Now that the final playoff spot is determined, after the San Diego Chargers laid waste to their division rivals, here is my view of how the road to Super Bowl XLIII will play out. Believe it or not, the road in the AFC won't travel through Tennessee. The Wild Card teams will play a major factor in the playoffs again this year. Multiple regular season rematches are in the cards for this year.
The Final Seeding for the Playoffs: In the AFC, Tennessee secured the number one seed defeating Pittsburgh a week ago, which gave the Steelers the number two seed. Miami winning today over the New York Jets gives them an 11-5 record and the number three seed in the playoffs. San Diego is given the fourth seed because they won their division, even though they end the season at 8-8.
The Wild Card teams, and probably the hottest teams in the AFC right now, start at number five, the Indianapolis Colts, who shut out the Titans with their starters only playing one series. The Baltimore Ravens secured the sixth seed with a win yesterday, which keeps the New England Patriots at home this postseason.
In the NFC, New York locked up the number one seed in the same fashion as Tennessee, by beating the Panthers in a head to head game. However, Carolina needed a victory yesterday to have the number two seed. They won a nail-biter against New Orleans to get the number two seed.
Minnesota gets the number three seed by being the NFC North Champions and having a 10-6 record compared to the number four seed Arizona Cardinals' 9-7 record. The Wild Card teams are Atlanta and Philadelphia. Atlanta gets the fifth seed because of a better record.
Now to the games. This weekend is Wild Card weekend, and on Saturday at 4:30pm (all times are Eastern time) Arizona will host Atlanta. Atlanta and Arizona both won close games in week 17, but with Atlanta's second-ranked rushing offense at 152 yards per game versus Arizona's 16th-ranked rush defense, giving up over a 100 yards a game, Atlanta wins.
San Diego will get to host a game even though their opponent has a better record. Indy is the hot team right now, winning nine straight games, while San Diego had to claw and scratch their way in. The Colts' offense wins this game.
On Sunday, Miami will host the Baltimore Ravens. Miami's Cinderella season will come to an end when they face the number two defense in the NFL—Ed Reed and a Ravens defense that leads the league in interceptions (26) against Chad Pennington's 10th-ranked passing offense that only has eight plays for over 40 yards. Baltimore wins this game because of defense.
The late game on Sunday features Minnesota hosting Philadelphia. After putting up 44 points against a good Dallas defense and Minnesota squeaking by the Giants on a last second field goal, my pick is the Eagles in the game of running backs—Westbrook versus Peterson.
The Divisional Round has rematches from the regular season. The lowest remaining seed travels to the house of the number one seeds. The Ravens will go south to Tennessee, and the Eagles will travel to New York for an NFC East rematch.
Baltimore learns from their mistakes or a phantom roughing the passer call on Baltimore that cost them the game. Sorry, Pittsburgh Fans, you won't get a chance to avenge the towel stomping. Baltimore beats Tennessee by 10 points.
The other games pit the Colts on the road against the Steelers again and Atlanta traveling to Carolina. These will great games to watch—one a defensive battle and the other a running back game.
Last year an AFC South team beat the Steelers at home twice in one season—a Steelers first. Expect the same thing again this year when Indianapolis comes back to Pittsburgh. This will be a low-scoring game, even though the last meeting put up 45 total points. Reggie Wayne won't get to two tipped passes his way again, and if Roethlisberger can't return, the Steelers' chances of a Super Bowl run have dropped.
As for the Panthers/Falcons game, the NFC South has lost fewer than five times at home this season, and the running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will propel the Panthers to the Conference Championship game for the second time this decade.
The Conference Championship games will be rematches as well. First on the AFC side, where I think for the first time both teams are from the Wild Card round meeting in the conference championship, in a rematch from week six, where the Colts dominated a Ravens defense 31-3. Baltimore will play a better game, but the Colts offense has too many weapons, and the Colts will be in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
On the NFC side, this rematch won't be for home field advantage—it will be for a chance to play on the biggest stage in sports. Sorry to anybody who wants to see an all-Manning Super Bowl on the 50th anniversary of the greatest game ever played—it's not going to happen.
The Panthers are going to learn how to finish games and not blow big leads to dangerous teams if you let them hang around. Just like in 2003, when the Panthers flew under the radar, defeating the Eagles to go the Super Bowl, the Panthers will beat the Giants to play for it all.
Super Bowl XLIII will be an offensive showcase of superstar players. Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Joseph Addai, Jonathan Stewart, and the others will make for an exciting game. In the end, the Colts and Peyton Manning will make more big plays, giving Adam Vinatieri a chance to win the game on a final field goal like he did in 2003, when he was with the New England Patriots.
Colts win the Super Bowl 38-35, making the last four Super Bowl Champions from the Wild Card round. The MVP will be none other than Peyton Manning.