The NFL Playoff picture is nearly clear, and there are certainly some surprises in the NFL this season. The winner of the NFC West could be a sub-.500 team and a No. 4 seed.
For a large part of the season, the Atlanta Falcons owned the best record in the league before New England recently passed them.
The Ravens have won three in a row and are now challenging the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North title.
Despite all the surprises in the regular season, there just might be even more memorable moments, shocking situations, unbelievable upsets and phenomenal performances in this year's Playoffs.
With that in mind, we bring you 25 Bold Predictions and Upset Alerts for 2011 NFL Playoffs.
The Rams don't have the best defense in the NFL, but as of late, there has been some improvement in their pass defense.
They currently rank 21st in pass yards allowed but just a few weeks ago were near dead last. If trends mean anything in the NFL, Brees will need a few extra study hours if he wants to rack up the yardage against the underdog of the postseason.
If indeed the Packers can overcome a tough matchup with the Chicago Bears, they will enter the Playoffs in line to face Philadelphia in the Wild Card opening round.
The Packers rank in the middle of the league in terms of total rush defense, but they have been sluggish off the line this season, and Vick could thrive on scrambling. Vick's health is a question mark going into the final game of the season, but if he recovers before the playoffs, he would match up well against the Packers.
The Rams are close to becoming relevant again, just a game away from this year's playoffs despite a .500 record.
However, the team is now looking for results, and if head coach Steve Spagnuolo can't deliver, he might be joining the ranks of John Fox and Mike Singletary.
With the Carolina Panthers letting go of John Fox at the end of the season, potential replacement candidates are already surfacing. There has been speculation that Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is a target, but with San Francisco's firing of Mike Singletary, Harbaugh may opt to stay in the Bay Area, if he indeed leaves the Cardinal.
If Harbaugh is out of the running, other coaches like Patriots offensive coordinator Dante Scarnecchia could be a good fit. He may be getting up there in years (62) but has some of the best knowledge in the league, having spent all but one season with the Patriots since the 1979 season.
He may be comfortable where he is, but Scarnecchia represents the type of coach the Panthers may be looking for, as well as other playoff-bound coaches.
There are always unforeseen circumstances that shake up the playoff picture, and this year may not be any different. Michael Vick is having a season for the ages, at the perfect time to solidify a comeback to the NFL.
But if anyone is going to get hurt this postseason, Vick is the prime candidate. The tough way he plays the game leaves him vulnerable to injury. He has no reserves about tucking the ball away when no receiver is open and taking off for the first down stick.
Defenses will seize any opportunity to get a hit on him, and he will be nursing soreness coming into the playoffs as it is. If Vick is healthy, the Eagles could make a run at the Super Bowl, but they should be very careful with their QB, and someone should be in his ear daily to remind him to slide.
Of the major sports leagues in the United States, the NFL has one of the better playoff systems. However, there are still other ways of picking postseason teams that deserve consideration.
For example: In the NHL, the Top Eight teams in each conference are chosen to compete in the postseason, regardless of standing in their respective divisions. The main factor that makes this possible is the frequency and total number of games played.
Compared to the NBA, MLB and NHL, the NFL plays an extremely limited number of games. As a more physical sport, NFL players need longer to recover.
However, the main question remains, "How many games are enough to determine status compared to competition?" Many would argue that 16 games is enough to convert to a conference-seeding format. Looking at the Seattle Seahawks, they are still eligible for the playoffs despite being two games under the .500 mark. A win over the Rams sends them to the postseason, while teams like the Packers, Giants and Buccaneers, who are two games over .500, may miss the playoffs entirely.
There would certainly be issues with the conference format as well, but it seems like the most solid way to determine postseason teams to date.
Even before the season has officially ended, rumors are surfacing on the web of Chad Ochocinco's pending departure from Cincinnati.
Ochocinco and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis were recently involved in a public tiff in which Lewis criticized the wide receiver for using his ankle injury as an excuse to sit out Cincinnati's final two games of the season.
The flamboyant wideout's contract expires at the end of the year, but he has a team option for $6 million set for next season. If the Bengals decline the option, they will only owe him $3.5 million.
The Bengals could cut their losses, declining the option and making Ochocinco a free agent.
While it may seem Ochocinco's me-first approach may not fit in the Patriots team-first persona, as ESPN points out, Belichick and the reality TV star have a solid relationship. If New England can't bring home the Super Bowl Championship, they may make a move to bolster Tom Brady's options. Ochocinco is still a solid receiver but may be playing in an offensive system that exposes Carson Palmer's inadequacies more than Chad's talents.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Vikings are taking serious steps towards removing the "interim" tag from Leslie Frazier's official title as interim head coach of the team.
Frazier has spent the last few seasons as the Vikings defensive coordinator before taking over for Brad Childress.
Recent posts suggest the negotiations are moving swiftly and smoothly, and the Vikings may not wait until the offseason officially begins to make their announcement.
ESPN is reporting that it's looking more and more like Seahawk's backup QB Charlie Whitehurst will get the start Sunday against their Division matchup against the Rams for all the marbles.
