Aaron Rodgers threw for 229 yards and the game's only touchdown as the Green Bay Packers clinched a playoff berth Sunday, beating their rival Chicago Bears 10-3.
Rodgers finished the season with over 3,900 yards and 28 touchdowns despite missing essentially a game and a half with a concussion. The Packers will face the Philadelphia Eagles next week in the Wild Card round of the NFC playoffs.
With the playoffs kicking off, the Packers are perhaps the most dangerous sixth-seeded team in the past five years. Their opposite number in the AFC, the New York Jets, are also impressive and both teams could pose serious threats to their early-round opponents, even on the road.
With the bevy of excellent games that we will surely see, there will also be some clunkers. The Saints figure to rout the 7-9 Seahawks, even in Seattle, while the Ravens and Chiefs play ugly at times.
Read on for previews and predictions of every playoff game, from the first Wild Card contest to the outcome of Super Bowl XLV.
However improbable a Super Bowl run might be, the defending champion Saints ought to at least have the hunger to take down the Seahawks this Saturday.
Drew Brees and company have an efficient passing attack on their side, as well as renewed health among their stable of running backs. Their defense has been less opportunistic than it was last year, but has been steadier and has helped them possess the ball and keep Brees relatively in rhythm.
The Seahawks actually match up fairly well with this more vulnerable version of the Saints, although of course they still are not in their class. The Seattle secondary has fallen apart on occasions this season, but in general, they are talented, athletic and deep.
On the offensive side of the ball, Pete Carroll's team may need to send out Charlie Whitehurst again at quarterback, which would place the primary onus for making hay on the running game. Marshawn Lynch has been somewhat reborn since his move from Buffalo, but even a breakout game will likely be only enough to keep this one close.
Prediction: 27-10 Saints
All season, all we heard about the Colts was that the end was near. Peyton Manning certainly showed chinks in the armor, while injuries depleted his arsenal of available weapons and hindered the defense, too. With perhaps as few as three weeks to play, they looked like long shots to reach the promised land.
It would have been the first time in a decade that they missed the post-season.
But, of course, it is not so. Manning led the team to four straight wins to finish the season and, despite his 17 interceptions, he finished the year with career highs in completions, attempts and passing yards.
Now the Colts not only get to play on into the winter, but they will host the New York Jets on Saturday evening. With the Jets backing into the playoffs a bit after losing three of five, Indianapolis has to feel confident.
Yet, New York is a dangerous team. Their running game is impressive, as is their staunch defense. With Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie on the outside, Manning may need to work the middle of the field more often than he wants.
The Jets have talent from the front to the back defensively, so the challenge to the Colts' imbalanced attack is serious. For what it's worth, Revis has never intercepted Manning, but Cromartie has four picks against him.
Prediction: 24-23 Colts
This match-up pits a pair of teams with balance and toughness against one another, and the difference in the game might be the right arm of Matt Cassel.
Most see this as a potentially easy win for the Ravens, who come in with a record two games better and their typically vaunted defense. Kansas City, notably, looked fairly out of their element during an early loss to Indianapolis and lost twice to Oakland.
The team never really met and overcame a strong challenger. Even entering the playoffs, they seem almost untested and the Ravens are not meant to be a starter course.
Yet, by the numbers, Kansas City did it all this season and did it exceptionally well. They are the best running team in the league, and therefore a worthy foe for a Ravens rush defense that ranks fifth in yards allowed for the season.
They also have Cassel, a dynamic young signal-caller upon whom they have not yet relied on much this season: Cassel was awful in Week 17, completing only a third of his passes and tossing two interceptions.
To beat Baltimore, though, the Chiefs need Cassel to step up and make some plays to loosen up the ground game. If he can do so, the defense (which has picked off 14 passes for the season and helped build a plus-nine turnover margin for Kansas City) should be able to do the rest.
If he makes a key mistake or two, Baltimore will railroad the Chiefs.
Prediction: 20-13 Chiefs
This game will reprise a Week 1 Green Bay win, though of course everything was different then.
Ryan grant, the Packers' best running back, went down for the year during that game and the Eagles did not bring on Michael Vick until a concussion forced Kevin Kolb from the game. Since then, Vick has become the biggest story of the season, while the Packers have continued to slog through some serious injury trouble.
Still, Green Bay is the better-balanced team in this matchup.
Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson will torch the Packers once or twice, but Rodgers and his bevy of solid receivers (especially Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, a pair of veterans who really showed up with huge plays during the final two weeks) should be equally able to shred the Eagles' struggling pass defense.
Look for a lot of points in this one; the difference could be the ability or inability of Green Bay to rush Vick and keep him in the pocket with blitzes from the corner by Charles Woodson.
Prediction: 31-29 Green Bay
The first game of the Divisional round will be in Pittsburgh, and the Colts will have to deal with a Steelers defense that has shut down everything opponents have tried to do all season.
If James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were not intimidating enough, the Steelers will have another dynamic superstar with whom Manning will have to deal in this prospective game: Troy Polamalu should be back in action.
With all that working against the Indianapolis offense, the Steelers do not need much from their own, but Ben Roethlisberger should provide ample fire power. Look for Pittsburgh to take a shot or two early, hoping to force Indianapolis exclusively into the pass and create a turnover.
