50 Things We're Most Excited to See in the 2012 NFL Playoffs
The arrival of the holiday season also means the postseason is just around the corner.
Of the 12 available slots in the NFL's race for the Super Bowl, only a few entries have been filled as three weeks remain in the regular year. With that comes a multitude of happenings that could pan out when the postseason lineup is set.
Here are 50 things that could possibly (or certainly) occur to raise our interests when the playoffs commence on Jan. 7.
The Niners Are Back
From 1981 through 1998, the San Francisco 49ers reached the playoffs 16 times and won five Super Bowls. They were an annual contender for the title.
But after 2002, they fell below mediocrity and never got above the .500 mark.
That all changed with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh this offseason. In short order, he helped turn a once-proud franchise back into one of the NFL's elite.
Tebow Time in January?
By winning seven of eight, there appears to be little stopping the magic of Tim Tebow.
He has the Denver Broncos on top of the AFC West with his unorthodox way of quarterbacking. The most talked-about player in 2011 could very well be on a bigger stage if he should reach the playoffs.
Brady, Belichick Go for Four
It's hard to believe that the New England Patriots haven't won a postseason contest since the 2007 AFC Championship.
A drought like this may make some believe they've lost their touch, but their future Hall of Fame head coach and quarterback have built a reputation over the course of three Super Bowl championship runs.
As long as the Pats in the playoffs, they have to be considered a threat to win it all.
Potential Rivalries Renewed
The Steelers and Ravens have met in two of the past three seasons, with Pittsburgh coming out the victor in each showdown. These clubs have created the best rivalry in the NFL, with each game being filled with trash-talking, violent hits and dramatic moments.
Other foes that could meet up in the later weeks of January include the Jets and Patriots and the Giants and Cowboys.
Our excitement for the playoffs will be unleashed right from the start. The wild-card round has four games over the course of two days and feature a mixture of struggling teams and hot teams.
On several occasions, a team that emerges with a big win on Wild Card Weekend uses it as a boost to get to the Super Bowl. Just ask the Packers.
First Use of New OT Rules?
At the owners meeting in March 2010, the league agreed on a new overtime procedure for playoff games in which a team would need six points in the extra session in order to ensure a victory.
It's a rule that has been seen as a welcome change. The only problem is, we've yet to see in in action.
Let's hope this year is different.
Jim Harbaugh's Exuberance
The unanimous choice for NFL Coach of the Year has added a much-needed spark to a formerly moribund organization.
Harbaugh's energy can sometimes be displaced in the wrong places (ex: post-game hand shake with Jim Schwartz), but he has been invaluable to the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers and Texans are two teams that have numerous players making their first entry into postseason play.
Other clubs and players have a shot.
Whoever qualifies, they'll have to deal with the added pressure and focus of the entire country.
When the Dallas Cowboys are among football's best, more people pay attention.
Most of the country either despises or love of the team with the star on the helmet.
Brees Following Up Record-Setting 2011
All signs point to Drew Brees breaking several signal-season passing records, including the mark for most yards accumulated through the air.
Brees distributes the ball to so many different receivers and pilots a high-powered offensive attack that borders on unstoppable at times.
It'll be interesting to see who he can be limited by and who may make him play off-balance.
Disparity in Coaching Styles
These men that roam the sidelines are a few of the personalities that can bring about a little more flavor to the month-long run to the Super Bowl.
Can Pats Defense Stabalize?
The New England defense, especially the secondary, has been a major weakness on this overall strong club.
With plenty of inexperience and a lack of talent, the Patriots have been bailed out by the fact that they have Tom Brady leading an offense that can put up plenty of points.
Their legendary QB aside, the fate of New England rests on the D.
Houston's Running Game
There's a reason why the Houston Texans have the league's third-best rushing game.
A two-headed monster of Arian Foster and Ben Tate creates havoc for any opposing defense. Tate has accumulated 753 yards and three touchdowns while Foster has followed up his breakout campaign of 2010 with 916 yards and eight scores this season.
Chicago's chances of qualifying for the playoffs are fading away with each defeat.
If by some chance the Bears can string together enough wins to sneak in, they'll possess the most dangerous weapon. That's because at any time he touches the ball, the sensational Hester can take it to pay dirt.
Falcons Trying to Make Up for Last Year
After posting the best record in the NFC, the 2010 for the Atlanta Falcons ended with a thud.
The Green Bay Packers ran Mike Smith's team out of the Georgia Dome in the NFC Divisional on their way to the Super Bowl title. There would be no sweeter satisfaction for the Falcons than to return the favor this time around.
