Super Bowl contenders are measured solely on their success in the playoffs. Regular season accolades are great, but for teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers, they are merely a consolation prize.
These stars and seven others are just gearing up for the only prize that matters: The Lombardi Trophy.
Count me as one that thought that the Carson Palmer experiment could not work with the Oakland Raiders. Not this season, at least. Hey, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
After throwing six interceptions in his first two games (throwing him into his first game was just not fair), Palmer has just two in his last three games. And he will only get better as he builds a rapport with his Raider teammates.
Palmer has played well, but if he can take it up to the next level and approach his 2005 Cincinnati Bengal standards, the Raiders will be a team no one wants to face in the AFC playoffs.
DeMarco Murray had just 25 carries through the first five games for the Dallas Cowboys. That might be the most important statistic in the Cowboys’ season.
Every season workhorse backs get worn down and shut down in the playoffs. It happened year after year to LaDanian Tomlinson. Michael Turner could not escape it and before them it was Eddie George and Jerome Bettis. That 350-carry mark might as well be a brick wall for running backs, no matter the ability.
That will not be a problem for Murray. The emergence of the rookie for Oklahoma brings balance to a Cowboys’ offense in desperate need of it. Murray simultaneously makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC playoffs.
If the Houston Texans hang on and win the AFC South, it will be because Arian Foster put the team on his back and carried them there.
The Texans are now down to their third-string quarterback, with both Matt Leinart and Matt Schaub lost for the season. Maybe the pulled hamstring that kept Foster on the sidelines for the first chunk of the season is the best thing to happen to this team, considering the load Foster will carry with T.J. Yates at quarterback.
Foster has eight touchdowns in the last five games and well over 100 total yards in four of them. It looks like last year’s rushing champ is rounding into form just in time for the playoffs.
Mark Sanchez’ performance against the Buffalo Bills was not exactly pretty, but is it ever for the New York Jets quarterback? The best part for Mark Sanchez was obviously the four touchdowns. The bad: completing just 46.6 percent of his passes.
The Jets have made it to two straight AFC Championship games with Sanchez playing below-average football, at least when you look at the box score. For all the criticism Sanchez has received in regards to his development (or lack there of), this has been his best season and it is not even close.
“The Sanchize” has set his career high in touchdowns with five games to go. His quarterback rating has improved progressively in every season and he is on pace for over 3,600 yards passing, another career high.
A lot of fans and pundits want to cut the Jets out of the playoff race. After a midseason 3-5 stretch, who could blame them? It sounds completely cliché, but it's true: Sanchez and the Jets play best with their backs against the wall.
Looking at the rest of their schedule, the Jets seem destined for another 10-6 season and a solid playoff run.
Matt Ryan is finally delivering the kind of season for his Atlanta Falcons we have all been waiting for.
After suffering through mediocrity for the first seven weeks of the year, Ryan has nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his last four games. That his team is 3-1 in that stretch and has jumped right back in the playoff race is no coincidence.
Ryan came into the season with the most firepower in his four NFL seasons. It took him awhile to learn how to use it, but now the Falcons are finally rounding into the type of Super Bowl contender they were picked to be in the preseason. Too bad he didn’t turn it around in time to save my fantasy season.
Ed Reed may not have the eye-popping statistics seen in years past for the Baltimore Ravens, but it is no coincidence that he has also played in every single game this year.
Reed has toned down the reckless passion he has played with throughout his career. This may signify the end of any Defensive Player of the Year nominations for Reed, but ask anyone on that Ravens’ defense (including Reed) and they will take their healthy safety over another individual trophy.
Reed has three interceptions on the year, which pale in comparison to the eight he had in 10 games last season. Reed has just one pick since Week 1, but any more will be when it really counts as he turns it on in pursuit of that elusive Super Bowl title.
Drew Brees has been phenomenal all season but has really picked it up in these last two games, as the New Orleans Saints are again Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
In big weeks against playoff contenders, Brees has dominated with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. The surgeon is in prime form and at the perfect time. The Saints will likely have to take out the Atlanta Falcons one more time on December 26 to lock up the NFC South and stay alive for a first-round bye.
Brees and the Saints are on the short list of teams in the NFL with the experience and firepower to stop the mighty Green Bay Packers.
In Weeks 8 and 9 Tom Brady hit a midseason slump for the ages, at least by his standards. During the New England Patriots’ two-game losing streak, Brady was knocked around by the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers and held under 200 yards passing for the only time all season by Pittsburgh.
Now, Brady is back with a vengeance. In the three-game winning streak Brady has eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, as the Patriots have won those games by a combined score of 109-39.
For a team that relies more on one player than anyone (except maybe the Indianapolis Colts), Brady’s return to the elite of the elite is a welcome sight.
For Ben Roethlisberger, the statistics never matter. It is all about winning Pittsburgh Steelers games in that clunky, Big Ben type of way. This year, Roethlisberger is doing a pretty good job with the stats and the wins.
Historically, a big year in the box scores from Roethlisberger points to a down year for Pittsburgh. Playing the best football of his career, Roethlisberger is prepared to buck the trend and lead the Steelers as one of the game's premier passers.
Big Ben is in the top 10 of the league across the board in passing categories. If his Steelers run the table, they have a good chance of overtaking the Ravens for both the AFC North lead and a home-field bye in the AFC Playoffs.
Expect Roethlisberger and the Steelers to play like their backs are against the wall from here on out.
Does anyone else think the regular season has been nothing but a warm-up for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ playoff run? If Aaron Rodgers keeps this up, we will be talking about him as the Greatest of All Time sooner rather than later.
It's not the 33 touchdowns to only four interceptions. It's not the completion percentage (71.8) or even the astronomical quarterback rating (127.7). It's the ease with which he picks apart each and every opposing secondary.
On Thanksgiving Day the Detroit Lions seemed like they could matchup well against Rodgers with their ferocious defensive line. Rodgers may as well have been playing in the family Turkey Bowl.
Teams still have not found a game plan to even begin to slow this guy down. Pressure him and he releases it before you get there. Drop some defenders (and subsequently give him even more time) and he will make a mockery out of your secondary. Maybe there is a defense out there that will fluster Rodgers and make life difficult for him, but I haven’t seen it yet.