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NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

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The field has never been more wide open, as nine—count 'em, nine—teams have a realistic shot at winning the Lombardi Trophy. But in this most pass-happy of seasons, the teams with elite (and determined) quarterbacks who have experience playing in (and winning) Super Bowls will be the ones to beat

I could make the argument—easily—that this is the most mysterious postseason the NFL has seen in years. Here's why: When was the last time you could honestly say that nine playoff teams have a real chance to win the Super Bowl? The way I see it, only the Bengals, Broncos and Texans are serious long shots. Look at the lowest-seeded NFC team, the Lions. They beat the playoff-bound Broncos by five touchdowns in midseason and the red-hot Chargers by four in Week 16. Their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, had the finest passing season in Detroit history—becoming the fourth QB to surpass 5,000 yards in a season—thanks largely to Calvin Johnson, the most dangerous deep threat in the league. The Lions may not win it, but they won't make it easy on any foe. Nor will the Falcons (who won 23--16 at Detroit in Week 7) or the Giants (a 24—20 winner at New England in Week 9).

But I'll give six teams true Super shots. The Patriots, Ravens and Steelers in the AFC—put them all in a hat. In the NFC the Packers, Saints and 49ers—take your pick.

Wire to wire Green Bay was the best team in football, but the Pack is not invincible. One of the brightest defensive coordinators in recent years, Dom Capers, seems powerless to stop even the most mediocre backs: The Bears' Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen shredded the Packers in Week 16 with a combined 161 yards on 34 carries. New Orleans also has had its share of trouble against the rush, which gives the Niners some hope; while their Alex Smith--led offense is average, their run defense is the stingiest in the league. When you go the first 59 quarters of the season without allowing a rushing touchdown and you pressure the quarterback as effectively as San Francisco has, you've got a chance to upend any great offensive team.

The picture is more muddled in the AFC. When Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are healthy and playing well, the Patriots and the Steelers have been the class of the conference. The Ravens were never far behind, and this year, with Joe Flacco winning big games when needed, Baltimore has finally earned at least one home playoff game. With the Ravens' experience and multifaceted defense—and with injuries to Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall hobbling their bitter rivals—Baltimore can make a deep run. The Ravens are the AFC's 49ers: excellent defense, good running the ball but iffy in the passing game.

In this aerial circus of a season, I believe, the difference will be the quarterbacks who can outscore teams. Aaron Rodgers had the best regular season ever by a Green Bay passer—and don't forget that Bart Starr and Brett Favre are among his predecessors. With 5,476 yards, Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing productivity in a season and led New Orleans to an eight-game winning streak during which he threw 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. New England's Tom Brady (page 74) also surpassed Marino's mark (albeit by 241 fewer yards) and also finished the season on an eight-game winning streak—and he threw just two picks during that span. Those three quarterbacks have won a combined five Super Bowls. All have excelled with the Lombardi Trophy on the line: Brady led a last-minute drive to set up the winning field goal against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Brees completed 16 of 17 in the second half to beat the Colts two seasons ago, and Rodgers led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to hold off Pittsburgh last year. (Roethlisberger is in that league, too, but his physical ailments just seem too much to overcome this year.)

Every quarterback needs moxie—the ability to shut out pressure and perform at his highest level at some time in the playoffs. And judging by the major football obstacles they've overcome, Brady, Brees and Rodgers have more than their fair share. Brady, the 199th pick in 2000, had the inner confidence to tell Pats owner Robert Kraft the first time he met him that he'd be his starting QB; within two years he had stepped in for the injured Drew Bledsoe and made the job his own by leading New England to its first Super Bowl victory. Brees, the 32nd pick in 2001, by the Chargers, watched San Diego bring in his long-term replacement, Philip Rivers, in '04, and then tore up his shoulder in '05 in his last game before becoming a free agent. Rodgers, a one-time candidate to go No. 1 in the '05 draft, first sat in the greenroom for what seemed like an eternity before finally being taken 24th, then sat on the bench for three years behind Favre. If there wasn't enough pressure on Rodgers already, Favre unretired and played for the Jets in 2008, and Rodgers had to play every game with Green Bay fans thinking, Favre could have done that. Or, He's no Favre. Crazy thing is, Rodgers has been Favre—only better. Favre's touchdown-to-interception differential over his three MVP seasons: +70. Rodgers's over his last three years: +79.

