The New England Patriots are poised for another run at the Lombardi Trophy
The weather has turned chilly across much of America. Snow is falling across the northern states, and holiday decorations are as ubiquitous as reality TV shows.
For football fans, these facts can only mean one thing—it's almost playoff time.
With just a few more weeks to go in the regular season, there is still much to be determined about how things are going to shake out.
There are no undefeated teams making a run at immortality this season, nor are there any sad-sack winless clubs making a run at ignominy. But there is still a multitude of juicy story lines to salivate over.
As in every season, some of the expected contenders have fallen by the wayside, while other surprise teams have stepped up to take their place.
So, without further ado, let's dig in ...
This is as good a back as any to pin your hopes on this time of year.
Yeah, I know this one's not exactly much of a "bold prediction" at this point, but we're just getting started here. Besides, it's certainly the prediction that I'm most confident in. And why wouldn't I be—the Pats have been their usual stellar selves so far this season, and if anything, they've gotten better as the year has progressed.
They excised clubhouse cancer Randy Moss once it became obvious that his shtick had grown old, and they became a more single-minded, focused unit because of it.
They've reeled off six straight victories, including convincing trouncings of the Jets and Bears, two other supposed contenders, by a combined score of 81-10.
Both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been there before and done that many times. Are there any surer bets to place at this point in the season?
On any given play, DeSean Jackson is a touchdown waiting to happen.
With Sunday's incredible comeback victory over the New York Football Giants, sealed by do-everything DeSean Jackson's punt return for a touchdown on the game's final play, the Philadelphia Eagles sent a firm message to the rest of the league—count us out at your own risk.
As much as anything, that game showed that even if you do everything right—stifling Philly's offensive attack through much of the game, putting up lots of points—if you relax for one second, a lightning strike can come back and bite you.
Perry Fewell's Giants defense is as vaunted as any in the league—it forces the most turnovers, allows the second fewest yards per game, and records the second most sacks in the league. But even it ran out of gas at the end and crumbled against the Eagles quick strike capabilities.
With the win this week, the Eagles put themselves in a cushy position to lock up the NFC East title and clinch a first round bye, given their relatively easy remaining schedule—only two home games left against Minnesota and Dallas. That should set Andy Reid and crew up nicely for a long run through the playoffs and another legitimate shot at finally capturing that elusive Super Bowl. Cue Donovan McNabb weeping.
Harry Douglas and the rest of the Falcons have a lot to celebrate right now.
With Sunday's 34-18 win over Seattle, the Falcons made official what had long been a foregone conclusion—they're in the playoffs.
That fact, in and of itself, isn't much of a surprise—behind the rapidly improving Matt Ryan, Atlanta has looked to be one of the better young teams in the league for some time. What is more of a surprise is just how quickly they've gone from being cute little up-and-comers to the dominant team in the NFC.
They now sit at 12-2, and have won eight straight games, their longest winning streak since 1998, when—you guessed it—they last made the Super Bowl. And they've proven they can win on the road, too, as all three of their most recent wins have come away from the friendly climate-controlled-confines of the Georgia Dome.
Of course, one of their only two losses this season was to that other team to watch in the NFC—the Philadelphia Eagles. This might just have to be settled on the field in late January.
Who dat? Saints fans will still have something to cheer about in the weeks ahead.
New Orleans knows what it takes to get to the promised land.
They haven't quite seemed like their unstoppable selves from a year ago, however, but they've managed to show just enough signs that they're still a team to be reckoned with come playoff time.
Sunday's loss to Baltimore hurt their chances for the division title, no doubt. Without forgiving the loss, though, Baltimore can be a tough place to play for any team, especially in December.
They're still in good shape to be the NFC's top wild card team, and with things as wide open in that conference as they are, that's not actually too bad of a place for them to be.
No - he's not Namath - but Mark Sanchez will be just fine, nonetheless.
The Jets have been a classic New York drama this season.
An opening week loss had fans quickly forgetting last season's improbable run to the AFC Championship game, but five straight wins quickly changed perceptions dramatically. An ugly home shutout followed, and things were bad again.
They looked like the sexy pick again after following up the shutout with four more wins in a row, tying them for the best record in the league. But then came the embarrassing Monday night debacle against rival New England, followed by a sloppy loss to Miami, and all hope was lost.
