NFL: The Cream Rises to the Top, A Look at the 2012 Playoffs

Nick SignorelliSenior Writer IMay 31, 2011

NFL: The Cream Rises to the Top, A Look at the 2012 Playoffs

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Owner Dan Rooney (L) and Team president Art Rooney II (2ndL) of the Pittsburgh Steelers recieve the Lamar Hunt Trophy as CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz looks on after their 24 to 19 win over the New York Jets in the 2011 AFC Cham
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Though right now, it may seem like there is not going to be football ever again (is it just me, or does the glass seem to be half-empty?), I thought it would be fun to take a look at the AFC and NFC playoff field for 2011-2012.

    Realize that I am doing this based on current rosters. I don't really have a choice because no one has any idea what free-agency, if there is one, rules will be.

    This is being based on players that have already re-signed with their old teams, strength of schedule and any big holes that have been filled in the draft.

    Yes, I know this is subject to change within a day of free agency, but I thought, why not?

AFC North

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers holds up the Lamar Hunt trophy after the Steelers defeated the New York Jets 24 to 19 in the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Penns
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Steelers represented the AFC in the Super Bowl, winning their third Lombardi Trophy in the last six years. Unfortunately for the Black and Gold, they were not able to upend the Green Bay Packers to bring home Lombardi Trophy No. 7.

    They do return the core of their team, with at least 21 of a possible 22 starters returning in 2011.

    The Baltimore Ravens were only a tiebreaker away from winning the AFC North Championship and forcing the Steelers to be the road team in the playoffs.  Unfortunately for the Ravens, one of their losses came to the Cincinnati Bengals, and because of that, the Ravens were unable to host a home playoff game.

    Though, the Ravens do seem to be almost a mirror image of the Steelers, with two of the finest defenses in the NFL, the Ravens have Joe Flacco, who is no Ben Roethlisberger. Flacco has not defeated Big Ben in his professional career, and neither has Coach Harbaugh.

    The Steelers and the Ravens look to dominate the North once again, with the Bengals seeming to take more steps backwards than a cornerback covering Larry Fitzgerald.

    The Browns have made improvements and look to make more once free-agency starts. Unfortunately for the folks in Cleveland, it is not going to be enough for the Browns to seriously contend for anything better than third in the North.

    The Steelers will win the AFC North again in 2012 and will hold the top seed in the AFC.

    The Ravens will once again come up shy, finishing the season only one game behind the Steelers. The good news is, the Ravens will have the second best record in the AFC; the bad news is, they are going to finish the season as the No. 5 seed and have to go on the road for the playoffs once again.

    The Browns are going to take some steps, but with a new coaching staff, a new defensive philosophy and still far from being competitive against either the Ravens or Steelers, the Browns will finish a couple games below .500 again this year.

    The Bengals, with a rookie QB, and the headaches and growing pains they are going to go through in 2011-2012, could be picking first in the NFL draft come 2012.

AFC East

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    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots stands on the field during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa
    Elsa/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East for most of the last decade. They have dominated the Dolphins, Jets and Bills to the tune of four Super Bowl victories, and another near-perfect season to go along with it.

    There is no reason to think that the Patriots are not going to continue that trend, at least against the Dolphins and Bills.

    The Jets seem to be a team that has found a weakness in Tom Brady and the Pats, defeating them twice in 2010, including the playoffs.

    Yes, it is true that the Jets are going to have a lot of free agents and are bound to lose some of them, which is going to hurt their chances of fulfilling their Super Bowl or Bust battle cry. But Rex Ryan still knows enough about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to make their lives a collective nightmare in the two games they are going to play them.

    The Dolphins are an improving team, but still have too many issues, ESPECIALLY at the most important position on the field. Unless the Dolphins decide to go after Kevin Kolb (not a good idea) or Vince Young (at least he won't cost any draft picks), then they are going to again be on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

    With Ryan Fitzpatrick playing at the level he played at last year, don't be shocked to see the Bills upset some of the teams in the NFL. Fitzpatrick gets no credit, but has played the game with poise and passion. It is not his fault the Bills haven't put any talent around him.

    My prediction is the Patriots are going to win their division, and hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC Playoffs. The Jets are going to do just enough to sneak back into the playoffs.

    The Bills and Dolphins are going to be on the outside looking in.

AFC South

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 08:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to pass in the first quarter against the New York Jets during their 2011 AFC wild card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 8, 2011 in Indianapolis, Ind
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Indianapolis Colts have dominated the AFC South for the last decade. They normally win double-digit games, and the other teams see the Colts as their benchmark for success.

    Still as the cream of the crop, the Colts are probably going to dominate again in 2011-2012, as none of the teams they are going to be playing seem to have the talent that Indy does.