The second-year tight end has opened up the New Orleans Saints' offensive attack.
Graham has 80 receptions and 1,101 yards to go along with his eight TD catches off the arm of Drew Brees.
It's hard to overshadow what Graham has done, but another young tight end has done that...and so much more.
With 15 touchdown catches, he now holds the record for the most in a single season at his position.
Giving another weapon to Tom Brady is like providing Superman with a set of brass knuckles.
In the NFL, there's a fine line between smart and stupid. And the Detroit Lions are on the wrong side of that line.
They have committed a whopping 32 penalties over the course of the past three games. Many of them have been of the unnecessary variety.
Cold Weather Games
Watching a game in freezing temperatures is must-see television. Watching a game in the snow is infinitely more entertaining.
Even more crucial, these elements can play a major role in the outcome.
In no place is the cold weather more prevalent than at the Packers' legendary arena.
The number of Green Bay losses at home in the postseason is minuscule. And when the Packers clinch home-field advantage, the NFC championship will run through Lambeau.
Chargers on a Hot Streak
One of the most disappointing teams in 2011, the San Diego Chargers have underachieved to the tune of a 6-7 record.
However, their latest result was a victory over the faltering Buffalo Bills. That has to bring about the idea that Philip Rivers and company could pull off the same last-gasp comeback they performed in 2008.
It's a long shot, but if the Bolts are to make the playoffs, they'll certainly be the hottest club in the game.
There's no sweeter way to exact revenge on a foe than to do it in postseason competition.
The New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers were swept in the regular year by the Patriots and Ravens, respectively. The Lions suffered their first loss of the regular season when they fell at the hands of the 49ers.
A game in October means plenty, but a victory in January can have lasting effect.
How Will the Texans Fare at QB?
The question of who will be starting behind center for the Texans may have been answered with T.J. Yates' performance in the past two weeks.
When Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down with injuries, Houston handed the ball to its third-string signal-caller with questions surrounding its permanence.
Yates was OK in his first start and was clutch in his second game at Cincinnati, throwing a late touchdown to clinch the AFC South title.
It's quite obvious that the Baltimore Ravens fare better when the ball is in the hands of Ray Rice. The fourth-year tailback has proven that in each of the last two weeks.
Against Cleveland, Rice ran for 204 yards and a touchdown. This past Sunday versus Indy, he had 103 more yards and one more TD.
Last year, nobody saw the New York Jets taking down the 14-2 New England Patriots in the Divisional round.
But this is what makes the playoffs great and unpredictable. Just as is the case with the regular season, it's hard to predict who will come out on top and surprises pop up on a regular basis.
Chris Johnson Back to Form
With three 100-plus yard games on the ground in three of his past five outings, it's possible that Chris Johnson has regained his old ways.
If he should be so fortunate to be part of the playoffs, it would be fun to watch.
While one C.J. is among the best running backs in the game, another is one of its top wideouts.
Calvin Johnson scored 11 TDs in the Lions' first eight games. Although he's tapered off to just one score since then, he is still among the most electrifying players to observe.
Jekyll and Hyde Saints
The New Orleans Saints are downright unbeatable inside the Superdome.
When out of their natural environment, it's a whole different story. New Orleans has been stifled at struggling Tampa Bay and lowly St. Louis. What's more, the Saints' potent offense is visibly less powerful on the road.
If you ever watch a game involving the Dallas Cowboys, you'd swear that their defensive coordinator was actually their head coach due to the amount of times the cameras is centered on him.
Just like the team he coaches, Ryan is a guy that you either like or loathe.
Willis McGahee's Revival
Tim Tebow's partner in the Broncos backfield is born-again McGahee, who has posted 100-plus rushing outputs in six games this season.
His high-water mark came in a November 6 game at Oakland, when McGahee ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
Mark Sanchez Improving
He was in danger of being benched by his head coach just a few weeks back. Now, it appears as if Mark Sanchez has hit his stride in leading the New York Jets offense.
In the past three games, he has thrown for seven touchdowns as New York has come out victorious in each of the contests.
Ray Lewis' Return
The future Hall of Fame linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens could be back on the field for a Week 15 matchup against San Diego.
More important, obviously, is that Lewis' leadership and skill will be present on the field when the playoffs roll around.
All the talk is about Aaron Rodgers running away with the NFL Offensive MVP. There is little discussion about who will take home the defensive honor.
