Who would have thought we would see this?
The Miami Dolphins, the AFC East Champions, are 11-5.
Their quarterback? Chad Pennington, the former New York Jets leader, thrown to the dogs after "King" Favre arrived.
We all saw how that turned out, right?
Oh, and by the way, the Dolphins were 1-15 last year. That is a 10-win differential, tying the 1999 Colts (with new addition Peyton Manning) as the greatest turnaround ever.
The Atlanta Falcons, 4-12 a year ago, suffering from the Michael Vick scandal and Bobby Petrino's hideous and ugly exit as head coach halfway through the season, is now a wild-card team, with a rookie quarterback and head coach.
The Arizona Cardinals, 9-7, have won their division (NFC West) for the first time since 1975, and will host a playoff game for the first time since 1947. They are led by 37-year-old veteran quarterback Kurt Warner.
Warner was considered at many times washed up prior to this season, but has revitalized his career as one of the premier passers in the game.
How bout' them Tennessee Titans? 13-3 with the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with Kerry Collins as their QB. Wow.
The Baltimore Ravens, 11-5, as the No. 6 seed with a rookie QB and head coach—just like the Falcons. They were 5-11 last year. Double "wow".
The Dallas Cowbo—oh wait, never mind.
Sarcasm aside, this year was one of change, and this year's playoffs indicate that. Five of the six playoff teams in the NFC were not in the postseason last year. Only the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Football Giants (12-4 and No. 1 seed) return to the postseason.
Even in the AFC, where you would see your normal teams in the postseason, there is some surprising results. The Colts, 12-4, but a #5 seed? The Chargers, winners of the putrid AFC West, are 8-8. Yes, 8-8.
The twelve playoff teams, unlike in recent years, all have more than a puncher's chance to make it to the Super Bowl. But, first thing is first, let's go through the wild-card matchups.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5) @ Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Okay, so we got the rookie Matt Ryan against the grizzled veteran Kurt Warner. You would think that the Cardinals would benefit from a shootout-type game, since their wide receivers are incredible.
Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Bolden are two Pro Bowlers that can basically make every catch, and get yardage after the catch as well. The Cardinals running game isn't there, so the air attack is paramount for Kurt Warner to execute at all times.
Meanwhile, the Falcons have one of the best rushers in the game in Michael Turner. That offensive line opens up massive holes for him to charge down the Cardinals weak defense.
But the one thing that would concern me if I was a Falcons fan is Matt Ryan. Sure, he is the Rookie of the Year, and has turned around a franchise in disarray—but he is still a rookie.
This is the playoffs, and they are a different beast from the regular season. Can Matty Ice handle the pressure of this type of big game?
Combine that with the fact the he has struggled in his last couple of games, and we could be talking about the dreaded "rookie wall".
As much as Arizona needs to step up defensively, if they can handle Michael Turner, then I expect Matt Ryan to really be pressured into make some costly mistakes.
Having said all of this, this is a tough call, but I actually like Arizona at home for this one. They are 6-2 at home, and can really demolish opponents through their stellar air game, and through Kurt Warner's experience in big games.
Give me the Redbirds (34-30).
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) @ Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
The Eagles got very lucky, and them some. They needed Oakland to beat Tampa Bay and Houston to beat Chicago in Week 17. Meanwhile, Philly crushed Dallas 44-6, and somehow made the playoffs. Now that they are in, and have won four of their five games, everyone is picking them to go into the Metrodome and beat the Vik-sters.
Well, I'm hear to tell you that Philly is never a sure bet. Out of the twelve playoff teams, the Eagles are by far the most inconsistent and streakiest team. One month, they are ripping off four-game winning streaks, the next month, they are tying the Bengals. I'm not saying that the Eagles are bad—but they tend to be inconsistent, no matter what time of year.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have been gaining momentum ever since Tarvaris Jackson was re-inserted as the starting QB. He's definitely productive, and has shown he can be clutch in certain situations. Adrian Peterson is obviously the big plus, with how he can create something huge out of nothing. Even Chester Taylor can do some big damage in this game.
Sure, the Eagles defense is aggressive and can play mind games with any QB, but I expect Tarvaris Jackson to overcome it, because he has experienced this type of defense before against the New York Giants, with Steve Spagnuolo at the helms.
Jim Johnson may be a genius, but it's something the Vikings have been accustomed to seeing before. The Vikings defense, I would say, is better that Philly's, and Jared Allen and Co. can feast upon McNabb.
Call me crazy, but I like the Vikings. The Eagles remind me of last year's Redskins. They got hot at the end of the season, were the six seed, but the whole season was inconsistent. They ended up getting ousted by a better team, the Seahawks. I expect the same in this game.
Give me the Vikings (24-17).
Indianapolis Colts (12-4) @ San Diego Chargers (8-8)
How bout' Peyton Manning, huh? The three-time MVP led the Colts to a nine-game winning streak after a 3-4 start, and all of this without a running game.
This is what separates the good quarterbacks from the great ones. Peyton deserves all the praise he has been given up to this point.
But now, he faces a team that has given him some nightmares, the Chargers. Ever since 2005, the Chargers have found a way to get to the Colts, whether it be in the regular season or postseason.
Sure, the Colts won this season's matchup at San Diego, but the rematch can very easily produce a different result.
The Chargers have been very hot, ripping off four games in a row, basically saving their season after starting 4-8. Thanks to the choke-artistry of the Denver Broncos, the Chargers managed to win the AFC West.
And that's why I like the Colts to win this game. Sure, the Chargers have had Peyton's number for the most part during his career, but the Chargers have faced terrible (or collapsing) teams in their four wins (Chiefs, Buccaneers, Broncos, Raiders).
And these are not the same Chargers from prior years—they aren't as productive on defense (although they have been playing more consistently down the stretch).
The Colts have beaten tough football teams, home and away. Because of their passing attack, and the return of Bob Sanders, the Colts should be able to win this game—even without their running game being effective.
The Chargers will definitely make this a game, with Philip Rivers playing outstandingly throughout the season, and LT playing healthy (I think). But the Colts win in a nail-biter.
Give me the Colts (27-24).
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) @ Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Believe it or not, I had a gut feeling the Dolphins were going to win this division. Do ask how or why, it was just a gut feeling.
Now, I don't know if I should choose my gut again. My head tells me this:
Head: Ravens, you idiot, pick the damn Ravens! Defense wins championships! Ed Reed! Ray Lewis!
Gut: Well, the Dolphins have Joey Porter, the heart and soul of that Dolphins team...
Head: Yeah, but the Dolphins are WEAK. The Ravens beat them to a pulp earlier in the season, in Dolphin Stadium! How good can a 1-15 team one year removed really be???
Gut: Their one win came against the Ravens, AT Dolphin Stadium...
Head: So? The Dolphins can't blow out weak opponents like Kansas City and Oakland!
Gut: Last year, the Giants played close games against bad teams. Look where that got them. Maybe playing close games helps you in the playoffs—it builds heart and determination. All of this stuff sounds like the Giants last year, right?
Head: Umm...I guess...but Chad Pennington can't win the big games!
Gut: Neither could Eli Manning, right? And can Joe Flacco, a rookie QB, who has been babied by Cam Cameron and the Ravens defense, get it done in crunch time against a good defense like Miami?
Head: Wow, this does sound like the Giants from last year...
Gut: Thank you.
My Head AND Gut choose the Dolphins (20-17)
NOTE: In no way did I suggest the Dolphins were going to be the Giants and stun everybody with a championship. But looking at this team, don't be surprised to see them representing the AFC in Tampa Bay.