As we enter into the fourth quarter of the 2011 NFL season, there have been several elite teams that have separated themselves from the pack.
The NFC appears to have the upper hand against the less consistent, inferior AFC leaders.
As we look ahead towards the ever-approaching playoffs and the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on February 5, 2012, let’s look at the division and wild-card races; let's see if we can predict who will be playing football in January and who will be sent home.
The Detroit Lions have been very shaky since a surprising 5-0 start to the 2011 season.
The Lions have faced the best of the best in their 2-5 stretch, matching up against the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears.
Facing teams of that caliber has shown that the Lions are not an elite team in the NFL. They haven’t been able to pull out wins against the best.
Therefore, the Lions will limp into the playoffs as a wild card.
The Lions will likely face one of the five aforementioned teams in the first round of the playoffs.
My bet is that they face the Saints, whom, I believe, are the only threat to the Packers going undefeated this season.
The Saints will give Jim Schwartz and the Lions a butt-whipping, and send them home after a hopeful start to 2011.
I believe that the other team to come out of the NFC as a wild card will be the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons have mostly gone under the radar. They've put together key victories against contenders, while coming up short in games they should have won.
Either way, the Falcons should make the playoffs and draw the winner of the NFC East.
My pick to win the NFC East is the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons have a legitimate shot against the inconsistent Cowboys.
The Falcons will face the Green Bay Packers, though, in the divisional round, and that will be the end of their season.
This race is probably the hardest to call, since it seems like the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys are doing everything in their power to lose it.
Last week, head coach Jason Garrett iced his own kicker, pushing the game into overtime, where the lowly Arizona Cardinals upset them.
In order to get back in the race, the Giants (who have lost four straight) must beat the Dallas Cowboys on the road this week and at home in the season finale.
I think the Cowboys will take at least one of those games and prevail in the division. Dallas faces a disciplined and well-coached Atlanta Falcons team in the playoffs. They will promptly exit.
Surprise, surprise! The Green Bay Packers will become the third team in NFL history to complete a perfect regular season.
However, they face a tough road to winning the Super Bowl.
The Packers will face the team they faced to open the season in the NFC Championship: the New Orleans Saints.
Right now, the Saints are the only team that will challenge the Packers for the Super Bowl. The winner of this game will raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that this game should be called the Super Bowl. It's going to be the closest, most exciting game of the year, hands down.
Victory after dominant victory over a playoff-caliber team has been the story of the Saints season. They’ve been tested time and time again and have prevailed.
The Saints are also the only team with the potential to end the Green Bay Packers' run to the Super Bowl.
Again, the Saints should easily beat the undisciplined Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. They will likely face a rested, pesky San Francisco 49ers team in the divisional round.
The 49ers will be the biggest challenge for the Saints to advance to the NFC Championship against the Packers.
My prediction is that the Saints will get past the 49ers and face the Packers for the NFC title.
The 49ers are going to be exposed in two weeks when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It will be a home game, but the Steelers are going to dominate the Niners. Though the Steelers play a similar run-heavy, blue collar-type game, they will have their way with San Francisco.
San Fran has only faced five teams in the running for the playoffs this season, with wins over the Lions, Bengals and Giants while losing to the Ravens and Cowboys. The other eight teams they have faced are all below .500.
The Niners have had a very impressive season. I tip my hat to Jim Harbaugh, but the New Orleans Saints will knock them out of the playoffs in the divisional round this year.
This game will likely be the pseudo-Super Bowl this season.
It's also a rematch of the Thursday night season opener where the Packers fought the Saints tooth and nail until the end, when they moved past New Orleans en route to a 42-34 win.
However, this rematch against the two best teams in the league will go differently in the playoffs.