The NFL playoffs are so close, you can practically taste it. With four recent champs set to make the tournament, this should be the most exciting four weeks in sports.
We have grizzled vets, up-and-comers and some final shots at glory. Who will emerge as your 2011 champs? The following is a preview of the six teams most likely to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.
No team in the AFC has more firepower on both sides of the ball than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mike Wallace is the fastest player in the league, Antonio Brown has emerged as a 1,000-yard receiver, Rashard Mendenhall is a dangerous back and Ben Roethlisberger is a veteran of three Super Bowls. On defense they feature two perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
The question for this team is will the health of this veteran unit allow them to play at full strength?
Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey are still recovering from ankle injuries, while their Pro Bowl outside linebackers Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have barely played a game together.
If healthy the Steelers are a guarantee for at least a conference championship game appearance. If not, it could be a quick and disappointing end for this roster of 30-somethings.
At times the Baltimore Ravens have looked like the best team in the AFC. However, some ugly losses along the way throw their Super Bowl contention up in the air.
The Ravens have a great mix of youth and veteran leadership.
Ray Lewis desperately wants to go out on top and see his buddy Ed Reed hold up the Lombardi Trophy. Ray Rice might be the most complete back in the league and Torrey Smith gives them a much-needed (though inconsistent) deep threat.
The only thing stopping this team is themselves.
As long as the squad that laid an egg against the San Diego Chargers does not rear its ugly head, pencil the Ravens in for a deep playoff run.
With all respect to the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints may have emerged as the most dangerous team in the NFC.
Drew Brees is playing at an all-time level, and the defense has held up its end of the bargain in the Saints’ current six-game winning streak. Heading into the final game of the year, New Orleans has its eyes set on a first-round bye and is playing at the level that led them to the 2009 Super Bowl.
My guess is we are destined for a rematch of Week 1, featuring the last two Super Bowl champs. That game went down to the final play, and the Packers could easily come out on the wrong end in the playoffs.
The Saints and Packers both have record-setting, Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks. They have questionable but opportunistic defenses. If and when they clash in the playoffs, it should be the game of the year.
If the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl, they will likely be remembered as the greatest team of all time. We all know how good this team is, so I will point out my two concerns.
The first is the health of their offensive line.
As great as Aaron Rodgers is, no quarterback can win lying on his back. It is the game plan the Kansas City Chiefs followed in their Week 15 upset, which set the blueprint for what every team will try to do to the Packers in the playoffs.
The other concern is their defense.
They have incredible playmakers all over the field, but if you do not turn the ball over, this D is vulnerable. All season I have been waiting for them to put a stop to the staggering yardage totals they have allowed, but this may be the true face of their defense. Again, they thrive on opportunity, so if you control the ball you can beat the Green Bay Packers.
This New York Giants team looks eerily similar to the one that shocked the world and won the Super Bowl in 2006.
Maddeningly inconsistent and trying to barely squeak into the playoffs, the Giants are capable of beating anyone or being knocked out in the first round. Eli Manning is playing the best football of his career and has done it before. Jason Pierre-Paul is emerging as one of the elite defensive ends in the NFL and is a complete game-changer.
We do not know which Giants team will show up or if they will even make the postseason, but they are the dark horse threat to shock us all. Again.
I do not buy the New England Patriots as a true Super Bowl threat, but Tom Brady gives them a puncher’s chance.
Virtually every year in every sport the old adage that defense wins championships is proven true, and the Patriots have one of the worst defenses I have seen in awhile. Basically their only chance at victory is to lure a team into a shootout.
Anyone that can put pressure on Brady and win the turnover battle will beat the Patriots.
From what I have seen, first-year teams in the playoffs normally struggle. The Detroit Lions have enough talent to potentially be the exception.
It took Peyton Manning years to win his first playoff game. Even Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lost in their first try, but a team with the Lions' ability has to be mentioned.
Calvin Johnson is the most dangerous threat in the NFL, and Matthew Stafford has emerged as an elite quarterback in his first healthy season. The defense has plenty of playmakers led by the volatile Ndamukong Suh.
History is against the Lions, and I certainly would not bet on them. At the same time, this team is young, hungry and dangerous.
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