But have some hope, Jets faithful. Things are usually never really as good or as bad as they may seem. And while the team certainly does have its fair share of holes, its impressive win at Pittsburgh, as tough a place to play as any, should serve as fortifying medicine for the masses.
No, they're not the best team in the AFC. But they're plenty good enough to make some noise.
Oh Matt Dodge - don't worry, something else is bound to take you out of the headlines sooner or later.
Just one day later, what more can possibly be said about Sunday's crazy fourth quarter at New Meadowlands Stadium?
For Big Blue, this is as tough a loss to swallow since a playoff loss to the 49ers eight years ago when they blew a 38-14 3rd quarter lead, and lost due to a botched snap on a potential game winning field goal as time expired.
This one might be even more painful—failing to protect a 31-10 lead with just seven minutes and change to play, then bowing out on a final play punt return touchdown. No, it's not the playoffs, and their season isn't over, but their chances of winning the NFC East just went from pretty good to on life support.
The only good that might come of this is a renewed focus heading into the last few weeks.
With this kind of protection from Jeff Saturday and crew, Peyton Manning can do this with his eyes closed.
Is there any team that functions more like clockwork than these Colts? Double digit wins, division titles, Peyton Manning setting records ... what else is new?
Even in seasons like this one, where they stumble a bit out of the gate, you can never count them out—see 2008, when they started 3-4 only to run the table the rest of the way to finish 12-4 and win another division. The same kind of thing seems poised to happen again this season.
Just 6-6 a couple of weeks ago, they managed to stay alive due to a relatively weak division. A win at Tennessee put them in striking distance, and they capitalized by toppling Jacksonville on Sunday to tie them for the division lead.
With only Oakland and another game against Tennessee remaining, I trust Indy to be able to win out, and keep their streak of division titles, and double digit wins, alive.
It seems like Indy is always holding the Jaguars back.
The Jacksonville Jaguars seem to have been looking up at the Indianapolis Colts for a while now, and they just can't quite get over that hump. Unfortunately for them, they couldn't put enough distance between themselves and Indy earlier in the season, and now they're paying for their transgressions.
They don't exactly have a killer schedule down the stretch either, with just Washington and Houston standing in their way, but even with the best efforts of Maurice Jones-Drew and company, I see them falling one of these last two weeks and leaving the door open for the Colts to stroll through.
Whoops! This year's NFC West is the best argument yet for realignment.
OK, this isn't much of an earth shattering revelation either, but that doesn't stop it from being true. At this point, with both St. Louis and Seattle dropping their last two games, it seems pretty likely that we'll see a division champion with a losing record.
If I had to choose, I'd say St. Louis seems like the safer bet at this point. While the last game of the season will pit these two teams against each other in Seattle, I think St. Louis has a better shot at dispatching the 49ers than the Seahawks have of getting past Tampa Bay, and that should give them ample momentum and motivation to ride through the final week.
Whatever happens, it's been a pleasantly surprising season for Sam Bradford, who's rebounded from an injury-riddled final year at Oklahoma to have a fine rookie season, overcoming a bit of a recent stigma surrounding quarterbacks picked number one (JaMarcus Russell, anyone?).
The Rams have shown enough promise to hint at better days ahead, but they'll need to enjoy that division crown because it's the only title they're getting this season.
Steel Curtain D: Pittsburgh will have renewed motivation to finish the season strong.
Well, that was a bit of a detour on the division title express, now wasn't it Pittsburgh? Their loss to the Jets, combined with Baltimore holding off New Orleans, means that there's now a tie atop the AFC North standings.
Despite this glitch, however, I do see this as more of a temporary detour than a harbinger of doom. On the field, at least, Big Ben has been his usual gritty self, helping define the intestinal fortitude that the Steelers traditionally pride themselves on.
It's in no short supply this year, as the Steelers 6-1 road record can attest. That helps them in the end, and they emerge with a division crown.
Ray Lewis will have to keep his team fired up with a tough playoff road ahead.
Before you Ravens fans start heckling me, let me just say that I think the Ravens are a very good team, as they showed in that aforementioned take down of the defending champs. If they were in a number of other divisions, they'd be in much better shape.
