Who honestly thought that the Arizona Cardinals would push through Atlanta, Carolina, and Philadelphia en route to Super Bowl XLIII last winter?
Or the Pittsburgh Steelers would rise from the sixth seed in the AFC to Super Bowl XL in 2005?
It's no secret that the NFL playoffs is difficult to predict and everyone has their own idea of who will reach the Super Bowl. If you're interested here's my two cents...
In perhaps the most enticing matchup of the Wild Card Round, Ravens-Patriots can potentially be the best game in all the playoffs.
Baltimore is looking to avenge their loss to New England earlier in the season, while the Patriots are attempting to take the first step in winning Super Bowl number four.
Last time they met, the Ravens offense sputtered in the end, costing Baltimore the victory. But that was before Ray Rice's coming-out party.
Rice's 1,337 yards this season, most of which he earned in the second half of the season, has guided Baltimore to their 9-7 season. I have no doubts that Rice finds a way to get going, but can the Ravens' passing game get going as well?
This will be the time for Joe Flacco to shine. He guided them to the AFC Championship last year; can he do it again?
As for New England, Wes Welker will be out of the lineup, which causes a huge hole in Brady's passing attack, as Welker has been the go-to guy. Can you say double-team Randy Moss?
This matchup can easily go either way, which makes for such an interesting game. Even though I'm taking New England at home, I won't be surprised in the least bit if Baltimore gets it done.
Winner: Patriots 24-20
Don't let Green Bay's 33-7 Cardinal beat-down last Sunday fool you: Arizona is a great football team. They just don't like to show it very often.
If there is any one team in the NFL that can turn it on and off from week to week, it's the Arizona Cardinals. (Did anyone honestly have the Cardinals in last year's Super Bowl? Didn't think so.)
This game is a shootout through and through. Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Ryan Grant while Arizona has Kurt Warner, Anquon Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Tim Hightower.
We know how potent each team can be on the offensive side of the football, so the real question is, who has the better defense? At first glance, it seems Green Bay is the better of the two. But when given another look, they are much closer.
Green Bay ranks second in the NFL in fewest yards per game, Arizona ranks 20th. Not so close. Advantage: Green Bay.
Green Bay is third in interceptions, Arizona is seventh. Close, but Green Bay edges out the Cards.
The Packers rank 11th in sacks and 27th in forced fumbles, while the Cardinals are 6th in sacks and 27th in forced fumbles. Pretty much even, though I still give Green Bay the nod on defense.
If the Cardinals want to win, they're going to have to step up in a big way and force Aaron Rodgers to make bad decisions with the football. Besides, it wasn't that long ago this season when Green Bay had the worst offensive line in the NFL. If Arizona can disrupt that offensive rhythm and hit Rodgers early and often, game over.
How about the intangibles? Green Bay is a young team that is still developing and are entering their first playoff run in 16 years without Brett Favre. Can Rodgers handle the pressure?
What about the Cardinals? This stuff is old news to a guy like Kurt Warner, who is going for his fourth Super Bowl appearance.
One last thing to think about before making your pick: Green Bay is 5-3 on the road this season, while Arizona is 4-4 at home.
Cardinals pull out the late victory, 28-24.
They are considered to be the last two great USC quarterbacks, and on Saturday they will finally go head-to-head. Carson Palmer (2002 USC graduate) of the Bengals and Mark Sanchez (2009 USC Graduate) of the Jets will face off in Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round.
Although there is seven years between Palmer and Sanchez, Palmer still has much more to prove. In his seven years on the NFL roller coaster, Palmer will only make his second playoff start in his career Saturday. In his first playoff go around in 2005, he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Cincinnati was 9-3 until a 1-3 skid in the last month of the season following the death of teammate Chris Henry. New York started the year 4-6 before going on a 5-1 run en route to their first playoff birth since 2006.
So it's no doubt that the Jets have the momentum. But can they push it further and fly by the Bengals?
