There hasn't been a repeat champion since the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004. This Saturday, we begin another march to the Super Bowl on Wild-Card Weekend.
Four games will decide which eight teams will play for the right to play for their respective conference championships. Two games are rematches and the others match a rookie against a veteran and the NFL's top rusher against an inspired defense.
Saturday: Falcons at Cardinals, 4:30 PM
The Falcons have not been to the playoffs since embattled quarterback Michael Vick took them to the NFC championship game in 2004. The Cardinals are in their first home playoff game since 1947 and in the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Both teams play in controlled, indoor climates, so the elements will not play a factor in this matchup. Atlanta is second in the league in rushing, while Arizona boasts the NFL's most explosive offense.
How Arizona Can Win
Offense, offense, offense. The Cardinals will spread the field with as many as five wide receivers to attack the Atlanta secondary, and with three of them with at least 1,000 yards receiving, it will be hard for the Falcons to match up personnel wise.
With not much of a running threat present (ranked last), Arizona finished third in the league in scoring and will look to throw to the ball up and down the field.
Arizona must protect quarterback Kurt Warner at all costs against the Atlanta pass rush, especially John Abraham, who finished fourth in the NFL with 16.5 sacks.
How Atlanta Can Win
A balanced attack with the best free-agent pick-up of last offseason, Michael Turner, took the Falcons offense to new heights and with Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan guiding a precision passing attack, Atlanta will look to give the Arizona defense a lot of different looks.
The Falcons ranked second in the league in rushing at 152.7 yards per game and scored 23 rushing touchdowns (17 for Turner, four for Jerious Norwood, two tied with one) so look for them to pound the ball down Arizona's throat and strike deep off of play action with Pro Bowler Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who stepped up to become Ryan's second option.
A toughness was established on both the offensive and defensive lines in Atlanta so look for the battle in the trenches to be a key matchup.
Atlanta just seems to be playing too good right now and look to be balanced on both sides of the ball; Arizona virtually tanked the end of the season and it will be hard for them to flip the switch come Saturday.
Result: Falcons advance
Saturday: Colts at Chargers, 8 PM
Peyton Manning showed why is the MVP back in Week 12, leading the Colts to a game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The Colts quarterback went 4-of-6 for 37 yards on the final drive to set up Vinatieri's winning kick. Manning finished with 255 passing yards and two touchdowns.
The Colts converted both of their fourth-down attempts: First, Manning hit Dominic Rhodes on a one-yard touchdown pass. Then, he connected with Marvin Harrison on 4th-and-1 to put Vinatieri in position to make the winning kick.
The Colts will be looking to extract some revenge from their divisional playoff loss to San Diego last year at home when backups Billy Volek and Darren Sproles sparked a 28-24 upset en route to the AFC Championship game.
For San Diego, this season was a long, hard journey back to the postseason. After a 4-8 start, a four-game winning streak has them in the playoffs with the AFC West title for the fourth time in five years.
How San Diego Can Win
Philip Rivers was denied the Pro Bowl this season, leading the NFL with 34 touchdown passes. Though his main target Antonio Gates did not have his typical season, he found another gem in Vincent Jackson who had over 1,000 yards receiving. At 6'5", Jackson gives Rivers that matchup problem against undersized corners so look for this duo to hook up multiple times on Saturday.
Though not at 100 percent all season, LaDanian Tomlinson earned all 1,110 yards rushing to go along with 10 touchdowns. Darren Sproles is also a key weapon in all three phases, scoring seven total touchdowns (five rushing, one each receiving and a kick return).
Though the Charger defense has progressively gotten better since Ron Rivera took over in the second half of the season, it has been the offense that has carried this team.
How Indy Can Win
Looking for his second Super Bowl in three years Peyton Manning is on a mission to get back to the Super Bowl and operating with some backup offensive linemen and a dreadful running game, Manning had probably his best season with his NFL-record ninth consecutive 4,000-yard passing season.
Bothered by a sore knee and a 3-4 start, Manning took the team on his back in comeback wins in Minnesota, Houston, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and San Diego (all in the fourth quarter) and the Colts won 12 games for the sixth straight season.
Look for Manning to spread the field with his receivers and tight ends, launching an aerial assault against one of the NFL's worst pass defenses.
Manning is a man possessed and looking to reclaim the throne from his brother. Though you have to favor San Diego at home, Indy is playing at too high of a level.
