The 2011 NFL playoff picture is still incredibly fuzzy right now.
Slightly less than two-thirds of the league still has a legitimate shot at making it there, even though there are only two weeks remaining in the regular season.
A lot could happen between now and then, but that's not going to stop me from sharing my thoughts on how the playoffs will shape up when it's all said and done.
Now, I'm not here to offer your run-of-the-mill, boring predictions that are, well, predictable.
I'm gonna think outside the box, and offer 50 bold predictions for the 2011 NFL playoffs.
I know I'll get the typical "that's stupid, not bold" comment about 50 times. But bring it on.
This wouldn't be fun if it was "50 Predictable Predictions."
Alright, enough of the rambling, let's get to it...
Somebody's gotta make it out of the NFC West, so why not the St. Louis Rams?
They've been the best team from that division all season, and they're more stable at quarterback with rookie Sam Bradford than the Seahawks are with Matt Hasselbeck.
The Rams will make it to the playoffs, and Bradford will have a very solid performance in the Wild Card round.
I'm not saying St. Louis will win, but 200 yards and two touchdowns seems about right for Bradford.
How many times have you turned on the TV this year expecting to see a close game but wound up witnessing a blowout?
For example, the Patriots beat the crap out of the Jets and the Steelers in consecutive weeks.
No one really saw that coming.
So we will be blindsided once again with numerous games that look good on paper but will look terrible in person.
Don't get me wrong, Peyton Manning is still the better Manning brother.
But Eli has the better team this time around.
They won't face each other head-to-head, but Eli will perform better than Peyton in the 2011 playoffs.
If the Chiefs make it to the playoffs, Jamaal Charles will prove to be the biggest playmaker in the AFC.
He doesn't get the publicity some other running backs get, but he's had a fantastic year in Kansas City.
Charles will have a tough road against some of the NFL's top defenses, but that hasn't stopped him much all season.
He leads the NFL in yards per carry.
Peyton Manning had a rough three-game stretch earlier in the season, during which he threw 11 interceptions.
Though the Colts will sneak into the playoffs this year, it'll be Manning that takes them back out.
Due to the lack of a running game and a run defense, Manning will be forced to throw 40-plus passes, he'll toss three picks, and the Colts will be eliminated in the Wild Card round.
Home-field advantage is obviously a plus, but the 2011 playoffs will feature some odd matchups.
There are a ton of different scenarios, but in most of them the road teams in the Wild Card round are actually better than the home teams--like the No. 3 Colts playing the No. 6 seeded Jets, for example.
That'll negate a lot of the advantages those home teams have by playing in front of their own fans.
Every time I witness a challenge-happy coach toss that red flag out onto the field, I laugh.
Sooner or later, it has to come back and bite them in the a#$, right?
Well, I could see a coach using both of his challenges too early (and getting one challenge wrong), ending their ability to use one late in the fourth quarter.
They'll need it then, but won't have it...and it'll cost them.
There's talk that Drew Brees isn't a Hall of Fame lock just yet.
I disagree with that, but he'll kill any doubt with his performance in the 2011 playoffs.
Even if the Saints don't win another Super Bowl, Brees will prove he belongs in the Hall when his playing days are over by winning multiple games.
LeSean McCoy is often the forgotten speedster on the Eagles offense.
But McCoy has racked up more than 1,000 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns.
He's a star in the making, and after the playoffs, people will know it.
In last week's game against the Saints, the Ravens defense gave up 267 passing yards and three touchdowns to Drew Brees.
The week prior to that, Baltimore gave up 393 yards and three touchdowns to Houston's Matt Schaub.
The Ravens secondary will continue to get torched, and it will prevent them from playing in the Super Bowl.
Brandon Jacobs has been pretty inconsistent all year, scoring a touchdown in four straight games before failing to reach the end zone in the next four.
But overall, his limited touches have resulted in huge gains.
He's rushed for more than 700 yards on just 126 carries—good enough for a 5.8 yards per carry average–and he's gotten into the end zone eight times.
Jacobs will have a nice playoff performance, because he's proven to be a big play waiting to happen even if he doesn't actually bust a long run every week.
I basically put this one in here just in case the Chargers make it to the playoffs.
Because you know that San Diego will have some kind of huge special teams goof if they get there.
It's pretty much inevitable at this point, like breathing or taxes.
One thing I love about the playoffs is that it gives relatively unknown players the chance to shine.
Remember Dexter Jackson? He was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2002 Super Bowl team, and he just so happened to win the MVP of that game.
I think we'll have another Dexter Jackson this year.
Who? Well, you know your team better than I do, so offer your suggestions in the comments.
Michael Vick has thrown just five interceptions all season, but he's now tossed a pick in three straight games.
Though he's been damn near unstoppable even when turning the ball over, Vick won't keep his mistake-free play up.
He'll be facing a very good defense—whether that's in the Wild Card or Divisional Round—and it'll be hard for him to avoid throwing multiple interceptions.
If my predictions are correct, the Jets will take on the Colts in the AFC Wild Card round.
