After a winding season, the NFL playoffs are set to begin this Saturday. While the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC will be home resting this week, teams ready to begin Wild Card play enter the postseason hotter than some of the league’s higher seeds.
The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints earned first round byes after both teams combined to go 25-9 on the season but both squads ended the regular season on sour notes. The Vikings lost three out of their last five games and the Saints lost three straight to close their campaign. While the Vikings showed signs of life with a 44-7 demolition of the reeling New York Giants in their season finale, a power struggle between head coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre casted a dark cloud over the last quarter of the season for Minnesota. With Favre, 40, tiptoeing the line of retirement, it’s officially Super Bowl or bust for the Vikings this year.
The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals will hit the ground running. For the Cowboys and Packers, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Winners of three straight, the Cowboys will be gunning for their first playoff win since 1996. A road win against the once undefeated Saints and back to back shutouts have the Cowboys flying high while they attempt to reverse their recent trend of late season woes.
The Packers have won seven of their last eight games and will open their playoff run against a Cardinal team they just annihilated 33-7 in Arizona’s home finale. Green Bay ranks second in overall defense and their do-it-all cover corner Charles Woodson is a defensive MVP finalist. Second year signal caller Aaron Rodgers is at the top of the quarterback list in most sporting circles.
The Cardinals and Eagles couldn’t have ended their seasons on poorer notes. With the NFC East crown on the line, the Eagles’ 24-0 loss to the Cowboys was definitely a setback but their prior six-game winning streak is evidence they can turn things around.
Turning things around isn’t something the AFC’s second seed needs to worry about. Winners of eleven straight, the San Diego Chargers have become most sporting pundits “sexy” pick to reach the Super Bowl. Quarterback Philip Rivers earned his third trip to the Pro Bowl and he leads a remarkable cast of athletes on a talented Chargers team.
San Diego will be one of the favorites to advance out of the AFC especially since they’ve had the top ranked Indianapolis Colts number for quite some time. The Colts blazed to a 14-0 start this year but losers of consecutive games could be cause for some concern. Their bigger concern could be a Charger team they’re 1-3 against in the last two seasons including two postseason exits courtesy of Rivers and company.
While the Chargers have had the Colts number, the New England Patriots have had theirs, going 3-1 against San Diego since the 2006 season and knocking the Chargers out of postseason play twice over that span. The Patriots will be down a man however after leading receiver Wes Welker tore both his MCL and ACL in the season finale against Houston.
Welker isn’t the only leading receiver to suffer an injury in the season finale as the Cincinnati Bengals Chad Ochocinco bruised his knee in warm-ups prior to the Bengals finale against the New York Jets. Ironically, both teams will open the playoffs against each other as the first game on Saturday. The Bengals will be seeking revenge after getting blanked by the Jets 37-0.
The fifth seed Baltimore Ravens round out the AFC’s playoff pool. The Ravens won three of their remaining four games to earn consecutive trips to the playoffs and will try to make amends after falling one game short last season of making the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.
This year’s playoff pool of participants is deep and talented and all offer something different to the table. Teams like New Orleans, San Diego and Green Bay offer explosive offenses while squads like Baltimore and New York bring stingy defenses with them. The Packers and Dallas Cowboys may be the most well-rounded teams in this year’s tournament while the Minnesota Vikings and Chargers are probably the most talented.
I expect the Chargers and Packers to end up facing off in the Super Bowl with the Bolts edging the Pack narrowly in a close thriller. It’s the Chargers’ year after back-to-back playoff exits to the eventual AFC Super Bowl representative. The Bolts are the hottest team in football and you’re not going to find a pair of 6-5 and over cover corners to match up with their shooting guard-sized receivers. Rivers has quietly put together an MVP season and he’ll join classmates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning to form the most prestigious quarterback draft class ever after he captures his first Super Bowl and solidifies the QB class of ‘04.