"It's a testament to those three guys," Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said last week. "All three of them had to overcome what everyone thought they couldn't do. You see some athletes who come into this game who have that special trait you can't quite describe, but it's basically that—[the ability] to overcome what most people in life couldn't. It's fun to watch. Even when everyone watching knows everything's on the quarterback, you watch them orchestrate everything out there and they still can come through like there's no pressure on them."

If there's something about those QBs that makes them different, it's that they play in an August practice the way they play in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. Rodgers rose to the occasion last February, executing a third-and-10 pass up the seam to a well-covered Greg Jennings with a three-point lead and six minutes left. The ball was barely grazed by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor before settling into Jennings's hands, precisely where it had to be thrown. Gain of 44. Green Bay went on to kick a field goal and win 31--25.

"That throw," Rodgers said this fall, "only happens because we've done that—that play, that route—in the off-season, and the off-seasons before that, in individual work. And because of confidence: confidence that he'll be in the spot I want him in, confidence I can make that throw, confidence in my coaches to trust me to be able to make the throw. One of the things my quarterbacks coach, Tom Clements, always tells me is, 'Play your best when your best is needed.' "

As for the Super Bowl XLVI winner: I fret over something on every team, and every team is seriously flawed—for the first time in memory. Of the six teams best equipped to overcome those flaws and win the title, it will come down to the two that met in the first game of the season. I see New Orleans and Green Bay facing each other again for the NFC championship, with the survivor going on to win the Super Bowl.

It's not so much what I don't like about New England (that porous secondary) or Pittsburgh (just 16 points in the two games Roethlisberger played since his ankle injury) or Baltimore or San Francisco (questionable passing attacks). It's what I like about Green Bay and New Orleans. Well-protected quarterbacks playing great. Weapons all over the field. The ability to score 40. Good secondaries masking so-so front sevens.

Remember on the first night of the season, when the Saints visited Lambeau Field? It came down to the rarest of finishes: New Orleans getting an untimed down from the Green Bay one-yard line following an end zone pass-interference call, trailing by eight. Do or die—and how strange, in retrospect. The Saints, who'd go on to break the NFL record for yardage in a season, needed only a yard against a godawful run defense. Rookie running back Mark Ingram tried to smash in over right guard. A wall of Packers defenders met him. No gain. Ball game. Green Bay 42, New Orleans 34.

Lambeau again on Jan. 22. Do or die again. This time the New Orleans running game will limit Rodgers to just eight or nine possessions. The Saints eke out the win and go on to play a home-sweet-dome Super Bowl in Indianapolis against the Patriots.

Brees and Brady, walk-in Hall of Famers, in a ratings feast. Who can pick one quarterback over the other in that matchup? Give me Saints scatback Darren Sproles to make a couple of big plays in space. Give me cornerback Jabari Greer and the New Orleans secondary over New England's. Give me the Saints, 34—24.

THE PACKERS HAVE BEEN THE BEST TEAM, BUT THEY'RE NOT INVINCIBLE. COORDINATOR DOM CAPERS'S DEFENSE SEEMS POWERLESS TO STOP EVEN THE MOST MEDIOCRE BACKS.

EVERY QUARTERBACK NEEDS MOXIE—THE ABILITY TO SHUT OUT PRESSURE AND PERFORM AT HIS HIGHEST LEVEL IN THE PLAYOFFS.

I SEE NEW ORLEANS AND GREEN BAY FACING EACH OTHER AGAIN, WITH THE SURVIVOR GOING ON TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL.

