in both passing and rushing yards allowed. The Broncos only surrendered an average of 18.3 points per game and forced 24 turnovers. Von Miller led the team with 18.5 sacks, and Elvis Dumervil and Wesley Woodyard are also players to look out for.
This will be a similar game to their Week 15 meeting, and Denver will wear down Baltimore's aging defense. Ray Rice will struggle to find many openings against Denver's formidable front seven, and Flacco could struggle mightily against Denver's pass rush. Baltimore will have to pound the running game and keep Manning off the field, but it will be a tough task. Peyton Manning will pick apart the thin Ravens secondary, and the Broncos will win 30-17.
(3) Houston Texans at (2) New England Patriots
After starting the season at 1-2, the Patriots finished 11-2 and won the AFC East by five games. Tom Brady was terrific once again, throwing for over 4,800 yards and 34 touchdowns.
A big difference for the Patriots this season was the running game. Stevan Ridley ran for over 1,200 yards and scored 12 times, numbers that are unheard of for a Patriots running back. Wes Welker led the team in receptions and racked up over 1,300 yards. Rob Gronkowski was injured for much of the second half of the season, but returned in Week 17 and caught a touchdown pass.
New England's defense was solid against the run, but awful against the pass. New England's saving grace is that it forced 41 turnovers, the second-most in the league.
The Texans were trounced by the Pats, 42-14, on the national stage in Week 14. This game will be very similar to that matchup. New England is a bad matchup for Houston because of its weaknesses in the secondary. Three of Houston's four losses were to Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. Houston will have to run the ball and keep Brady off the field, something it was unable to do in their regular season matchup.
New England has too many weapons for Houston to handle, and the Patriots will advance to meet Denver by a score of 38-21.
(3) Green Bay Packers at (2) San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco has had an interesting season to say the least. After a 24-24 tie with St.Louis, the 49ers went with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. Kaepernick went 5-2 as the starter and helped the 49ers hold onto the NFC West title. Kaepernick threw for over 1,800 yards and 10 touchdowns while running for 415 yards and five scores.
The Niners are characterized by their tenacious defense. San Francisco ranked in the top five in both passing and rushing yards allowed. San Francisco limited teams to an average of 17 points per game and generated 25 turnovers. Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are all forces in the front seven and can give quarterbacks headaches.
San Francisco upset the Packers on the road 30-22 in Week 1. The 49ers are a much different team with Kaepernick than they were with Alex Smith, and it will be interesting to see how the Packers deal with his ability to run. Rodgers threw for over 300 yards in their previous meeting and will put up solid numbers against the Niners defense. Frank Gore will need to have a strong game on the ground to keep Rodgers off the field.
The key will be the Packers offensive line against Aldon and Justin Smith. Rodgers was sacked 51 times this season, and if Green Bay wants any chance of winning, it will need to protect its franchise quarterback. Kaepernick will make enough big plays, and the 49ers defense will play one of their best games of the season. The 49ers will win 27-23.
(5) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons had another tremendous season, and Matt Ryan had a coming-out party. Ryan threw for over 4,700 yards and 32 touchdowns. Ryan's success was in part due to the outstanding core of weapons at his disposal. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez combined for 264 receptions, almost 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. Michael Turner struggled throughout the course of the season and rushed for only 800 yards.
The Falcons defense was in the bottom half of the league in passing and rushing yardage allowed, but forced 31 turnovers. Stephen Nicholas and Sean Witherspoon led the team in tackles, and Thomas DeCoud and Asante Samuel led the team in interceptions. John Abraham led the team with 10 sacks, but was injured in the Falcons' loss to Tampa Bay.
The intriguing matchup in this game will be between Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner against White and Jones. If Sherman and Browner can shutdown the Falcons wideouts, that makes the task a lot easier. Marshawn Lynch should have a very good day against the Falcons, who allowed an average of 123 yards per game on the ground. As long as Russell Wilson does not turn the ball over, Seattle should have a good shot at taking down the Falcons.
Despite an inspired Falcons team looking to get the playoff monkey off their backs, the Seahawks will prevail with a steady dosage of Marshawn Lynch. Seattle will control the clock and keep the explosive Falcons offense off the field. Seahawks will win a tight one, 26-20.
(2) New England Patriots at (1) Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning against Tom Brady for a spot in the Super Bowl? It does not get much better than that. Both teams have explosive passing games, but New England holds the advantage in the run department. Both teams would need efficient running games to keep their opponent's quarterback off the field, but would have to do it against stingy defenses.
The difference-maker in this game would be the Patriots secondary against the Broncos passing game. Manning will carve up the defensive backfield, and the home-field advantage could prove to be the difference. New England defeated Denver in Week 5 at Foxboro, 31-21, but that was a different Broncos team now than it was three months ago. Manning has the offense clicking, and the defense is one of the strongest in the NFL.
Peyton Manning will make it to his third Super Bowl, leading the Broncos to a 34-28 win in Denver.
(5) Seattle Seahawks at (2) San Francisco 49ers
The Niners and Seahawks split their two games this season. San Francisco pulled out a 13-6 win at Candlestick Park, and Seattle blew out the 49ers at Century Link Field, 42-13. Both teams are very similar, excellent defenses and running games along with young, mobile quarterbacks.
This game will be one of the best contests of the season. Last year, San Francisco lost in the NFC title game to the eventual champion Giants at home. Could Jim Harbaugh's squad possibly re-live that again, this time to an arch-rival? Unfortunately for San Francisco, it will.
Seattle is the hot team right now, and in the playoffs, the hottest teams at the end usually make the run towards the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson will make enough plays against the Niners defense, and Marshawn Lynch will have one of his best games of his career.
In one of the biggest nail-biters of the season, Seattle will move on to face the Broncos in New Orleans with a 20-17 victory in overtime.
Seattle Seahawks vs Denver Broncos
Both of these teams finished their seasons on a hot streak after sluggish starts to the season. Including the playoffs, Denver will ride Peyton Manning into the Superdome on a 13-game winning streak, while rookie Russell Wilson leads Seattle into New Orleans on a seven-game winning streak. Seattle has the clear advantage in the running game, but Marshawn Lynch could run into a tough task against the Denver front seven.
Seattle also has the advantage in the secondary. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will be tested yet again, this time against Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
How will the young Russell Wilson deal with the pressure of a Super Bowl matchup against one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history? Well, but not well enough. Wilson could be forced into some mistakes by the Broncos pass rush, and Manning will be sure to capitalize on the rookie's blunders.
Manning's redemption story will be complete. The doubters will officially be proven wrong as Manning leads Denver to a Super Bowl title in his first season with a 26-17 victory.