In a year where everything in the NFL is turned on its head (the NFC looks superior, offense wins championships, Detroit is a playoff team), anyone who tells you they can predict what’s going to happen in the next month is delusional. Here’s to a wild Wild Card weekend. Enjoy the first installment of the 2012 NFL Playoff Power Rankings.
1. Green Bay Packers (15-1)
There has been eight different No. 1 seeds in NFC over the past eight years, with Green Bay rounding out the list. The last team to take the No. 1 seed all the way to the “Promised Land” was guess who? The 2009 Saints. Fitting that, given everything aligns, the Saints and Packers could be playing in the NFC championship game on Jan. 22. I still remember Week 1’s shootout in New Orleans. Maybe it’s too soon to call the elements into play, but Lambaeu Field in January will feel like Fargo. The Saints are 5-3 on the road, and if they’re going to reach Indianapolis, they’ll most likely need to beat the Niners and the Packers to get there. That’s a tall task away from the comfy Superdome.
2. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The Saints were one of only three teams to go undefeated at home this season – the Packers and Ravens were the others – and managed to outscore opponents by an average of 41-18 in New Orleans. One of those eight victories occurred in Week 13 over the Detroit Lions. We’ve heard it all about Drew Brees’ record-setting year. The Saints are this year’s sexy Super Bowl pick because of him. But what we haven’t heard a lot about is how the Saints’ defense has only allowed an average of 18.75 points per game during their current eight-game winning streak. Once again, Detroit can’t beat that.
3. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
How about a Harbowl II Super Bowl? Stranger things have happened. The Niners’ defense is legit, but here’s why I think San Francisco comes up short. In all likelihood, Alex Smith is going to have to beat New Orleans and then Green Bay at Lambeau to make it to Indy. And that’s a tall task for any team, let alone a bunch of playoff novices. It’s been a great year for San Fran. The future looks bright. But practically, the path put in front of this team is going to be too tough to navigate.
4. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Here’s a fun fact about the Ravens’ likely AFC championship game opponent: Tom Brady and the Pats didn’t beat a team with a winning record all season. That’s right, not one of their 13 wins was against a winning team. Now that’s not their fault, necessarily. You play who you play. But it does hint that the Pats just might be extremely beatable. Keep the ball on the ground. Make Ray Rice the centerpiece. This just might be the year for Joe Flacco, as long as there isn’t too much asked of Joe Flacco.
5. New England Patriots (13-3)
The Patriots allowed the second-most passing yards in NFL history this season and finished 31st in total defense. Guess who allowed the most passing yards in NFL history and finished 32nd this year in total defense? The Packers. And much like the Packers, the Patriots have made it work by dominating the one stat that means anything: turnovers. The Patriots finished +17, a full 10 turnovers better than the next closest AFC opponent (Texans). So why is everyone down on the Pats but still high on Green Bay? For me, it’s about who the Pats will have to play. The stronger teams may be in the NFC, but the stronger defenses are in the AFC. And if the Pats have to beat the Steelers and Ravens back-to-back, that may be too tough a road, even at home.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
No Rashard Mendenhall, no Ryan Clark, and a hobbled Big Ben. And still no one in America will take the Broncos? That tells you everything you need to know about this game. It’s going to be ugly. And the Steelers just happen to do ugly very well.
7. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Is this the year Matt Ryan finally breaks through in the postseason? Mike Smith doesn’t believe his team’s chances rest solely on Ryan’s shoulders. He’s only partially right. This one comes down to how well Atlanta’s offensive line handles the Giants’ pass rush. It’s gonna be a shootout, and I like the Falcons weapons to win it.
8. Houston Texans (10-6)
Wow. Bengals-Texans is the first playoff meeting between rookie QBs since 1950? That ought to make for a pretty ugly football game. Houston won in Cincy four weeks ago. They’ll do it again at home. Final score: 2-1.
9. New York Giants (9-7)
Calm down Giants fans. This is not 2008. For one, your defense is nowhere near the quality it was in ’08. And two, there are no free runs through the NFC this year. The Atlanta game is a toss-up. I’ll take the Falcons, but it could go either way. After that, you got no shot.
10. Detroit Lions (10-6)
Since the bye week, the Lions have given up 37, 35, 27, 31, 28, 27, 10 and 45. That Chargers game looks like an outlier rather than something to build on. Take it out and Detroit is giving up nearly 33 points per game in the second half. That type of defense isn’t going to get it done against the Saints.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Here are the teams Cincy has beaten this season: Cleveland, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Indy, Seattle, Tennessee, St. Louis and Arizona. Just one win against a team over .500 (9-7 Titans). What am I saying? Cincy has no shot. Even against a banged up T.J. Yates.
12. Denver Broncos (8-8)
Let’s face it, the Broncos aren’t a very good football team. Though, you don’t have to be a very good football team when you play at home against a quarterback with one leg. At some point this month, Mike Tomlin is going to pay for playing his QB in December. Will it be Sunday at Mile High? Probably not. The Steelers can take away McGahee. That means Denver will need to win the game with its passing game. Which would take a miracle…