Head coach Pete Carroll wanted Whitehurst to be ready to play and expressed he was confident in his development. He also mentioned that if Hasselbeck is healthy enough to play, he will get the start.
Either way, it appears the Rams have a head start, given the inexperience of Whitehurst and the failing health of Hasselbeck. Look for this game to go to the Rams, but it will be close.
No matter what happens this season in the NFL once the Playoffs begin, the NFL might see a dip in the ratings due to the absence of Brett Favre.
All season long, it has been the Favre show; the Vikings QB has been in the news for everything from coming back for another year, to breaking an ankle while continuing to play, to a concussion that knocked him out of play and finally his dance rendition to Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby."
While Favre has certainly become a media whore this season, at least he brings consistent attention to the NFL. With the 41-year-old QB not in the playoffs, expect plenty of distractions from him in the news.
According to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, Taylor is seriously considering retirement.
"I've been considering retiring since my ninth year, but fortunately for me, I have a heart that says 'keep going,'" Taylor said. "I do know that I can still compete; that's the thing that keeps me coming back. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to [contribute] due to the injuries. That's the thing at this time that is pushing the percentages toward retirement."
Taylor is best remembered for his years of Pro Bowl running for the Jacksonville Jaguars but appears to have gotten lost in the backup role he accepted with the Patriots.
Saints WR Marques Colston recently underwent minor surgery to scope his right knee. Concerns were raised when word of the surgery hit the wires, given Colston has had past problems with his left knee. The original thought was yet another knee injury, but this one is not the same problem that has hampered portions of his career.
The increased productivity as of late is notable, and the Saints will need him come playoff time. New Orleans will be playing in Wild Card weekend, and it seems likely Colston should be ready to play, given his status is only listed as questionable for the final game of the regular season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It has been announced that Browns head coach Eric Mangini won't be returning to coach the team in 2011, but that doesn't mean the Browns will lay down against the Steelers.
The pending Sunday matchup will show NFL analysts everywhere if the Browns have learned anything from their 28-10 defeat at the hands of the Steelers in Week 6 and whether Mangini will go out with a win.
The Steelers' star safety is still listed as out for the final week of the season but recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he wants to play against the Browns, and his Achilles is improving, "It feels better now than then."
The Steelers have to beat the Browns in order to lock up the two-seed and keep it away from the surging Ravens, who sit tied with them in the division.
Eagles starting QB Michael Vick is still nursing a quad contusion he suffered in a Week 16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The injury will keep him out of the Eagles season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
Philadelphia remains optimistic he will be ready for the playoffs. However, Kevin Kolb will start in his place against Dallas, and it may be a preview of the Eagles playoff hopes if Vick cannot return in time to face the Packers, Giants or Buccaneers in Wild Card round.
Vick has overcome several injury setbacks in his career, but the term "quad contusion" is very vague. It simply means a deep bruise but could have more serious impact depending on the area and severity of the internal damage.
If Vick can't return, Kolb will have to step in to take his place, and he will likely show signs of rust, seeing only limited playing time with the comeback of Vick in full swing.
If Pittsburgh defeats the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, they would lock up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. However, they may see trouble in the second round. There is a solid chance the Ravens would knock out the Colts or the Jaguars, and the Ravens seem like the dark horse team to beat.
During the regular season, the Ravens played the Steelers well and shut down their offense. The Steelers also played well on defense, so this one will come down to the wire.
There is still a chance Indianapolis will miss the playoffs, and the Jaguars could sneak in.
Jacksonville is still a game behind the Colts for the AFC South and the fourth seed in the Playoffs. If the Colts lose to the Titans, the Jaguars pull off the win against Houston, things could become very interesting.
The Jaguars finished last season 7-9 and finished the season dropping their last four contests. However, with the struggles of Peyton Manning and the Colts, there is still a chance the Jaguars could make it with an overall 9-7 record.
Maurice Jones-Drew will be sitting out, so the Jags will have to come up with a solid passing game, mixing in a timely rush to balance the offense.
The Patriots can sit out half of the first two rounds of the playoffs, having secured the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. They will receive a bye in the opening round as well.
The second round doesn't pose much threat for them either. The possible opponents include the Jets, who are a question mark at this point, having beaten the Patriots earlier this season while intercepting Brady twice, only to get blown out 45-3 in Week 13.
Baltimore could be the toughest matchup, but they may not face them until the Championship game. The Colts are another option, and for that matter, so are the Jaguars. However, the Patriots seem to have an edge over both of these teams as of late.
The Patriots should make it to the AFC Championship but may run into problems there against the Ravens.
It's not as shocking as it may seem. If the current playoff picture stays the same in the AFC, the New York Jets will open the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Jets are the current holders of the Wild Card two position and would therefore open the playoffs with the three-seeded Chiefs, winners of the AFC West.
Aside from both teams sharing a 10-5 mark to this point, the Jets will be playing the Bills and will likely pick up some momentum when the playoffs begin. It appears they have found their offensive stride as of late, and even when they lost to the Bears last week, they put up 34 points on one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs will also have some momentum coming into the playoffs. After a convincing 31-0 shutout over the Chargers, the Chiefs have claimed victories over the Rams and Titans. They finish the season against the Raiders.
