You wouldn't find a lot of argument against the statement that the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints are the two best teams in the NFC. You also wouldn't find a whole lot of disagreement if you said they were the best teams in the NFL. The balance of power has certainly seemed to shift to the NFC this season. On balance, you'd have to say that the NFC playoff field is stronger top to bottom than the AFC.
That said, the AFC has some "old money" contenders. Teams like the Steelers and Pats have seemingly been in the Super Bowl hunt every year for the past decade and have a hat full of Lombardi trophies to show for it. You can never discount them, but are they as scary as they have been in the past?
In our NFL playoffs preview we'll go team by team and try to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Let's start with the AFC.
Patriots - There is no team that has cruised into the postseason with a softer schedule and with less quality wins than the Patriots. In fact, it's not even possible to have less quality wins than the Pats because they have none. They played only two teams with winning records (Giants and Steelers) and lost both games at home. Combine that with the fact that they have literally the worst defense in the NFL and this would appear to be the softest 13-3 team ever.
That said, they still have Bill Belichick. They still have Tom Brady. And while this team isn't as good as what they've had in the past, you can't forget that these guys have won three Super Bowls together.
Ravens - The anti-Pats are the Ravens, who played 7 games against teams with winning records (thanks to their vastly superior division) and went 6-1 in those games. There's no doubt that the Ravens have been inconsistent this season, but more than any other team in the AFC, they've shown an ability to get up for big games.
The question with Baltimore this year is the same it was last year and the one previous. Can Joe Flacco step in the postseason and lead his team to wins? He has not proven that he can yet.
Texans - It's really a bummer what has happened to the Texans with injuries. They lost both QB Matt Schaub and DE Mario Williams for the season and while the fact that they still are a good defense and their running game can keep them competitive, it's hard to see this team as any kind of real threat. With Schaub healthy earlier this year though, they really looked like they could play with anyone.
Broncos - We all know the story with Denver at this point. Tim Tebow got the starting the job, they reeled off six straight wins despite some historically poor play on his part and "Tebowmania" gripped the nation. Then, as quickly as it came, it went. The luck ran out, Tebow started turning the ball over & just didn't have the ability to make plays when needed. The Broncos have done an admirable job hiding his deficiencies (you know, throwing the ball) but it was always going to catch up with them. Here's some food for thought. Tebow completed just 47% of his passes this season. Only two QBs have ever been worse in a season. Akili Smith and our old pal Mike McMahon in the 2005 season where he filled in for Donovan McNabb.
However, just because he runs more than any other quarterback doesn't mean he necessarily runs more effectively. In 117 carries, he fumbled six times, two more than any other quarterback. (Cam Newton also ran 117 times, and he didn't fumble on any of them.) Tebow had 29 carries on third or fourth down that failed to pick up a new set of downs. That's more than any other player in the league, including all running backs. And he only started 11 games!
Denver backed into the playoffs at 8-8 and now have drawn the Steelers.
Steelers - While you might think that Steelers should crush the Denver Tebows, they are not without their own issues. Rashard Mendenhall was lost for the year with an ACL last week. Ben Roethlisberger is beat up... However, Isaac Redman has proven to be a capable RB averaging 4.4 ypc this year and rushing for 93 yards in Mendenhall's place in week 17. It's hard to see them going into Denver and losing.
Bengals - Here's the problem with Cincy. The Schaub-less Texans aren't the worst draw in round one (although Houston did win in Cincy less than a month ago), but they're probably going to have to beat one of their AFC North rivals, Baltimore or Pittsburgh, to advance further. And in four tries this year, they've failed to do that. Plus, against good competition, Cincy has been pretty bad. They faced 7 playoff teams this year and lost every game. That accounts for all 7 of their losses. Unlike the Pats though, they did at least beat one team with a winning record, the 9-7 Titans.
Steelers over Broncos
Texans over Bengals
Steelers over Patriots
Ravens over Texans
Ravens over Steelers
Green Bay Packers - They've got homefield throughout, they've got a great QB, a killer offense, only lost one game all year, they're defending champs... There's a reason that most people see this as the best team in the NFL. There are warts though. They've got the second worst defense in the league in terms of yards and often rely on getting turnovers. But what happens when they face a QB like say, Drew Brees, who doesn't turn the ball over? All that said, it's very tough to see someone heading up to Lambeau and beating them.
And they're tough. They went 6-0 this year against playoffs teams.
New Orleans Saints - I doubt that anyone is going to go down to the Superdome and beat the Saints. Problem is, they're only guaranteed one home game and history shows us that dome teams playing outside in the playoffs lose pretty often. Even these same Saints went up to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks last season as a heavy favorite and lost. But if they beat the Lions, they'll only have to go to San Francisco in the second round. Not a cold weather/scary place to play. But after that, a likely trip to Green Bay looms. That doesn't bode well for a dome team. All that said, New Orleans went 6-1 against playoff teams this year, which ties Baltimore & Green Bay for the most quality wins in the league.
San Francisco 49ers - It's hard to know what to make of the 49ers. They played in a terrible division and racked up a nice record beating up on it. They also had the weak NFC East on their schedule this season, so their gaudy 13-3 record could be a bit misleading. That said, they do have a couple quality wins. They beat the Bengals in Cincy and whipped the Steelers in that odd blackout game in San Fran.
Here are my two main concerns with San Fran however. Their #1 strength is stopping the run, but no NFC playoff team, other than Atlanta, needs to run the ball to win. Plus, anytime you have the worst QB amongst the playoff teams, that's a bad thing. Alex Smith has had a good year, but not a dynamic one. If he was in a draft tomorrow with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matt Stafford & Matt Ryan clearly they'd all be picked before him. Of course the irony is that he was in the real draft with Rodgers and went first...
New York Giants - The Giants have the worst record of all the NFC playoff teams, but get a home game for having won the weak NFC East. They were awful to end the year, losing 5 of their last 8. But the Giants are an odd team. They can get dominated by the Redskins one week and then play a great game against the Patriots the next. They really seem to play to their competition... at times. It is worth noting that the Giants played San Francisco, New Orleans & Green Bay in the second half of this season and lost all three games. They were competitive at San Fran and at home to Green Bay, but were destroyed by New Orleans.
So it will really come down to which Giants team shows up. I have trouble seeing them going on the road and beating Green Bay in the next round and certainly they'd have no shot against New Orleans in the NFCCG, but having a dome team like Atlanta coming up to New York this weekend is not the worst matchup.
Atlanta Falcons - This is a team I have very little confidence in. For one, Matt Ryan, who has that "Matty Ice" nickname, has anything but "ice" in his veins in the postseason. He's 0-2 with 6 turnovers in his career. So all the pressure is on him to finally show something in a big game.
Plus, this is a very soft team. We already know that they play in a dome, which means like all dome teams they're awful outside in the postseason. They played in five games against playoff teams this year and lost all but one.
Detroit Lions - Speaking of soft teams... The Lions have the great combination of being soft and dumb. They did not beat a single team with a winning record this season (0-5) and beat just one playoff team, the Denver Broncos. They built up a big rep early in the season by beating up on the drek of the leauge (Tampa, Minnesota, & KC) but folded in every big game they played.
Plus, you can count on them taking a dumb penalty or two simply out of a lack of discipline. Their poor pass defense will get shredded by Drew Brees, the question is whether their own high powered offense can keep them in this game. There's no doubt that Matt Stafford and co and can pout points, but many times this year we've seen them fall behind thanks to a slow start and have a big second half. That's not going to work against the Saints.
Saints over Lions
Giants over Falcons
Packers over Giants
Saints over 49ers
Packers over Saints