Prediction: 17-13 Steelers
This game features the only two teams in the NFC who went 7-1 at home this season, and the Falcons can legitimately lay claim to the conference's best home-field advantage because their only loss was to the relatively daunting Saints.
Rodgers and his receivers will need to be wary of Brent Grimes, the excellent under-rated corner back, and the rest of the Falcons' quietly strong and balanced defense.
Atlanta should be able to gouge Green Bay for huge yardage on the ground, though Michael Turner was utterly unimpressive over the final quarter of the season: He had just 197 yards rushing, scored once and fumbled twice in the final three games.
The Packers' rush defense, though, is a huge area of vulnerability. If Turner gashes them for a score or two, this one is over, but if he struggles, the Packers will win. Incidentally, he ran for 110 yards on 23 carries in Atlanta's 20-17 home win over the Packers in Week 12.
Prediction: 26-23 Packers
This game would rematch the 2006 NFC Championship Game, which the Bears won at Soldier Field to advance to Super Bowl XLI. The offense-only Saints could not stand up to the elements and navigate the vicious defensive play of the defense-only Bears.
Matt Forte was not around then, but the Bears running back will likely be the difference-maker in this matchup. He finished the season with over 1,000 yards rushing and over 500 receiving.
The list of other running backs in Bears history who have done that is short: Walter Payton.
Meanwhile, the Saints have also gotten better and more balanced since that game four seasons ago. That is why they are the defending champs. Forte will have to prove his mettle against perhaps the best rush defense the Saints have ever had and Drew Brees has a chance to really gash Chicago with some short drops and quick hits.
Ultimately, though, the Bears have the advantage on special teams and the Saints lack the sort of pass rush that has been the calling card of successful defenses against Jay Cutler and the Bears this year.
An all-NFC North Championship Game? It's just crazy enough to work.
Prediction: 21-17 Bears
This one should be a laugher: The Patriots are a better team in almost every respect. The big, intriguing story line here can only be that Cassel would return to Foxboro to play against the team that gave him his start, when Brady went down early in the 2008 season.
Cassel has earned his place in the NFL, but Brady has earned yet another MVP trophy so the comparison is probably a bit unfair.
Meanwhile, the Patriots' swarming defense will easily slow the running game of Kansas City enough to force the Chiefs to the air early, at which point it becomes just a matter of time before Devin McCourty makes a big play and changes the momentum of the game in favor of New England.
A screen pass or draw to Danny Woodhead, and the Patriots could be up three touchdowns by the intermission.
Prediction: 34-20 Patriots
Bears fans and sympathetic Chicago media types will be quick to point out that Chicago had little reason to give itself away by playing all-out Sunday when they traveled to Green Bay, but the fact is that the Packers could have won by much more than seven points, and that the team matches up with the Bears very well.
Forte had 151 all-purpose yards Sunday, the third-highest total he posted all season, so the Bears can hardly expect more on that front. Cutler, meanwhile, was sacked six times Sunday and, with the confusion created by Woodson's edge blitzes and Clay Matthews' general freakishness, another six would hardly be out of the question.
Rodgers certainly has upward mobility from the performance he gave Sunday, when he threw just one touchdown and missed targets on at least two would-be big plays. His receivers also had key drops, things that tend to be fixed by a week or two of playoff intensity and serious punishment at practice.
The Green Bay offensive machine is capable of burning the Bears and, if it comes down to it, they will probably do enough to win.
Prediction: 28-23 Packers
The ferocity of the Steelers defense scares most teams, because most teams have reason to believe Pittsburgh can terrorize them. James Harrison is a daunting figure on the pass rush or in underneath coverage, while Woodley, Polamalu, Ryan Clark and James Farrior make running an unpleasant experience for running backs.
The Patriots are not so easily shaken.
Their offense is a such a well-oiled machine that they know they can create space for their small and quick athletes to move. Big hits happen far less often to Patriots ball-handlers than to others, including Brady: The offensive line is the best in the game yet again. New England will find open areas in the Steelers defense and worm their way downfield a time or two.
In the end, though, the Patriots' defense might do them in. Despite their big-play ability, the pass defense has its holes and the Steelers are balanced enough so as not to allow the Pats to key on any one or two players, or even on run or pass.
Look for Ben Roethlisberger to put a stamp of legitimacy on his legacy as an elite playoff passer by out-dueling the great Brady in this one.
Prediction: 27-24 Steelers
Aaron Rodgers is a brilliant young quarterback, a smooth and efficient passer with just enough Brett Favre in his arm to make Packers fans dream a bit. He will one day lead the Packers to a Super Bowl victory, but this year is not the year.
This year, Roethlisberger will lead the Steelers to victory and seal his place alongside Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to have won three or more Super Bowls.
Along the way, look for the Steelers defense to show its under-rated speed and shut down the Packers' outside threats, forcing Rodgers into tough situations and sacking him more than once. Even the mighty Bears give the Packers no way to prepare for the Steelers' frenetic pass rush and brilliant all-around defensive ball-hawking.
Prediction: 28-17 Steelers