That could very well be Terrell Suggs, who's in the midst of his best season as a pro. Without Lewis for a portion of this season, Suggs has 58 tackles, 13 sacks and two interceptions.
Family Reunion Redux?
Thanksgiving night was a showcase for the Harbaugh brothers, coaching their respective clubs in the 49ers-Ravens contest in Baltimore.
John came out on top in a hard-fought contest.
If they are to face each other again this season, it'll have to come in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. And won't that get a world of attention?
Victor Cruz's Dream Season
Where did this guy come from?
That's one of the biggest questions from those that don't normally follow the New York Giants.
Eli Manning's new favorite target came from obscurity to haul in two key touchdowns at Philadelphia. It's only gone uphill from there, as Cruz has more than 1,000 receiving yards to go along with seven touchdowns.
The rookie out of the University of Alabama is only going to get better. And that improvement could include his performances in the playoffs.
It all really got started on Nov. 6 in Indianapolis, when Jones torched the Colts for 131 receiving yards and the first two touchdowns of his pro career.
A Man Named Suh
Detroit's lack of discipline is best exemplified by defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.
Although talented, he is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode cost his team yardage. Even worse, he cost himself two games thanks to immoral conduct on the field causing a suspension by the league.
It'll be fascinating to see if he can control his temper...or if he'll step on another opponent.
Joe Flacco Maturing
In each of his three seasons as a professional, the University of Delaware product has been a part of the playoffs with the Baltimore Ravens.
With each passing postseason, Flacco has grown as a quarterback.
The 2011 campaign has seen more ups than downs. There was no bigger high than his comeback victory against the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Vets Going for Ring No. 1
The list of seasoned star players that have yet to taste glory in the Super Bowl is always a lengthy one each postseason.
Among those who could potentially be chasing their first title include Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez, Tennessee QB Matt Hasselbeck as well as Denver secondary teammates Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins.
Denver's Emerging Receivers
The Tim Tebow-led charge to first place for Denver isn't result of divine intervention.
His receivers have played a part in this success. The relatively unknown corps includes Eric Decker (eight receiving TDs), Demaryius Thomas (22.5 yards per catch) and Eddie Royal.
Sean Payton Aiming to Outsmart
The head coach of the New Orleans Saints is arguably the most intellectual of all.
His cerebral way of constructing his club's offense by way of Drew Brees is fascinating to watch. It will be even more so if he goes up against the likes of the Packers, Patriots or Ravens.
Romo Finally Comes Through?
The months of December and January haven't been particularly kind to this quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
Romo seems to crumble in late-season situations, but that could change in this go-around...provided he can qualify for the postseason.
Despite having had several games this year fall apart due to Romo's misdeeds, he has also led the Cowboys to a couple dramatic triumphs.
Big Ben Toughing It out
Ben Roethlisberger would feel kind of weird if he went into the playoffs perfectly healthy. That's because it seems he's always banged up.
This season, Big Ben's legs have been battered and beaten. Nevertheless, he's missed minimal action and still led the Steelers to a Thursday night victory over Cleveland despite a high ankle sprain that forced him off the field in the first half.
Possible Rematch of Opening Night
There's little disagreement with those who believe that the season's first game was its best.
Green Bay and New Orleans traded scores and put up a pile of yardage. It ended with a goal-line stuff by the Packers to preserve an eight-point victory.
It was a high-profile matchup on opening night...and it could be the NFC Championship.
Other Dream Conference Tilts
Green Bay-New Orleans is the NFC Championship that neutral fans want to see take place.
But there are many permutations which could yield a playoff contest that all of us would widely anticipate.
Rodgers, Pack a Major Target
When you put up ridiculous numbers and make the game of football look easy, it's only natural for the rest of the competition to have tremendous motivation to knock you down a peg.
And when it comes to postseason play, the stakes (and the payoff) are exponential.
The Super Bowl
This one is obvious. An entire season, including the playoffs, builds to this enormous showdown.
Regardless of the two teams that face off in the 46th edition of the NFL's championship tilt, it'll be highly anticipated and highly viewed.
Potential Super Bowl Matchups
The possibilities are endless, both in terms of pairings and storylines.
Who wouldn't want to see the Packers aim for perfection against the Patriots? Could we have a Super Bowl rematch? The Saints and Ravens would be a battle of great offense vs. stellar defense.
The Packers Go for History
Regardless of their record heading into the playoffs, Green Bay aims to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies.
If the Packers go 16-0 in the regular season, it'll make the historical proportions of their playoff run all the more significant.