Result: Colts advance
Sunday: Ravens at Dolphins, 1 PM
One of the NFL's greatest turnarounds get its chance to shine in the postseason as Miami hosts its first playoff game since 2001. Led by two-time Comeback Player of the Year in quarterback Chad Pennington, the Dolphins feature a precise, exotic offense and a punishing, physical defense.
The Baltimore Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time since winning the AFC North in 2006 and they seem more dangerous on defense and offense. Led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and rookie head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens seem poised to claim their first world title since 2000.
How Miami Can Win
Since unveiling the "Wildcat" formation back in Week Three, defenses have been scratching their heads as to how to stop it. Miami can run and throw out of multiple versions of this formation and gain big plays down the field.
Chad Pennington has had a rebirth in South Florida with his best pro season (3653 yards, 19 TD) guiding a precision passing attack. Ted Ginn, Jr. has gone from a huge question of a draft pick to one of the league's best up and coming receivers and Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have become one of the best running back duos in the NFL.
Miami boasts one of the league's top defenses, anchored by Joey Porter who backed up his words with a Pro Bowl season racking up 17.5 sacks.
How Baltimore Can Win
After a slow start, rookie Joe Flacco has found his sea legs in the NFL and gives the Ravens a passing threat not seen in a while. He has shown a knack for playing better on the road, boasting a passer rating of 91.7.
Le'Ron McClain went from short-yardage fullback to a poor man's Brandon Jacobs, rushing for almost 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Playing with practically one arm, Derrick Mason continued to make the big plays when called upon and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the seventh time in eight seasons.
On defense, Ray Lewis continues to be the on and off the field leader. The man that epitomizes dedication, Lewis had another great season on the stat sheet (117 total tackles, four sacks, three picks) and his impact was felt by teammates and opponents.
Let's give Ed Reed some Defensive MVP votes, huh? One of the NFL's top safeties was a terror in the defensive backfield, grabbing nine interceptions.
This could be the most even matchup all weekend, but I have to go with Pennington and his postseason experience.
Result: Miami advances
Sunday: Eagles at Vikings, 4:30 PM
This is the Vikings' first home playoff game since 2000, and the Eagles are playing some real inspired football, winning three of their last four.
How Philadelphia Can Win
Since the Eagles will not have a home playoff game, look for their defense to continue to step up and make big plays on the road. Though Tarvaris Jackson has played well since his return, an eight-man box and exotic blitzes from Jim Johnson will be in full effect to stop Adrian Peterson and the Vikings receivers.
Peterson was the NFL's leading rusher in 2008 with over 1700 yards rushing and stopping him will be the defense's number one priority come Sunday. Though he may not get the ball on every play, Peterson affects the game even without the rock so assignments along the defensive side of the football will be crucial as well as tackling because it's hard enough to stop number 28 on the line of scrimmage.
Since his benching, Donovan McNabb has played like one of the NFL's elite passers again and Brian Westbrook has come back to his versatile nature. Play calling has also been key, as the Eagles now boast a much more balanced attack through the air and on the ground.
Look for McNabb to come out firing on all cylinders, especially to rookie speedster DeSean Jackson, who despite many key drops, became a big-play threat. Brian Westbrook will also look to be the other key ingredient in Andy Reid's gameplan. Screens, draws and circle routes are just some ways for the Eagles to get him in mismatches against linebackers in open space.
Philadelphia can also spread the field against a suspect secondary that only gathered 12 interceptions.
How Minnesota Can Win
Adrian Peterson has over 3,000 yards rushing in his first two NFL seasons and he will have a big task in his hands as he faces an angry, driven Eagles defense that is fourth overall in the league. A consistent passing attack will be key as Tarvaris Jackson will be under tremendous duress all game long so production from Bernard Berrian will be crucial.
If Jackson can make big plays down the field, it can loosen up the defense for Peterson. Jackson's elusiveness from the pocket could also be key to keep plays alive. Minnesota's defense will also be key in this game.
A powerful defensive line anchored by Jared Allen, who lived up to his contract by racking up 14 sacks will be vital in putting pressure on McNabb and stopping Westbrook from gaining yardage both running and receiving.
The HHH Dome will be fired up for the first home playoff game since 2000, but I really see too many weapons for the men in green for the Vikings to stop and we complete our Elite Eight.
Result: Eagles advance
Wild Card Weekend should be fun and as the past has proven (see my article on the greatest wild card games ever) we could be in for some great moments.
Enjoy the weekend!