by Russ Bliss 1/6/11

It's NFL playoffs time! While there is plenty of excitement for playoffs fantasy football leagues, I am much more in my "NFL fan" mode now than anything else. The NFL playoffs are exciting and every year I like to put my predictions down. This year is no different and I have my playoffs predictions, including my Super Bowl 46 winner ready to be unveiled. Now that I've broken down what our Analyzer software playoffs predictions were, I can concentrate on how I see things going over throughout the playoffs.

I don't do each individual game (however I will have those predictions in my fantasy football blogs post before each Saturday) here. Instead I look at each team and what I think their chances are.

Here's my look at the AFC teams in order of seed:

New England Patriots: If not for Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, Tom Brady would be the NFL MVP this season again. Like Brees he shattered Dan Marino's single season passing yards record, but came in 241 yards shy of Brees. The Patriots offense is more multi-dimensional than many think as they have a plethora of weapons to throw to, including Wes Welker and TE's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They also ran for an average of over 110 yards per game and only 2 teams had more rushing TD's. Their running game lacks a true #1 RB, but their committee approach with lead RB Stevan Ridley, 3rd down RB Danny Woodhead, and goal line RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is effective as a combo threat. And while the Patriots defense gets maligned for giving up the second most yards of any team in the league, they rank 15th in points allowed. They may give up the yards, but they don't allow those yards to translate into TD's nearly as often. With home field advantage in the AFC, the Patriots are one of 3 teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the AFC.

Baltimore Ravens: RB Ray Rice led all RB's in combined rushing and receiving yards with 2,068 and was second in TD's scored with 15. While at times this season the Ravens have failed to use him like they should, it's doubtful they forget what makes their offense go in the playoffs. QB Joe Flacco hasn't been anything special of late having thrown for under 200 yards in 4 of the last 6 games, but he's been efficient and led the Ravens to an undefeated record at home this season. The Ravens defense has again been strong ranking 3rd overall and giving up the second fewest yards per play. They also allowed the 3rd fewest points to opponents. The offense hasn't scored over 24 points in any of their last 6 games, but they scored 29 or more in 6 of their first 10, so we know the offensive firepower is there if needed. The healthy return of Anquan Boldin should be of help to their passing game and with both Lee Evans and Torrey Smith stretching defenses, Boldin, along with TE's Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta could flourish underneath. The Ravens, along with the Patriots are a legitimate AFC title contender.

Houston Texans: Making their first appearance ever in the NFL playoffs, the Texans would come in as a serious contender if not for the injuries that hit them hard at the QB position. With both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart on injured reserve, rookie T.J. Yates will lead them. There is no better RB in the NFL than Arian Foster and the 1-2 punch of Foster and Ben Tate allows the Texans to control the tempo of many games. But in the playoffs, they'll be facing some tough defenses and I have my doubts about how they'd stay with Baltimore in round 2 if they get there. The healthy return of WR Andre Johnson helps, but trusting a rookie QB to get him the ball consistently enough to prevent opponents from keying on the run is hard. Their defense is tough this season under Wade Phillips and ranks 2nd in fewest yards allowed and 4th in points allowed. And while defense and a great running game are usually keys to winning in the playoffs, the shortcomings at QB hurt their chances. Matt Schaub would make this team legitimate, but Yates needs to step up to a level I'm not sure he's capable of to seriously contend.