The sad truth, however, is that they're not in another division. They're stuck with the Steelers, and I just think that Pittsburgh has a bit of an edge down the stretch. That means that Baltimore will have to settle for a wild card berth, which means they'll be on the road throughout the Playoffs.
That's important, because while they've gone 6-1 at home, they're just 4-3 on the road this season. And winning consecutive road playoff games against some combination of New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and/or the Jets is just too much to ask.
Vincent Jackson will have more to celebrate before this season is over.
This story is just full of teams that seem to be emulating themselves from previous years. Has there been a season in recent memory where the Chargers haven't done some version of what they've been doing recently?
They struggled mightily early on, falling to 2-5 in late October and dealing with off-the-field turmoil involving Shawne Merriman, and the on-the-field hole left by the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson. But they've righted the ship, winning six of seven, and it's come not a moment too soon.
Thanks to their own relatively weak division, they're still in good shape. Really, this is like the AFC South all over again—just insert the Chiefs for the Jaguars, and the Chargers for the Colts. And as with that division, I trust the experienced team to get the job done in the end.
Jon McGraw and the Chiefs have a few more hoops to jump through before they can legitimately contend.
By many measures, it's been a great year in Kansas City, one where this proud franchise has enjoyed something of a rebirth. It's been able to reload through savvy drafting and now boast a roster full of young talent.
I just think that, as talented as the Chiefs can be, they're just not ready yet to fully realize their potential. Give them another season, and we very well may be singing a different tune. But as for now, if they can't win the division, with the Jets and Ravens clogging the Wild Cards, they'll be home in January.
Matt Flynn had a tough task, filling in for Aaron Rodgers against New England, and was almost up to the task.
I feel bad for the Packers, I really do. On paper, and on the field quite often, they are a very good team. They just can't seem to get the breaks.
At 7-3, and looking poised to begin firing on all cylinders after a four-game winning streak, Green Bay proceeded to lose three of their next four, including a poor showing against the perennial bottom dwelling Lions, where they could only muster 3 points.
Things were compounded when Aaron Rodgers went down with a concussion and was forced to miss this past week's showdown with New England. Now their road appears to be a tough one to hoe.
Perhaps there's a new curse afoot—the curse of letting Brett Favre finish his career with the Vikings. Who knows? ...
This has been Jay Cutler's view too often this season.
The Packers' misfortune has been the Bears' windfall.
Really, this seems kind of backwards. The Packers seem like the stronger team. The Bears offense has struggled to score points all season. Jay Cutler has spent too much time on the turf. But luck this year seems to be on Chicago's side.
It all started in Week 1 when what seemed to all with eyes to be a game-winning touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson of the Lions was ruled incomplete by the officials who opted for a very literal interpretation of the rules.
Since then, despite their holes, the Bears have managed to keep their heads above water.
It doesn't last into the playoffs, though.
The Saints and the Falcons is one of the best new rivalries in the league.
Prognosticating the NFC's final four, I see it as a rematch of two divisional rivalries. We'll see the Eagles once again taking on the Giants, while on the other side, the top-seeded Falcons renew acquaintances with the Saints.
I've talked about the holes of the Bears, and the lack of a real contender from the NFC West. These matchups will give all sides something to salivate over. It's really fairly wide open, and should make for an entertaining divisional round.
More sweatshirts are in order for Bill Belichick - he'll be doing a lot of standing outside in Massachusetts in January.
The difference in the AFC playoffs will be something I've already touched on (and will touch on again)—experience. New England faces San Diego, while Pittsburgh takes on Indianapolis.
The AFC has seemed to be dominated by some combination of these four teams for a while now. In this league of copycats, other teams don't seem to be copying these four well enough to surpass them.
Home-field advantage plays a big part in one of the matchups, while in the other, I predict a bit of a surprise ...
The folk hero status of Drew Brees will continue to grow with another deep playoff run.
I know predicting the Giants to take out the Eagles might seem to contradict my earlier comments about the diverging fortunes of these two teams, but the simple fact remains that it is very difficult to defeat one team three times in the same season. And both of the regular season matchups could have gone either way.
Meanwhile, once again, my old standby factor of experience will help tilt the scales in the Saints' favor. The Falcons have certainly come a long way, but the Saints know what it takes to get the job done when it counts. Drew Brees might just still have some magic up his sleeve.
