If the NFL playoffs were to begin today there would some particularly interesting matchups in the first round on the NFC side of things and some potential mismatches for the AFC.
Starting on the AFC side the Baltimore Ravens would be the top seed and along with the Houston Texans they would await the winners of the Wild Card Round. Neither team currently sitting atop the AFC appears to be heads and shoulders above the rest of the conference, and there are serious concerns with the Houston Texans who turn to their backup quarterback in Matt Leinart.
Those concerns make the Texans the least likely team to remain in the top four of the NFL and earn a bye, but their running game and the return of Andre Johnson may help keep them safely on top of the AFC South at the very least.
The first game for the AFC would be a matchup between the third seed AFC East-leading New England Patriots and the sixth seed Cincinnati Bengals who are still clinging to the final wild-card spot. The defense of the Bengals has shown signs of being very strong but still might not be experienced enough to match wits with Tom Brady and the Patriots' passing attack.
If the Patriots defense can find a way to limit Andy Dalton and AJ Green, they should escape with a win and move on to face the Houston Texans, another favorable matchup.
The next AFC tilt would be the fourth seed AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders squaring off with the fifth seed Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers would likely be the favorites despite being on the road but Oakland will always be a tough place to play.
This matchup will be determined by exactly how comfortable Carson Palmer has become with the Raiders offense and the health of Darren McFadden. If either of those two things are suspect, than the Steelers should emerge victorious and face the Ravens yet again in the playoffs.
Moving to the NFC, the top two teams are clearly elevating themselves above the rest of the conference. In fact, it is very likely that the San Francisco 49ers might be a 15-1 No. 2 seed by virtue of the fact that the No. 1 Packers are making a legitimate assault on 16-0.
The first game of the NFC playoffs would be a huge matchup between the third seed NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints and the sixth seed Detroit Lions. In what would surely be a high-flying offensive barn burner, the experience of Drew Brees might be the deciding factor.
New Orleans would have to use Darren Sproles creatively to keep Drew Brees upright and Gregg Williams would need to dial up some nasty blitzes to knock Matthew Stafford off his game in order to win. History might say that both of those things will happen and punch the Saints' ticket to San Francisco.
The second NFC Wild Card Game is a tantalizing matchup between two historic franchises in the fourth seed NFC East leading New York Giants and the fifth seed Chicago Bears. Despite how well the Bears are playing, this could not be a worse matchup for them.
One thing that the Giants do better than anyone is rush the passer, and a rattled Jay Cutler is traditionally not a productive Jay Cutler. If Cutler is on his back and feels pressure to carry the team with his arm, that could spell disaster for the Bears who would sack their way to Green Bay looking for the upset.
This current alignment of the NFL playoffs seems to be the likeliest scenario for how the picture may eventually shake out. However, teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons in the NFC could be dangerous teams in January.
In the AFC the only legitimate threat, should they regain their form, is the New York Jets, but there are many who are interested to see what the Denver Broncos and "Tebow Mania" could do in the playoffs should they win the AFC West.
Next week might bring about a totally different picture, but for now, the NFL should be excited to see some new star power making its debut in the playoffs along with a nice mix of proven powers participating as well.
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