Denver Broncos: While Tim Tebow will get all the attention, the Broncos arguably weren't even the best team in their mediocre division. Tebow has an "it" factor the media loves, and there's no denying he's helped them win some close games where Denver's defense kept it close into the 4th quarter, but against top level competition in the playoffs, it's hard to imagine the smoke and mirrors game going far. The option style offense the Broncos created to suit Tebow's strengths were fine to win some games in the regular season, and the re-emergence of Willis McGahee as a solid RB helps, but if it comes down to throwing the ball, Tebow fails to impress. And with a first round matchup against the Steelers top ranked pass defense, he'll be hard-pressed to impress much at all. Denver is the ultimate pretender in this year's playoffs from either conference.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Despite having a 12-4 record, the Steelers come into the playoffs as the 5th seed and will travel each of the first 2 games, and possibly a 3rd if they make it that far. Ben Roethlisberger is gritty and tough, but won't be at 100% with his ankle injury. The loss of Rashard Mendenhall will be bigger than many think as Isaac Redman, while good as a backup, doesn't have the feel of being able to carry the load with consistent effectiveness. The WR corps is the best of any of the AFC playoff teams but the offensive line has been deficient again this season. The defense has been tough though. 1st in yards and points allowed to opponents. Only the Baltimore Ravens scored over 20 points against them in any game this season. The Steelers are the 3rd legitimate contender in the AFC and it really comes down to how effective Ben Roethlisberger can be despite his ankle injury. A fully healthy Roethlisberger probably makes this team as dangerous as any even without Mendenhall. But will the ankle be a concern?

Cincinnati Bengals: Hard to imagine a team with a rookie QB and rookie WR being good enough to make the playoffs, but Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have both been beyond expectations this season. I still have my concerns about Dalton's lack of elite arm strength in the cold (and the recent struggles he's had backs this up) and there's a simple fact that makes me doubt this team can go further than maybe the second round: they lost all 6 games they played against the other AFC playoff teams during the regular season (2 each to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, 1 each to Houston and Denver). They have a good defense (top 10 both in yards and points allowed), and a young developing offensive attack, but they aren't ready for prime time yet.

AFC Playoff Predictions

Wild Card Round
Houston over Cincinnati
Pittsburgh over Denver

Divisional Round
New England over Pittsburgh
Baltimore over Houston

AFC Championship Game
New England over Baltimore

AFC Champion: New England Patriots

In the NFC, it's not so much the great defenses that make up the playoff teams as it's the great offenses.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers has had a season unlike any I've ever seen before. A blend of incredible statistical games along with unmatched accuracy and field vision has helped him put the ghost of Brett Favre to rest. The healthy return of James Starks should help re-energize the rushing attack while Greg Jennings should be a full go when they come out of the first week bye as well. The defense has had its share of problems though. No team has allowed more yards to their opponents but similar to New England in that aspect is also the fact they are 19th in points allowed; meaning the yards they give up don't usually translate into opponent TD's. Home field advantage throughout in the NFC is huge for them as no one wants to travel to Lambeau Field in January. The Packers are a favorite to repeat as Super Bowl Champions and for good reason. Only once did any opponent hold them to fewer than 24 points and for the season they averaged 35 points per game. Can the Packers repeat? You bet they can.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are the one team in the NFC that wins by playing great defense and having a balanced offensive attack. They have allowed the 4th fewest yards and the second fewest points in the NFL and rarely put their offense in a big hole. Their rushing attack is strong with Frank Gore and rookie Kendall Hunter, and while Alex Smith hasn't been lighting up opponents, he's been very efficient with 17 TD's compared to only 5 interceptions all season. This is a meat and potatoes team in a conference filled with extravagant dishes. The problem is that if the defense does fall behind, the offense isn't nearly good enough to keep up in a track meet. Simply put, while the 49ers could put together a run, they come off feeling like a team that isn't as good as their 13-3 record says they are. Playing the disrespect card could motivate them as very few are giving them much of a chance, but bottom line is that they are not as talented offensively to stay with any of the other NFC playoffs teams if their defense has an off game.

New Orleans Saints: If not for an inexplicable hiccup game against St. Louis earlier in the season, the Saints would have been the #2 seed. Drew Brees set a new NFL record for most passing yards in a single season by throwing for 5,476. His 46 TD's were most in the league (although to be fair, Aaron Rodgers had 45 and didn't play at all in the final game of the season). The offense will be without rookie RB Mark Ingram in the playoffs, but won't miss him much with their 3 headed RB rotation of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory. Lance Moore is a question mark for the first round because of a hamstring issue but between Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, there is quality depth to pick up any potential slack. Besides, the top 3 reads on most plays are Marques Colston, TE Jimmy Graham, and RB Darren Sproles. Brees is as good as any QB in spreading the football around and even if Moore misses a game or two, he won't be missed that much. Their defense has been much maligned, but they haven't allowed an opponent to have more than 20 points in any of their last 5 games. The Saints are as dangerous as the Packers and could win the NFC title.