Well, Indianapolis ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed at 135.8 yards per game.
LaDainian Tomlinson's production has tailed off a bit lately, but a game against the Colts will cure his woes rather quickly.
Tomlinson will top 100 yards and score two touchdowns in one of his best performances as a Jet.
Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel has seven interceptions on the season, two of them coming against the Giants' Eli Manning.
With Manning throwing a ton of picks all season and the Giants potentially meeting the Eagles in the playoffs, Samuel should get multiple picks.
I'd bank on two to three interceptions from Samuel before the playoffs are over.
Right now it's looking like the two No. 6 seeds will be the New York Jets and the New York Giants.
If I told you they were both No. 2 seeds, you probably wouldn't question it.
Both teams will beat the No. 3 seeds and advance to the Divisional Round.
I use the term "upsets" loosely because some lower seeds in the Wild Card round will likely be favored.
And I fully expect at least three of those teams to win.
The seeding obviously hasn't been decided yet, but I'm thinking that the Colts, Rams and Bears (all division winners) bite the dust in the first round.
Plenty of notable names have missed some game time (or been banged up) with injuries this season, including Ben Roethlisberger, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Michael Vick and Hakeem Nicks, among others.
It wouldn't be a shock to see one of those guys re-aggravate the injury or another star go down with an injury that knocks them out of the playoffs.
And if that happens, it could have a drastic effect on the playoff picture.
Despite the presence of plenty of good defenses in this year's playoffs, I don't think we'll see any team score less than 13 points.
Of all the teams who should be in the playoffs, the Steelers have the top scoring defense—allowing 15.7 points per game.
The Bears follow close behind at 17.3 per game.
Even though we'll witness some defensive struggles, there won't be any offenses that completely disappear.
Mark Sanchez is not an elite NFL quarterback, despite what every announcer seems to think. They're constantly jabbering about how Sanchez has led so many comebacks this year.
I'm pretty sure his wide receivers—more specifically, Santonio Holmes—are the ones really making the plays.
You'll see come playoff time, when Sanchez fails miserably.
Why would anyone punt the ball to DeSean Jackson?
I don't know, but someone will. And when they do, Jackson will return one for a touchdown.
Don't believe me? Go ask Matt Dodge.
The Chicago Bears will likely end up as the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
But that's about all they'll accomplish.
Even though the defense is there, Jay Cutler's too shaky at quarterback and the Mike Martz offense tends to be up-and-down.
That'll translate to a 20-plus point beatdown at the hands of the Giants.
We've seen numerous games come down to a field goal this year, and the Saints made it to the Super Bowl after Garrett Hartley nailed the game winner in last year's NFC Championship Game.
Why should we think it won't happen again?
The Patriots, Steelers, Jets and Ravens are NFL powerhouses and were all expected to be in the playoffs.
But the NFC features some stellar offensive teams who are relatively new to the playoff picture (Saints and Falcons) as well as the intriguing Michael Vick-led Eagles and Eli Manning's Giants.
While the AFC will feature some tough defensive struggles, I think the NFC will provide football fans with the real fireworks.
This isn't a knock on the AFC, just my belief that the NFC will feature higher-scoring games and thus be more entertaining.
Justin Tuck has 10 sacks on the season, but he has six in his last four games and two three-sack performances this year.
Guess who those three-sack games came against?
The Eagles and the Bears.
If Tuck plays against one of those teams again, we could see a repeat performance.
Whether this game happens in the Wild Card or Divisional round, it doesn't matter.
The Eagles may have already beaten the Giants twice this year, but that's exactly why I like New York to win this one.
It's incredibly hard to beat a good team three times in one season, and I just don't see the Eagles pulling off another win.
In the two games between the Giants and the Eagles this season, there has been a total of 115 points scored.
That's about 58 total points per game or 29 per team.
If they play again, I'd expect another offensive showcase between these two teams.
In fact, it'll be the highest scoring game of the 2011 playoffs.
Last year the NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and Saints ended on an overtime field goal.
It might not be a conference championship game that goes to overtime, but there will be at least one game that's sent into the extra 15 minutes.
Sure, why not.
New England, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago will be among the team's hosting playoff games.
Isn't it cold in those places?
Yeah, I believe so.
We'll likely see some games in the snow, and that'll impact the outcome more than the talent will, especially if indoor teams have to play in the cold.
New England's defense does have a knack for making big plays, but it also gives up way too many yards.
The Patriots allow 374.6 total yards (ranked 28th) and 263.3 passing yards (ranked 30th).
That's going to catch up with them sooner or later.
Not because the Patriots give up a ton of points (21.6 per game), but because it will keep their offense off the field.
The 2011 playoffs will be loaded with top-notch defenses, and that will result in several defensive touchdowns.
I look back at the Steelers defense scoring two touchdowns against the Bengals or the Patriots defense going buck wild against the Dolphins as examples.
I know Cincinnati and Miami aren't playoff-caliber teams, but it still took great defensive plays to get in the end zone.