However, it seems the Jets have just a few more weapons on offense and defense, and although the Jets are considered a Wild Card, they match up well with the Chiefs.
The Green Bay Packers hold the tiebreaker over the Giants and Buccaneers but will have to face the Chicago Bears to reach the playoffs. The Bears aren't done competing for home-field advantage in the NFC, so the Packers shouldn't expect an easy game.
The Giants have the Redskins in their finale, a seemingly much easier victory with Rex Grossman taking the reigns for the 'Skins, sans Donovan McNabb, who was benched last week
The Buccaneers will have the most difficult time in their playoff quest. Not only will they need the Packers and Giants to lose, but they will have to play the New Orleans Saints.
It seems the most logical pick is the Giants, not the Packers, to make the playoffs as the Wild Card No. 2 team.
It seems like such a trivial prediction, but when you break it down, it is something quite out of the ordinary. Brady has thrown 319 consecutive passes without completing one to a player not wearing a silver helmet.
Perhaps the only reason for this to occur in the Playoffs is the law of averages. What goes up, must come down, and if even the UConn Huskies women's basketball team can lose, Tom Brady can throw an interception.
Brady has thrown four picks this year, in just two games. He threw two against the Jets and two against the Baltimore Ravens.
If the Jets knock off Kansas City in the opening round, they could be facing Tom Brady and the Patriots in Round 2. Somehow, the Jets seemed to have figured out Brady in Week 2, as they handled the Patriots and gathered two interceptions in a 28-14 win. Brady was largely ineffective, and the Jets will be hoping that happens again, instead of the drubbing they took from the Patriots in Week 13, if indeed they face New England in the Playoffs.
While the Steelers play the Browns in Week 17, the Ravens will match up with the Bengals. If Pittsburgh can't pull it out over the Cleveland, and Baltimore gets the win over Cincinnati, the Ravens would take over the No. 2 seed and would earn a first-round bye.
The key to Baltimore's success may hinge on the outcome of the Steelers final game of the season. Pittsburgh holds the tie breaker over the Ravens, so if both teams win, this situation is not possible.
However, there is a possibility the Ravens would take the AFC North. After a three-point loss to the Steelers in Week 13, the Ravens have won three in a row and five of their last six.
After a bye in the opening round, the Ravens would have the opportunity to face the Jets, if New York does indeed beat the Chiefs. In the opening week of the season, the Jets and Ravens slugged one out in a one-point game, the Ravens taking it, 10-9, in a tightly-played contest. The two teams were clearly shaking off some pre-season rust, but both teams at the end of the season appear to be gaining steam.
If the Ravens take out the Jets, they would have to overcome the Patriots in the AFC Championship, but might match up well with teams from the NFC. The Ravens defense has been solid, and the emergence of Ray Rice at RB and the steady combination of QB Joe Flacco and WR Anquan Boldin could shake things up in the NFL playoffs.
Many well-regarded experts and former players of the game have commented on Peyton's arm, saying it doesn't have the "zip" behind it that it had in recent years.
Interceptions on passes as of late are fueling those speculations, and it certainly appears the ball is just not getting to receivers as quickly as it used to. Perhaps, Manning is hiding an injury for the sake of his competitive drive, or maybe, we are witnessing the beginning of the end for Manning and the Colts current successes.
This seems like the biggest long shot, and that is why it is No. 2 on the countdown. However, stranger things have happened in the NFL, just this season.
For example, the Eagles were favored to win over the Giants heading into Week 15, however, they were down 21 points in the fourth quarter before scoring a franchise-record 28 points in the fourth to win it on a last-second play.
In an obscure manner, the Panthers have the worst record in the NFL, yet they still have two wins on the season.
Tom Brady, who has only been intercepted four times this season, threw them two-at-a-time versus the Jets and Ravens.
Therefore, in the realm of relativity, it's not completely impossible for the Rams to pull one out. However, either way it won't be easy for them. If the Falcons lose their final game, and the Saints win, the Rams would face the Saints in the opening round. If the Falcons win and the Saints lose, the Rams would likely play the Falcons. However, the Bears are still in the mix as well.
Any way you slice it, the Rams will have to play to their full capacity. If that happens and their opponent plays down to them, the Rams would have a chance. This is perhaps the small chance by percentage in the countdown. But again, anything can happen.
Atlanta has had an impressive season and has emerged as the best record in the NFC this season. They will finish up their season against the Carolina Panthers, who have secured the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft with the worst record in the league.
The Falcons have secured a first-round bye in the playoffs, but they may come up sluggish in the second round. There is a possibility that Atlanta could face the Saints in their first playoff matchup. The Saints seemed to understand the Falcons offense in Week 16 and played them to a close victory.
In the first matchup between the two teams, the Falcons pulled out the win in OT with a field goal, so if this clash does indeed occur, look for the Falcons to have a tough time advancing against the reigning Super Bowl Champion, New Orleans Saints.