New York Giants: Winners of the NFC East, the Giants are a real "wild card" in the NFC playoffs picture. Their offense has the ability to keep up with anyone as Eli Manning had a great season throwing for just under 5,000 yards. It's even more incredible when you consider the WR injuries NY has had this season. It appears their top 3 WR's are all healthy now and the incredible season Victor Cruz is having was unforeseen. The rushing attack hasn't been as good as it has been in recent years, but Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs both have shown flashes of being able to dominate at times. The defense has had its share of problems, especially defending the pass. But sacks have been plentiful and pressure on opposing QB's is part of the key to their defensive success. Throughout this season the Giants have been a Jekyll & Hyde team showing the ability to be dominant, and also showing the ability to fall flat.

Atlanta Falcons: While many thought Matt Ryan didn't have a great season, he managed to have over 4,100 passing yards and 29 TD's. Julio Jones has turned into a very dangerous big play WR and Roddy White has been very good and coming on the last half of the season. They still have a solid rushing attack led by Michael Turner and while they have big strike capability, they remain best at using their rushing attack to set up their big play passing game. Their defense hasn't been great, but they rank 2nd best of all the NFC playoff teams. Their biggest hurdle is more mental than anything. They lost to Green Bay and the Saints (twice) during the regular season and were only competitive in their home game against the Saints. Otherwise the games weren't that close. Atlanta was my preseason pick from the NFC to go to the Super Bowl, but they have the feeling of a team that is still another year away from fully realizing their potential both offensively and defensively. They are a very good team, but not a great team.

Detroit Lions: With Matt Stafford staying healthy all season the Lions find themselves back in the playoffs and boasting a passing attack that rivals any in the league. Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards and 41 TD's. Calvin Johnson showed he is the best WR in the league, and the supporting cast of Nate Burleson, Titus Young, and TE Brandon Pettigrew have been able to pick it up when Megatron has been triple teamed. The problem is a lack of a rushing attack. Jahvid Best led the team in rushing and finished 5th in receptions despite only playing in 6 games. Kevin Smith was brought back and leads the RB corps. Smith has looked good when he's been able to stay healthy, but that's one of the reasons he had to be picked up off the street: he never stays healthy. Rushing defense has been a concern as no team in the playoffs from either conference has allowed more 40+ yards rushing plays. If this team had a little better secondary, and a better rushing attack, they'd be very dangerous. But they lost to every team in the NFC playoffs during the regular season (except the Giants, whom they didn't play) and it just seems unlikely they're ready to step up and be considered one of the elite quite yet.

NFC Playoff Predictions

Wild Card Round
New Orleans over Detroit
Atlanta over New York Giants

Divisional Round
New Orleans over San Francisco
Green Bay over Atlanta

NFC Championship Game
New Orleans over Green Bay

NFC Champion: New Orleans Saints


So I have narrowed it down to the New England Patriots against the New Orleans Saints. Now I find it unlikely that this is actually how it plays out as both teams have their defensive deficiencies, but you know the NFL would love to see these 2 offenses go at it on the biggest stage in American professional sports, and as fans, so would we. A game between the Patriots and Saints could set many Super Bowl offensive records. It would be very entertaining to watch and could go either way. But I have to choose one and while before the season started I predicted a Patriots Super Bowl victory, I just have a funny feeling that if the Saints get there, Drew Brees will find a way to come out on top, no matter what team he faces. Maybe it will be because he's likely to feel a little snubbed if (when) Aaron Rodgers wins the NFL MVP despite Brees setting a new NFL passing yards record. Whatever the reason, I'll buy into it and say the Saints will win their second Super Bowl Championship.

Prediction: New Orleans 48, New England 42