This was the result the last time these two teams met for the AFC title - but this time, they'll be in Foxboro
I can already see the TV network execs salivating over this potential matchup. The Colts and Patriots have certainly been the NFL's best rivalry over the last decade, as well as the one that most consistently lives up to the hype.
It doesn't seem like it could have been four years since the classic contest that resulted from the last time these two teams went toe to toe for the AFC title, when Peyton Manning engineered a spectacular second half comeback to squeak out a win, en route to a legacy-cementing MVP performance in his first Super Bowl.
What will be the deciding factor this time around? ... Click through a few more slides to find out.
New Orleans is still basking in the afterglow of last year's memorable run.
It was early last season when a matchup of two unbeaten teams ended with one team enforcing their will, while the other began their sudden crumble from the ranks of the NFL elite.
That was a game between the Saints and Giants at the Superdome, and this game figures to follow a similar script.
The Giants defense, as vaunted as it is—leading the league in takeaways, among the leaders in yards allowed and sacks—has shown that even it can grow weary against a quick strike attack.
The Saints are just too talented, too deep, and too much to overcome. Those banners really do mean something this time of year. New Orleans goes to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
The last time the Pats were in the Super Bowl, the Giants ended their run for perfection, thanks in large part to David Tyree's helmet.
It can't have been six years since the Patriots last stood atop the mountain, can it? It seems incredible, but it's true.
The Pats of late have seemed leaner, meaner, and hungrier. More efficient and streamlined. More focused and determined. No, they're not unbeatable, but they're not going to beat themselves.
Playing at home will make it very hard even for the Colts and Peyton Manning to beat them. It won't happen. New England represents the AFC in Super Bowl XLV.
Drew Brees will get the chance to recreate history.
So much for the old adage that defense wins championships. Modern passing attacks have changed the relevance of that saying. Sure, it still makes things a heck of a lot easier to prevent the opponent from scoring, but sometimes, it's not gonna happen. This is one of those times.
Both the Pats and the Saints have refined offensive game plans and multiple weapons, led by heady, experienced quarterbacks who won't be flustered by the magnitude of the moment into making mistakes.
I almost hate to say it, but this might be one of those games where the last team to score wins.
Pats owner Robert Kraft has had his eye on this prize since he last got his hands on it six years ago.
This game will firmly re-establish the Patriots as the kings of the hill once again, and further cement Bill Belichick's and Tom Brady's legacies even more than they already are.
It won't be a one-sided affair, but efficiency is the name of the game here. New England has shown an ability to capitalize on anything their opponent gives them, and New Orleans has shown just enough vulnerability this season that they'll eventually succumb.
No surprise onside kick to start the second half this time around. Just top notch football all around.
On second thought, maybe I should hedge my bets and just say that a team with 'New' in its name will win it all ...
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hasn't had much to smile about this season ... but wait 'till next year.
Dallas was supposed to be one of the NFC's top teams heading into this season, but nothing went right early on. The team showed a lack of discipline, and seemed rudderless in finding themselves at 1-7 at the midway point.
By then, owner Jerry Jones couldn't put off the inevitable any longer, and he cut loose head coach Wade Phillips. Since then, they've shown signs of life, going 4-2 and gaining back some shred of respectability, but it's far too little, too late for this season.
As for next season though, they still have a talented core, and overrated or not, Tony Romo has shown he can lead a team with the right structure around him. And there's no reason to believe that that structure can't exist ... next year.
Now that Kurt Warner is spending more time dancing than throwing, fans in the desert may have to wait a while for another run.
Arizona and Minnesota are two teams who enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years, led by aging quarterbacks. Now they both seem to have missed their chances.
Minnesota's odyssey this year has been well covered, with internal strife and Brett Favre finally acting his age on the field, and going all Benjamin Button off of it. Sure, the team can still ride Adrian Peterson for a while longer, but make no mistake, this was a team built to win now.
As for the Cardinals, now that Kurt Warner has danced into the sunset, his shadow looms over the quarterbacks who have tried, and so far failed, to fill his shoes. Combine that with the offseason departures of fellow cornerstones like Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle, and you have a recipe for rebuilding.