    The Houston Texans are still trying to make their first playoff appearance, the Jacksonville Jaguars have many issues on both sides of the ball and the Titans don't even know who their coach and QB are going to be.

    With the AFC's North and East having two sold teams that are more than likely going to make the playoffs, it is hard to imagine any other team from the South making the playoffs than the Colts.  The only thing that could keep Peyton Manning from being in the playoffs would be an injury to Peyton Manning.

AFC West

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    KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 09:  Cornerback Brandon Flowers #24 of the Kansas City Chiefs rolls over running back Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens after making the tackle during the 2011 AFC wild card playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 9, 2011
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    You know, I wanted to say that the defending AFC West Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, would win the West again this year, but having not defeated a single team that had a winning record in 2010 makes me think last year may have been a fluke.

    Then I wanted to pick the Oakland Raiders, but after finishing with the best record they have in almost a decade, they fired their head coach, so the Raiders probably won't win either.

    I thought about picking the San Diego Chargers, but the reality is, this team is as dysfunctional as any team in the NFL, if not more so. Though Phillip Rivers seems to light up the scoreboard, and puts up Manning-esque type stats, he also has Manning-type failure when it comes to important games.

    As a Christian, I am pulling for Tim Tebow to be a success in the NFL. As a realist, I know it isn't going to happen this year.  There is no part of me that thinks the Denver Broncos are going to win more than three or four games in 2011.

    So I am going to have to go with the San Diego Chargers to take the division back from the Chiefs and push the Raiders back into the Black Hole.

Wild-Card Round

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    SAN DIEGO - SEPTEMBER 20:  Legedu Naanee #11 of the San Diego Chargers carries the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at Qualcomm Stadium on September 20, 2009 in San Diego, California. The Ravens defeated the Chargers 31-26.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Im
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Ravens vs. Chargers

    The team with the second best record in the AFC will have to pack their bags and head to California to play a team that most think should not even be in the playoffs.

    The Chargers seem to find a way to win late in the season and enter the playoffs on a hot streak. The Ravens, on the other hand, are going to have to rely on Joe Flacco to lead the Ravens past the Chargers, but it isn't going to happen this year.

    Flacco is having a hard time, while Phillip Rivers is still able to pull magic out of his hat, at least in San Diego.

    Jets vs. Colts

    In the other Wild Card game, the Indianapolis Colts host the New York Jets, who eliminated the Peyton Mannings, I mean, Colts last year.

    Peyton Manning will not be denied again, as he lost his last playoff game, which means, by law of average, the Colts eliminate the Jets.

Divisonal Round

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    PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 11:  Snow falls as Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass against the San Diego Chargers during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Steelers won 35-
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Chargers vs. Steelers

    With the Chargers having to travel across the country, it normally hurts the team, as it did with the Ravens the previous week, and the Chargers come out flat against the well rested Steelers.

    Pittsburgh pounds Phillip Rivers, making him wish that the trade between the Chargers and Giants in 2004 never happened. (The rumor was that the Steelers were going to select Rivers with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, but when the Giants selected Rivers fourth, then traded him to San Diego, Roethlisberger fell to the Steelers at 11.)

    Colts vs. Patriots

    It seems that every year, the Colts and Patriots give the fans of the NFL an amazing game, and when they play in the playoffs, it is even more special.

    Normally, when the game is in Indy, the Colts have the advantage. In New England, the Colts will probably be playing in freezing conditions, which Manning struggles with, and Brady excels at.

    There will not be a lot of points scored in this game, which will be because of solid defensive play, and two feet of snow on the ground.

    The Colts will have to find a way to get their passing game going, which Manning will do against the suspect Patriots secondary.

    When the Colts win this game, it will be the fourth straight playoff loss for the Patriots, starting speculation that maybe Tom Brady has lost his playoff mojo.

AFC Championship Game

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    PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 9:  Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers leaps to deflects the pass to Reggie Wayne #87 of the Indianapolis Colts on November 9, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Colts vs. Steelers

    When the Colts travel to Pittsburgh for the right to go to the Super Bowl, this is going to be one of the best games of the year.

    Manning will try to do what Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have done to the Steelers, by spreading out the defense and forcing a mismatch that Peyton Manning can exploit.

    Unfortunately, the Steelers secondary is improved under the leadership of Carnell Lake, and Manning does not have the time to pick the Steelers apart, as the front seven pressure forces Manning into mistakes all day.

    Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, has a much better time picking apart the Colts secondary to the tune of over 300 yards and three scores.

    Pittsburgh wins to go to the Super Bowl for the second straight year and the fourth time in six years.

Super Bowl

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  The Green Bay Packers hold up The Vince Lombardi Trophy after the defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31 to 25 in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Image
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    So, who will the Steelers play in Super Bowl XLVI? That article is coming next.  When it is done, you will find the link to it.

    HERE.

    Thanks for reading.