I'd expect that to happen again in the postseason, with at least four defensive touchdowns being scored at some point in the playoffs.
Remember way back in Week 1 when Calvin Johnson caught a touchdown pass that should have been ruled a touchdown catch but wasn't ruled a touchdown catch?
Yeah, that sucked for Lions fans.
But we'll probably see something like that again in the playoffs, and this time it will cost the team more than just a regular season win.
Given their recent play, the Patriots are loaded with incredibly high expectations.
But it's going to take a lot to overcome the likes of the Jets, Ravens, Steelers and whoever else makes it to the AFC playoffs.
New England is a great football team, but just how great is the question.
I'm not sure they're built to make it through the rough playoff stretch because of their defensive weaknesses, and the Patriots will be seen as a huge disappointment if they don't.
Obviously, most playoff contenders are getting there because of their quarterback play, but they've also got a boatload of talented running backs in this year's playoffs (at least how I see it).
From Jamaal Charles to Rashard Mendenhall to Michael Turner to Ray Rice, the list goes on and on.
When the playoffs wrap up, I think we'll look back at the running back play and realize that it was more important than the play of the quarterbacks.
This is a two-way street, though: Being "more important" means the running game could have a huge impact or little to none.
Dwayne Bowe, Matt Cassel, Thomas Jones, Jamaal Charles, the No. 11 scoring defense and the No. 1 rushing offense
That's how I define the Kansas City Chiefs.
They may not be a sexy pick, but they're a better football team than people give them credit for.
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Chiefs make some noise in the AFC (if they get there, that is).
Matt Ryan is called "Matty Ice" for a reason.
The third-year quarterback is an astounding 20-1 at home in his career—he just doesn't lose at the Georgia Dome.
But the Falcons won't make it to the Super Bowl, and that means Ryan will get his second career home loss at some point during the playoffs.
The No. 1 seeds in both conferences are still up in the air, but it'll likely be the New England Patriots in the AFC and the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC.
Well, these teams may have made it through the regular season at the top of their respective conferences.
But that stops here.
The Falcons and Patriots will be watching the Super Bowl from home in February.
Take your pick: the Saints, Jets, Ravens, maybe the Giants?
There will be some No. 5 and No. 6 seeds who are good enough to be a top-two team in their conference.
They won't be, but they'll play like one on the way to a Super Bowl appearance.
The Saints will be the No. 5 seed in the NFC.
The Giants will be the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
The Saints and Giants will meet in the NFC Championship Game.
There ya go.
The Saints have been largely forgotten about all season, but they're still the defending Super Bowl champions.
Even after last week's loss to Baltimore, New Orleans sits at 10-4 and should secure the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
That means a Wild Card game against the Rams.
The Saints will win that with ease, then win two more games to advance to the Super Bowl for the second straight season.
Run defense? Check.
Scoring defense? Check.
A quarterback who's been there twice before? Check.
A solid running game and good receivers? Check.
The only thing preventing the Steelers from getting to the Super Bowl is their pass defense.
Imagine if the Chiefs play the Patriots and Matt Cassel actually outclasses Tom Brady.
Is it a long shot? Yeah, at best.
But Cassel's thrown 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions this year.
His play hasn't been as far behind Brady's as you might think.
The AFC West Champ will be the Kansas City Chiefs or the San Diego Chargers.
But whoever it is will make it to the AFC Championship Game.
Why? The Chiefs have the league's top rushing offense and can pass the ball, and the Chargers have the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense.
I'm really not a Patriots hater, but New England has played so well lately that it's hard for the team to do anything but disappoint.
If they don't reach the Super Bowl, can't that be considered a failure?
I think so.
And I'm also not sure we'll see any more heroic performances from Tom Brady.
He won't play bad, but he won't lead the Patriots to numerous impressive victories like many people think he will.
This pains me to write, but I think the Steelers will win the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh just has too much defense, too much experience, and a good enough offense.
Ben Roethlisberger will win his third Lombardi Trophy.
In his final eight games of the 2009 season, LaMarr Woodley recorded 11.5 sacks, including four sacks in Pittsburgh's last two games.
Woodley also had two sacks last week and now has nine on the season.
He really comes on strong at the end of the season, and that'll continue in the playoffs.
Woodley will have five tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the Super Bowl.
And he'll win the Super Bowl MVP.
It's hard for anyone to bet against the Patriots right now...except for me.
Yeah, New England has looked like the best team in the NFL over the last several weeks.
But they'll have a very tough first playoff game in the Divisional Round.
The Patriots could be taking on someone like the Jets or Steelers, and it'll be tough to beat both of those teams again.
Matt Ryan has been unbeatable at home during his career, and Atlanta will probably have home-field advantage throughout the entire NFC playoffs.
That won't matter, though.
The Falcons will likely be facing one of four teams who can throw the ball—the Saints, Eagles, Giants or Packers—in the Divisional Round.
That's a tough task for a team whose pass defense struggles, one which will prove to be too much to overcome.