PETER KING'S 2011 AWARDS

Record-breaking quarterbacks dominate SI's year-end honors

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Aaron Rodgers

Quarterback, Packers

Rodgers had more touchdown passes (45), more yards (4,643) and better accuracy (68.3%)—all by far—than Brett Favre had in any of his three MVP seasons with the Packers. He set a record for passer rating (122.5) for a team that won 15 games in the regular season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Drew Brees

Quarterback, Saints

Brees gets this for breaking Dan Marino's 27-year-old NFL record for passing yards in a season (and he did it with a game to spare) and for general excellence. That yardage record (5,476) and Brees's phenomenal accuracy (a record 71.2%) are the reasons he beats out Rodgers in this category.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Justin Smith

Defensive end, 49ers

It's rare to see a 3--4 end so disruptive. The 11th-year veteran had more quarterback hurries than sack leader Jared Allen; in Week 4 he helped beat Philly by chasing down the fleet Jeremy Maclin, and in Week 10 he batted down an Eli Manning pass to stop a Giants comeback.

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Cam Newton

Quarterback, Panthers

The first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards and the first QB to rush for 14 TDs. With all due respect to Eric Dickerson and Randy Moss, I think it's the best rookie season ever.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Von Miller

Outside linebacker, Broncos

This was the toughest call on the ballot because 49ers situational pass rusher Aldon Smith (14 sacks) came on late. But Miller, the second overall pick out of Texas A&M, was unstoppable before being slowed—just a bit—by torn ligaments in his right thumb late in the season.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR

D'Qwell Jackson

Middle linebacker, Browns

After missing 26 games in 2009 and '10 with two separate pectoral tears, Jackson came back to lead the conference in tackles (158) in his sixth year, doing so mostly in anonymity in Cleveland. Nods here also to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Patriots defensive end Andre Carter.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Jim Harbaugh

49ers

Coming to the Niners after a successful stint at Stanford, Harbaugh took a six-win team that, because of the lockout, he first met seven weeks before opening day and led them to 13 victories—in the process transforming a bottom-feeding offense into an effective unit that might be good enough to challenge for a Super Bowl berth.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR

Mike Brown

President, Bengals

Tough call over G.M.'s Rick Smith (Texans), Martin Mayhew (Lions) and Trent Baalke (49ers). But Brown drafted two of the top 10 rookies in '11, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, and got first- and second-round picks for Carson Palmer at the trade deadline, setting up the Bengals as unlikely 2012 and '13 draft power brokers.

PETER KING'S POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

After an aerial show in January, it will be Brees and Brady going full-throttle at Indy

AFC

Patriots 22—20

Ravens 27—10

Patriots 23—16

Texans 19—17

2 Ravens

1 Patriots

Steelers 24—9

6 Bengals

3 Texans

5 Steelers

4 Broncos

NFC

Saints 30—27

Saints 27—20

Packers 27—23

Saints 37—27

49ers 2

Packers 1

Giants 24—20

Lions 6

Saints 3

Falcons 5

Giants 4

SUPER BOWL XLVI

February 5, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

SAINTS 34

PATRIOTS 24

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Photograph by JOHN BIEVER

COLLISION COURSE The NFC title game seems destined to be a rematch of the season opener in Green Bay, a shootout that featured 876 yards of total offense, including 70 receiving yards by the Saints' Robert Meacham.

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JOHN BIEVER (STEELERS)

DON'T FORGET THE D The postseason won't be an entirely aerial affair, not with the presence of smashmouth specialists Pittsburgh (No. 1 in total defense) and Baltimore (No. 3).

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AL TIELEMANS (NEWTON)

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TOM DIPACE (MILLER)

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DAMIAN STROHMEYER (FLACCO)

FINAL FOUR Flacco (5) has led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his four seasons in the league, but he has yet to prove himself in the postseason crucible the way Brady, Rodgers and Brees have.

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GREG M. COOPER/US PRESSWIRE (BRADY)

[See caption above]

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RICK WOOD/MCT/ABACAUSA.COM (RODGERS)

[See caption above]

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DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE (BREES)

[See caption above]

THIRTEEN PHOTOS