— The NFL playoffs are always wide open. This year is just more obvious than usual.
There are legitimate Super Bowl contenders at the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds both conferences, especially in the NFC with the Saints and Packers. That should provide a fun postseason and a compelling wild-card round.
Here’s an early quick look at storylines for the eight teams playing on wild-card weekend.
Defending champs in prime position
The Saints should become the first champion since the 2005 Patriots to win a playoff game. Unlike that New England team (who eventually lost in the divisional round), the Saints are peaking at the right time.
New Orleans is 7-2 since Halloween, with the only loss coming in Baltimore and in Week 17 when Drew Brees didn’t finish the game. Despite the No. 5 seed, the Saints are my NFC pick to make it to the Super Bowl because they are balanced.
The defense doesn’t force turnovers like last season, but its better overall at preventing points and long drives. That’s more important.
On offense, the return of Pierre Thomas and the emergence of Chris Ivory gives the team a dangerous running game again. Wideout Marques Colston’s recent knee troubles are a concern, but he should be back next weekend.
The Saints may as well rest him because they aren’t losing in Seattle. Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may be the two best game-planners on their respective sides of the ball in the NFC. Those are skills that amplify in the playoffs.
Despite New Orleans’ season-ending loss, the Saints are in prime position.
The Seahawks have a quarterback dilemma
Pete Carroll has a tough quarterback decision to make. Roll with Charlie Whitehurst again after a solid effort against the Rams or go with Matt Hasselbeck? It looks like the veteran will be ready, and his experience would be useful against the Saints' complicated blitzes.
It sounds strange, but Carroll could go with Whitehurst because he’s looking to the future. Hasselbeck isn’t likely to be back in Seattle next year and the experience would be good for Whitehurst. No matter who starts, Seattle doesn’t have the talent to hang with New Orleans.
The 12th man is great, but it can only do so much. Seattle wasn’t competitive at home against the Chiefs, Giants, or Falcons.
Did Vikings provide the blueprint to beat Michael Vick?
Things change fast in the NFL. In just one week, Michael Vick went from a leading MVP candidate to someone that could possibly get benched if he continues to struggle. It's unlikely we’ll see Philadelphia use Kevin Kolb against the Packers, but the underlying reasons for the rumors are telling.
The Giants and especially the Vikings bruised and battered Vick repeatedly by sending blitz after blitz that he struggled to recognize. (The offensive line and running backs need to protect better too.)
The loss to Minnesota was devastating because Philadelphia’s road to the Super Bowl is so much harder now. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the versatile, attacking defense with a strong secondary that can confuse the Eagles.
Aaron Rodgers gets his chance to prove he’s NFC’s best
Michael Vick is the Pro Bowl starter. Matt Ryan leads the No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons. Drew Brees is the defending Super Bowl MVP.
Despite all that, I’d take Aaron Rodgers over all of the above. A lot of NFL personnel evaluators would agree.
This is a nice matchup for the Packers. While Green Bay is a young team, they actually have more experience than a young group of Eagles. The continuity of Green Bay’s offense helped them survive injuries this year and thrive late in the season.
Philadelphia’s secondary played inconsistently this year, and they miss rookie free safety Nate Allen. Rodgers has a golden opportunity to prove he’s the conference’s best signal caller.
Rodgers will take a playoff win over a Pro Bowl appearance any day.
Jets still searching for last year’s defense
After New York’s Week 16 loss to the Bears, Jets coach Rex Ryan said his defense was searching for its old swagger. They better find it fast. (A beatdown against the Brian Brohm-led Bills doesn’t count.)
The Jets can’t be happy they drew the Colts. Ryan said last year that Peyton Manning was his “kryptonite” and that’s when New York’s defensive unit was the league's best. They are a good, not great group that struggles to pick off passes (25th in the league) and create consistent pressure.
Offenses adjusted to Ryan’s schemes this year and his players didn’t create enough game-changing moments. You never know what Jets team is going to show up in a given week on either side of the ball.
After 17 weeks into a drama-filled season, we don’t know who these Jets are.
The Colts look to replicate 2006 formula
The 2006 Colts championship team wasn’t the most dominant Colts team of the last decade. They won because they suddenly started controlling the ball on the ground and stopping the run late.
This year’s squad has a lot in common with that group, right down to the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Colts have found a modicum of balance on offense with running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai running well the last three weeks. The defense has shut down Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, and Chris Johnson in successive games.
There is no doubting the 2010 Colts have a lot of heart. At 6-6, they ripped off four straight wins to make the playoffs despite having 17 players on injured reserve.
The biggest question is whether Peyton Manning and the passing attack can be explosive enough. No team threw for more passing yards this year, yet the Colts were below average in yards-per-attempt.
For another surprising title run, Manning needs his supporting cast to step it up even further. It’s happened before.
Ravens catch a break
If Titans quarterback Kerry Collins doesn’t make like Joe Pisarcik on Sunday, the Ravens would likely be headed to Indianapolis. Collins’ last minute fumble in Week 17 set up a Colts win, which subsequently sent Baltimore to Kansas City for a wild card game.
This is a matchup the Ravens should embrace. The Colts have owned Baltimore in the playoffs, and the Chiefs are the weakest AFC playoff team. Baltimore will only face Indianapolis if both teams make the AFC Championship.
The Ravens can become the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game in each of the last three years. This is a well constructed group with rare balance that is built to make the Super Bowl. Their path isn’t easy out of the No. 5 seed, but it could be a lot worse.
Chiefs need Charles in Charge
Kansas City got this far by beating up on the NFL’s weak sisters. They went 8-2 against teams that finished with a losing record and 2-4 against teams .500 or better. Their best win came in the season opener against the Chargers.
The Chiefs were mostly content to run the football and avoid mistakes (second fewest turnovers.) The Chiefs easily ran more than any team in the league because they played to their strengths.
Running back Jamaal Charles had a truly special season. He joined Jim Brown as the only running back since 1963 to average 6.3 yards-per-carry and rush for 1,400 yards. He’s a huge threat as a receiver and can change a game on any touch.
Kansas City only beats Baltimore if their biggest strength (Charles) can overwhelm the Ravens’ biggest strength (rush defense.) Charles is electric enough to pull it off.