SENIOR WRITERS JIM TROTTER AND DAMON HACK PREDICT THE PLAYOFFS
1. STEELERS (North)
Is there a more complete team? Rashard Mendenhall is a top 10 rusher, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shown little rust after his suspension, and the defense has allowed the fewest points in the league. The loss of defensive end Aaron Smith (torn triceps) hurts, and tough games remain against the Patriots, Ravens and Jets, but this is a club no one will want to see in the postseason.
2. PATRIOTS (East)
They're middle of the pack in most stats and below average in scoring D, but they put up a league-best 29.3 points per game. The Pats traded deep-ball threat Randy Moss and lack a top 20 rusher, but they make up for it with superb coaching, excellent special teams and a knack for winning tight games against talented opponents (three-point victories over the Ravens and the Chargers).
3. CHIEFS (West)
Quarterback Matt Cassel and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe are starting to play up to expectations, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is quietly having a Pro Bowl season, and Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones lead the league's best running game. A favorable second-half schedule should be enough for Kansas City to take the division.
4. COLTS (South)
Indy's experience and manageable schedule should offset its injury woes. The Colts still must play at Philly and New England and host nemesis San Diego, but the rest of the road is relatively smooth, so pencil them in for their seventh division title in eight years.
5. JETS (wild card)
Their five-game winning streak ended on Sunday, but they still have what it takes to win it all: talent on offense, a stingy defense and solid special teams. LaDainian Tomlinson (above) & Co. must get more consistent on offense to reach the Super Bowl.
6. RAVENS (wild card)
Baltimore won the Super Bowl as a wild card in 2000, and it has a shot again. Wideout Anquan Boldin has been a major plus, as has been the return of ball-hawk safety Ed Reed.
Wild-card Round RAVENS defeat Chiefs; JETS defeat Colts
Divisional Round JETS defeat Patriots; STEELERS defeat Ravens
AFC Championship Game JETS defeat Steelers
1. GIANTS (East)
Justin Tuck (below) and mates haven't knocked around opposing quarterbacks like this since 2007—the year Big Blue rode a devastating pass rush and Eli Manning's hot hand to a Super Bowl title. After a sluggish start, this New York squad is starting to resemble that one.
2. PACKERS (North)
Green Bay entered the season with weighty expectations, and in the first eight games the Pack at times played as if the burden was too heavy. But even with a raft of injuries and a choppy start, Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews & Co. are too good not to find their groove in the second half.
3. FALCONS (South)
Matt Ryan and Roddy White might be the conference's most dynamic—and underappreciated—QB-WR combination, but the fate of Atlanta's season will rest on the other side of the ball. If the defense can make enough plays, the Falcons could be this year's Saints.
4. SEAHAWKS (West)
The division is a mess, but Seattle's best is better than anything Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco can muster. After throwing an interception in his first attempt this year, Matt Hasselbeck is limiting his turnovers, and Pete Carroll has his team playing defense. A once-rudderless franchise has direction.
5. EAGLES (wild card)
They have two viable quarterbacks in Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb, but their defense looked spotty in a Week 7 loss to the Titans. Biggest question of the second half: Will DeSean Jackson be the same game-breaking receiver he was before the infamous helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked him out in Week 6?
6. SAINTS (wild card)
After an emotional run to a Super Bowl title, the Saints have been a step slow in 2010. Drew Brees's protection has been spotty, and the running game is injury-ravaged. But a gritty win over the Steelers on Sunday night was a season saver. New Orleans will ride the momentum to a postseason berth but fall short of a Super Bowl repeat.
Wild-card Round FALCONS defeat Saints; EAGLES defeat Seahawks
Divisional Round GIANTS defeat Eagles; PACKERS defeat Falcons
NFC Championship Game PACKERS defeat Giants
SUPER BOWL XLV Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Feb. 6, 2011 PACKERS 14, JETS 9
CHRIS SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (TOMLINSON)
MATTHEW EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE (TUCK)