Cincinnati's playoff run fell squarely on the shoulders of their run game, as they finished ninth in the NFL in total team rushing.
However, New York's forte is defense, which ranked No. 1 this season. Bart Scott is going to have to play as hard as he has all year in order to stop Cedric Benson and the Bengals run game.
In the meantime, the Jets' secondary must step up as well to prevent Chad Ochocinco and Palmer from hooking up.
Mark Sanchez has had a rough rookie season, ranking 28th overall in the NFL in quarterback rating. He's thrown 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions for 2,444 yards.
Palmer, however, has had one of his better seasons with an 83.6 quarterback rating (16th overall) and has thrown 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for just over 3,000 yards.
This game should be a tight matchup, with the Jets edging out the Bengals 28-21.
Will three times be the charm for the Eagles this season? After losing their first two matchups against the Cowboys in 2009, Philadelphia looks to barge into Jerry Jone's football palace and ruin Dallas' chances at their first Super Bowl in nearly 15 years.
Tony Romo hasn't hit his "winter swoon" this season, despite expectations from critics, and may not. He's guided Dallas to a 3-2 record in December (including three straight victories), his best December record in his career.
But Philadelphia had their success in December/January as well going 4-1, with their only loss to Dallas in Week 17.
Dallas' offense ranks second in the NFL in yards and 14th in points. The Eagles offense ranks 11th in the NFL in yards and fifth in points. Dead even all around.
How about defense?
Dallas is ninth while Philadelphia is 12th. Fairly even again.
So how do you predict a winner? Recent history suggests that Philadelphia gets at least to the second round. They've done it every year for the past eight years (aside from 2007), so why would this year be any different?
In the end, Dallas needs to find a way to prevent the big play ability from McNabb-to-Jackson. If they can eliminate that, they may be able to get a victory. But I'm not sure it happens.
Eagles win 24-23 after a late-drive wins it.
How can you ever pick against a 14-2 team in the playoffs? In the Colts' case, you can. But I won't get that ambitious...yet.
Yes, the Colts have lost two in a row. Yes, they rested their starters in both of those losses. Yes, they'll be coming off of a bye week which essentially makes it three straight weeks without their starters having significant playing time.
But no, I can not even think about picking against the Colts just yet.
I have no doubts that it'll take roughly a quarter or so for Manning, Wayne and Clark to shake off that three weeks of rust, but I don't think Jets will score that many points in one quarter to put the Colts in a large enough hole in which they can't come back from.
New York's game plan will be nearly identical to their game plan against the Bengals: Score early with passing, run the ball to seal the deal. However, that may not work against Indy, as they're probably the only team in the NFL that can score at will.
All in all, Indy is too hot to handle for New York. Colts win 28-10 and advance to the AFC Championship.
Following their close victory over Dallas, Philadelphia will travel to the Big Easy to play the 13-3 Saints. Sounds like a tall order right?
It would be, but when you consider the fact that New Orleans has lost three straight heading into the playoffs, maybe the Saints aren't that big of favorites after all.
It's hard to say how the two weeks off and three straight losses will affect the Saints' mentality. They're a young football team who has virtually no playoff experience (the last time the Saints made any noise in the playoffs was when they lost the 2006 NFC Championship).
As opposed to the Eagles, as mentioned before, who are 10-7 in the playoffs including five NFC Championship appearances and a birth in Super Bowl XXXIX.
But when you peel back all the history, there is still a football game to play. And in terms of straight X's and O's: New Orleans wins.
Drew Brees and that high-powered offense should have enough power to rumble past Philly's defense. And when it comes to the Saints' defense, they should be able to hold off the McNabb and Jackson show.
New Orleans pulls the late lead after a tight game 34-21.
In a rematch of the 2007 AFC Championship game, Chargers-Patriots matches up the hottest team in the NFL against the hottest NFL team of the decade.
