They are the NFL’s top 12 teams, the best the league has to offer, but 11 of them will finish their season with a loss. That’s what makes the playoffs so dramatic and, ultimately, so fulfilling for one team. This weekend, a new season begins. It’s the one that counts and here’s a capsule look at the 12 teams chasing a championship, in the order of their seed.
1. Packers—They’re the mirror image of the AFC's top seed, the Patriots. The Packers take the game’s No. 3 offense and No. 32 defense into the postseason, against an NFC field that appears to be significantly stronger than the AFC’s. Might the Packers’ Lambeau Field advantage and the icy, wintry conditions that can be expected to accommodate it aid the defense in its attempt to play at something closer to its level of play in 2010? If that should occur, the Packers have the quarterback that can carry them to the Super Bowl. They are the reigning champions, they’re 15-1 and the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through Green Bay. What about that defense? It would seem to be the only question.
2. 49ers—Coach Jim Harbaugh has the defense and the running game to win in the cold. Quarterback Alex Smith has been more of a game manager than a catalyst to the 49ers offense. The 49ers are 29th in the league in pass-offense, and that could cause the 49ers to be overwhelmed by passers such as Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, whom the 49ers could find themselves facing in consecutive games.
3. Saints—Brees heads into the playoffs on a scorching-hot tear. He came from way back to finish the season with 46 touchdown passes, one more than Rodgers had thrown. The Saints have the league’s No. 1 offense and a sixth-ranked running game that can help a dome team win outdoors, but their No. 30 pass-defense is a liability. Should the Saints and Packers meet in the NFC title game, expect another shootout, as the two teams played in the Kickoff game way back on Sept. 8.
4. New York Giants—Don’t be fooled by their record; the Giants are a power team that can win anywhere and in any conditions. Osi Umenyiora is back and along with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, the Giants have the kind of terrorizing pass-rush that led them to an upset win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Quarterback Eli Manning has grown into a more dependable passer and the Giants No. 32 rush ranking is the most misleading stat of the season. Ahmad Bradshaw is back and is teaming, again, with Brandon Jacobs to give the Giants the thunder-and-lightning running game that carried them through the 2007 postseason. The Giants could find themselves in Green Bay for a rematch with the Packers in the divisional round.
5. Atlanta Falcons—Mike Smith’s team was up and down in 2011, but it finished on an upswing and that’s exactly what a team wants to take into the postseason. Quarterback Matt Ryan is on target and threw for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdown passes. Michael Turner finished third in the league in rushing and wide receiver Roddy White made an even-100 pass receptions to finish right behind Wes Welker for the NFL receptions title. The defense has made the greatest gains, all the way up to No. 12.
6. Detroit Lions—They are young and on the rise. Are they ready to make a run? The Lions closed the season with a flurry of yards and points against the Packers, both on offense and defense. They certainly have the playmakers on offense to win in the postseason. Now they need Ndamukong Suh to be the dominant defensive lineman he was prior to his Thanksgiving Day meltdown, and they need a banged up secondary to return to health because the Lions would face the most prolific passers in the league in consecutive games.
1. New England Patriots—They’re the conference’s top seed with the conference’s top quarterback-coach combination. The Patriots are everybody’s pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but they take with them into the postseason the league’s No. 31 defense, and that puts tremendous pressure on quarterback Tom Brady to play at the level at which he played when he won three Super Bowls. Can Brady still play at that level? That’s the No. 1 question facing the No. 1 team in the AFC. Brady hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2007 season.
2. Baltimore Ravens—The No. 2 seed, this would seem to be Ray Lewis’ best chance, maybe his last chance, to get back to the Super Bowl. The Ravens roll into the playoffs a hot team with impressive numbers on defense (third overall, second against the run and fourth against the pass). The defense, again, is ready for a postseason run. Is quarterback Joe Flacco ready to be “The Man”? At times, Flacco has turned the corner. At other times, he’s gone back into hiding. He finished the season with a very middle-of-the-pack 80.9 passer rating. Will he take his game to the championship level in this postseason, or will he falter as he did in the second half of last year’s playoff loss in Pittsburgh?
3. Houston Texans—Matt Schaub got them here, but he’s long gone to an injury and the quarterback position has fallen into grave uncertainty heading into the playoffs. The Texans will rely on the league’s No. 2 defense and No. 2 running game to make up for what they don’t have at quarterback. The Texans are one of three AFC playoff teams to have lost its regular-season finale, and nothing about the Texans would suggest they’re a hot team.
4. Denver Broncos—Don’t count out that old Tebow magic just yet. The Broncos might be 8-8 and their quarterback might have fallen on hard times down the stretch, but the Broncos will be playing at home in the wild-card round and they got the plum draw of the playoffs in a 12-4 Pittsburgh team that will be greatly depleted this weekend. The Broncos only have one statistical number about which they can brag: No. 1 in rushing. They’re No. 31 in passing and Tim Tebow has thrown interceptions in bunches recently, but his legs have a way of getting things done and he creates a lot of energy in Invesco Field.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers—Running back Rashard Mendenhall was lost to a torn ACL last Sunday, the Steelers also lost two cornerbacks for this game, safety Ryan Clark won’t play because the combined effects of a blood disorder and the altitude in Denver nearly cost him his life the last time he played there, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still hobbled by a high-ankle sprain. A season that appeared promising turned south in the final month.
6. Cincinnati Bengals—The AFC’s No. 6 seed qualified for the playoffs on the strength of a weak finishing kick that included a loss at home to the Ravens in Week 17. The league’s No. 7 defense hopes to find the Texans in a similar swooning posture. Additional coverage - Jan. 4