Tonight the Green Bay Packers will take the field to defend their Super Bowl title. It officially signals that last season is over and the hunt for the next Lombardi trophy has begun. In five months from now, we will know just who that next Super Bowl champion is.
Every year the NFL experiences some parity. Typically five or six teams from last year miss the playoffs, opening up spots for five or six new teams. It is very likely that there will be some surprise teams, both good and bad this year.
But only one team gets the championship win, only one team has a truly successful season. Here, at the start of the NFL season, is how I think the playoffs shake out and the one team that looks best prepared to win the Super Bowl.
#1. New England Patriots AFC East Champions 13-3
#2. San Diego Chargers AFC West Champions 13-3
#3. Baltimore Ravens AFC North Champions 10-6
#4. Houston Texans AFC South Champions 10-6
#5. Cleveland Browns AFC Wildcard 10-6
#6. New York Jets AFC Wildcard 10-6
#1. New Orleans Saints NFC South Champions 14-2
#2. Green Bay Packers NFC North Champions 13-3
#3. Philadelphia Eagles NFC East Champions 10-6
#4. Arizona Cardinals NFC West Champions 9-7
#5. Atlanta Falcons NFC Wildcard 11-5
#6. Dallas Cowboys NFC Wildcard 10-6
One of the highlighted NFC wildcard games in this prediction is the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. Divisional rivalries are always intense but in the playoffs they go up a whole other level, especially between teams like the Cowboys and the Eagles.
Although this rivalry is close as ever, the Cowboys have the advantage all time 54-43. Just two years ago they smashed the Eagles in the playoffs and the last two years the Eagles have lost in the wildcard round. Although good, the Eagles seem overhyped this year while oddly enough the Cowboys seem under the radar. The hot seat will get even hotter for Andy Reid after this year's playoff failure.
Over in the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens host the New York Jets. Both teams are similar breeds, they love to run the ball and they play tough defense. A rivalry has started between them since former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan started coaching the Jets.
Although the Ravens have won in the wildcard round the last three years, they haven't played at home in the playoffs since 2006. Their last two playoff games at home were losses and more of the same can be expected this year. The Jets have become extreme road warriors and Ryan can get them fired up enough to take out his old team on their home field.
The Arizona Cardinals will host the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of a 2008 wildcard match. That was the year the Cardinals upset the Falcons and went on a run to the Super Bowl.This year the Falcons are a favored NFC squad while the Cardinals are an upstart team hoping quarterback Kevin Kolb can turn things around.
The recent NFC West champions, though weak in the regular season, seem to justify their playoff standings by playing well. Five straight years the NFC West champion (either the Cardinals or the Seattle Seahawks) have won on wildcard weekend, this year should mark the sixth consecutive year that happens. The Cardinals will pull off the shocking upset and get ready for another long playoff run.
Closing out Wildcard weekend will be two new playoff teams. The Houston Texans will make their first ever playoff appearance hosting the surprising Cleveland Browns. There isn't much of a rivalry between these teams, and both haven't been very good the past couple years. Playoff inexperience will affect both teams and could make the game sloppy.
Ultimately though the Texans have advantages at almost every position. Their offense is stacked and their defense looks like it should improve this year. The Texans will take the Browns down and move on to the divisional round.
The New England Patriots and the New York Jets will meet for a third time again this year. This rivalry has become one of the NFL's best and another playoff game should help it become even more popular.
Last year in the divisional round, the Jets pulled off a brilliant upset against a team that had just recently beat beat them by more than 40 points. It would seem the Patriots couldn't get taken down at home again. But the Jets are built to beat the Patriots and with a game plan similar to last year, they will make Patriots fans sick to their stomachs a second year in a row.
The Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers meet in the playoffs two years removed from a classic wildcard matchup. This year there could be another shootout between these two teams with young quarterbacks. The Packers will still be massive favorites as they finally get the chance to host a home playoff game.
Although the Cardinals will be far better than in 2010, they just won't be ready to go beyond the NFC divisional round. The Packers will be playing confident and will benefit greatly from the bye week they didn't get last year. A Packers win will make them the first defending Super Bowl champion to return to the conference championship game the next year since the New England Patriots in 2004.
The San Diego Chargers will host the Houston Texans for a warm January game in southern California. This game could break records as offenses should score and score often. The Chargers will have to play with the worry of having lost at home during the divisional round two of the last five seasons.
This year the Chargers should exorcise their playoff demons and finally get back to the AFC Championship. This is a team that on paper could be in the Super Bowl every year and now they can finally deliver on that promise. Nonetheless a Norv Turner coached team means it will be close and Turner will make some boneheaded decisions that cause heart attacks in San Diego.
The New Orleans Saints host the Cowboys in the Super dome for the Saint's first playoff game of the year. These teams played a memorable Thanksgiving game in which the Cowboys squandered a valuable upset opportunity in route to their 6-10 season.
Like most playoffs, this year should have plenty of upsets. But perhaps none are bigger than the Texas sized one the Cowboys will lay on the Saints. Despite their 14-2 regular season record, the Saints will fail to win a playoff game for the second year in a row.
Over in the AFC, the Jets travel to take on the Chargers in the conference championship. This will be the Jets third consecutive AFC Championship appearance so pressure will be at an all-time high for them despite being the visiting team. This game will also bring to mind the Jets divisional victory over the Chargers two years ago.
It's really hard to make three successive championships and fail to win them all. Nonetheless the Jets will fall just short yet again and Philip Rivers will get his first Super Bowl appearance. The Chargers will make their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.
The NFC Championship features two of the NFC's best franchises in terms of history. The Packers have four Super Bowl wins to the Cowboys five wins. The teams have a historic rivalry going back to the 1960s.
This game played in freezing cold conditions at Lambeau field should be epic, nothing like last year's game where the Packers drubbed the Cowboys 45-7. Nonetheless the Cowboys Tony Romo has struggled in playoff performances and a crucial turnover by him shall give the Packers the victory. The Packers will then advance to their second consecutive Super Bowl putting them on the cusp of a repeat.
Although it seems like it was decades ago, the last time the Chargers and the Packers met Brett Favre started for the Packers. By the time the Super Bowl comes around however Aaron Rodgers and Rivers will have started against each other since the two teams are scheduled to meet on November 6th.
This should be an epic Super Bowl matchup between two of the NFL's best quarterbacks today. However, repeating a Super Bowl victory is a difficult feat that only eight teams have ever accomplished. Despite the vast amount of talent on Green Bay's roster, they will fall short, losing to the Chargers by the closest of margins.
This will finally give the Chargers their first Super Bowl win ever. It's rare that a non-playoff team the year before like the Chargers can claim to be the best team in the NFL. But it's even rarer for a team with the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense to miss the playoffs. If the Chargers can get to a fast start and fix their special team meltdowns from last year, this team is unstoppable.