New England will have to travel to San Diego, where the Chargers are 6-2 at home this season (the Patriots are a woeful 2-6 on the road). San Diego will be hungry to take down the Patriots as they've lost to them the last two times they played in the playoffs (the most recent being the 2007 AFC Championship loss).
So who has the advantage?
According to stats, New England leads in just about every category. Statistically speaking, they've got the better offense (Patriots: third, Chargers: tenth) and the better defense (Patriots: 11th, Chargers: 16th).
However, in the two most important categories (points and wins) it's all San Diego. The Chargers are fifth in the league in most points scored (New England is sixth) and are 13-3 this season, including 11 straight victories (their last loss was to Denver on October 19).
In terms of game plan, I'm still interested to see how the Patriots will fair without Wes Welker. I had a hard time picking them over Baltimore and I'm having an even harder time picking them over the Chargers.
San Diego should jump to an early lead and never look back from there. 34-17 San Diego.
Ready for an upset?
Arizona will walk into the Metrodome and beat the Minnesota Vikings.
Anyone with even a hint of basic football knowledge would know that the Vikings haven't been a great football team in the last two months. Minnesota was 10-1 before running into a brick wall on December 6 against Arizona that eventually caused the Vikings to plummet.
Since that game, they went 2-2, losing to Carolina and Chicago, both horrid teams. Their two victories came against a bad Giants team and a disoriented Cincinnati team who was coming off of teammate Chris Henry's death.
Also during their skid, Adrian Peterson failed to get going and Brett Favre had it out with his coach Brad Childress. Their defense also lost their edge, falling out of the top five NFL defenses.
In the meantime, Arizona has also gone 2-2 down the stretch, but rested their starters in one of those losses. They've got the best passing attack in the NFL (which will come in handy against Minnesota's rough secondary). Their defense is picking up (although that's going to be the true test against the Vikings offense).
The biggest reason why I have the Cardinals pulling the upset is because Arizona is one of those teams that can literally score at will. If they get down by four points with limited time left in the game (and this game very well could boil down to that situation), then Arizona wins.
In fact, that's exactly how it ends in my book: Arizona wins after a late touchdown, 28-24.
It's time to finally pick against the mighty Indianapolis Colts.
As said before, there's no team in the NFL that is hotter than the San Diego Chargers. I expect them to continue their dominant run into Indianapolis and to the Super Bowl.
Everything just feels like San Diego's year. Tomlinson is back. Rivers is red hot. That defense is returning to familiar form.
As for the Colts, think of every time in the past they've rested their starters. The only time in the past decade they haven't rested their starters was prior to the 2006 playoffs when they won the Super Bowl. Every other playoff season ended in a loss. 2009 won't be any different.
Chargers get it done, 31-28, in the most exciting game of the season.
Finally, New Orleans. Finally, you can celebrate what you've been longing for years: A Super Bowl birth.
After suffering through many years of mishaps, Hurricane Katrina and an oh-so-close moment in 2006, the Saints are marching on to the Super Bowl.
They have the No. 1 offense, the No. 1 defense in interceptions, and the best quarterback in the NFL.
Granted, New Orleans is very prone to losing. But I think they find a way to turn it on in the postseason and go to the Super Bowl.
Saints defeat Arizona 31-30.
Saints and Chargers. Two teams that have been knocking on the door for the last five years finally get to face off for the ultimate prize: the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But who will win?
Gut instinct tells me the Saints. They've got the high-powered offense, the stingy, take-away prone defense, and the passion of having an entire city riding on their victory.
But when you take a closer look, this game belongs to the Chargers.
By the time they get to the Super Bowl, they will have won 13 straight games, including taking down the Colts and Patriots in two nail-biters.
The Saints will have struggled to beat the Cardinals and Eagles en route to the big dance. And it's time they finally fall.
Chargers win in an epic battle, 28-24.
The Chargers become Super Bowl XLIV Champions.