Well, it’s time to face the music. My preseason Super Bowl prediction of New England vs. Dallas is clearly not going to come true. Both teams narrowly missed the playoffs despite posting winning records, including the Patriots, who became the first team since the 1985 Broncos to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
In all, I predicted just five of the 12 playoff teams correctly. I correctly picked division winners New York and Minnesota in the NFC as well as Pittsburgh and San Diego in the AFC. I also had Indianapolis in as the AFC South winner, and they qualified as a wild card.
My biggest misses? Well, there were quite a few. I had playoff-bound Baltimore slated at 2-14. Ditto for the rejuvenated Falcons, who claimed the number five seed in the NFC. I also had the Dolphins, winners of the AFC East, pegged at 3-13. On the flipside, I picked the lowly Rams to win their division at 9-7 and gave the Lions enough credit to win seven games this year, which equates to seven more than they actually won. I was close with the Raiders, though, as they fell only a game short of my 6-10 projection.
Now that all is said and done, I get a fresh start to make a mess of things with playoff picks. It starts with a wild card weekend that I believe will live up to its name. Yes, I see big things for the wild card qualifiers playing on the road against shaky division winners.
But I’ll save my predictions for later this week. For now, here’s a rundown of three key categories heading into the postseason: quarterbacks, coaches and defenses. The team with the best combination at these key spots may very well wind up celebrating February 1.
Four have Super Bowl rings (both Mannings, Roethlisberger and Warner). Three others have played in the big game (McNabb, Collins, Delhomme). And three will be making their playoff debuts (Ryan, Flacco, Jackson). Here’s my rankings of the 12 quarterbacks that will vie for Super Bowl XLIII.
- Peyton Manning
He may be the NFL MVP this season for the way he bounced back from offseason surgery and a slow start to help the Colts win nine straight heading into the playoffs.
- Ben Roethlisberger
He’ll have two weeks to recover from a Week 17 concussion against Cleveland. That should be enough time to get on of the NFL’s toughest quarterbacks ready for a run at a second Super Bowl ring.
- Eli Manning
Few quarterbacks have altered perceptions about themselves the way Eli did last year during the Giants’ Super Bowl run. That performance against New England makes him a favorite to return to the big game this year.
- Philip Rivers
Don’t look at the Chargers’ 8-8 record. Look at Rivers’ league-leading 34 touchdown passes. He’s the reason San Diego is still playing during LaDainian Tomlinson’s worst season.
- Donavon McNabb
He doesn’t use his legs the way he used to, but McNabb has veteran savvy and his best receiving corps since the departure of Terrell Owens.
- Kurt Warner
The Cardinals fell off the map late in the season, but Warner still had his best season since he was a Ram. If his line can keep him protected, he will make defenses pay by hooking up with the best receiving tandem in the NFL, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.
- Matt Ryan
Can a rookie QB be MVP? Fans in Atlanta certainly think so. No one’s talking about Michael Vick anymore, and that is saying something. Now Ryan has to do what no Falcons quarterback has done since Vick—win in the playoffs.
- Chad Pennington
He beat Brett and the Jets to finish the storybook ending to the regular season for the Dolphins, but if Pennington’s story is going to keep going, he’ll have to overcome a swarming Baltimore defense in round one.
- Kerry Collins
The doubters are back after Collins’ Titans limped to a 3-3 finish after a 10-0 start. Still, he is the quarterback of the team with home field advantage in the AFC. And he brings experience, having led the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000 and played in the 1996 NFC Championship with Carolina.
- Joe Flacco
The second rookie on this list, Flacco is well on his way to giving the Ravens their first franchise quarterback in a long line of journeyman and busts that included Trent Dilfer (who did win a Super Bowl), Elvis Grbac, Tony Banks, Chris Redman and Kyle Boller.
- Jake Delhomme
No one may have a more game-changing weapon to throw to than Delhomme, who has Steve Smith, but Tommy John surgery success story has had an up and down season. And inconsistency is a killer in the postseason. One bad game—even one bad quarter—can be the difference between moving on and being eliminated. If Delhomme can conjure up the magic he found during his one Super Bowl appearance, however, look for Carolina to return to the big game.
- Tavaris Jackson
He was benched after two games in favor of Gus Frerotte, only to be recalled down the stretch. He’ll now get his first taste of playoff action against a blitz-happy Eagles defense. His best bet is to hand it to Adrian Peterson 30-35 times and get out of the way.
Among coaches still active this season, only two have won the Super Bowl (Dungy, Coughlin). Three others have coached a team in the big game (Fisher, Fox, Reid). And five coaches will make their playoff coaching debut (Smith, Sparano, Harbaugh, Childress, Whisenhunt).
- Tony Dungy
Whether in Tampa Bay or Indianapolis, he’s always in the playoffs. His postseason record, however, is a surprisingly mediocre 9-9.
- Tom Coughlin
The reigning Super Bowl championship coach has home field advantage this time around. He’s done a great job keeping the Giants focused through adversity this season as in the past.
- Jeff Fisher
The late-season losses have many wondering about the Titans’ postseason prospects, but Fisher is one of the best in the business, and I’d be shocked if this team wasn’t ready to play in two weeks when they host the lowest remaining seed in the AFC.
- John Fox
From a last-second touchdown catch in Week 1 to a last second field goal in Week 17, the Panthers have been high drama. Credit Fox for making the right moves to help this team win the ultra competitive NFC South.
- Mike Tomlin
One of the best young coaches in the league, Tomlin is a no-nonsense guy who clearly has a lot of trust in his team and a lot of respect from his players.
- Andy Reid
Reid saved his job with a playoff-clinching win against Dallas, but a first-round stumble could put him back on the hot seat.
- Mike Smith
One of three first-year head coaches in the running for Coach of the Year, Smith spearheaded an unbelievable turnaround for a franchise that was mired in turmoil last year. Bobby Petrino’s short-lived stint in Atlanta seems like it happened eons ago thanks to Smith’s fine work.
- Tony Sparano
Under the tutelage of Bill Parcells, Sparano has been excellent in his first season as head coach.
- John Harbaugh
Another first-year coach, Harbaugh has Baltimore playing well and exceeding expectations.
- Brad Childress
Questionable game and clock management nearly cost Childress the chance to coach his first playoff game.
- Norv Turner
Give him credit for keeping the Chargers ship afloat after a 4-8 start, but this team should be well over .500.
- Ken Whisenhunt
No team entered the playoffs with less momentum than the Cardinals, who dropped four of their last six games. It also doesn’t help that Whisenhunt’s team went just 1-4 against playoff teams this year.
These defensive rankings aren’t based on stats, but this is my opinion of which defenses are the best heading into the postseason.
- Pittsburgh Steelers
Troy Polamalu may be the most dangerous defensive player in the playoffs, and he’s the quarterback of the Steelers’ stout defense.
- Tennessee Titans
Albert Haynesworh and Kyle Vanden Bosch give the Titans one of the most devastating defensive lines in football. If they’re both healthy, it’ll be extremely tough to move the ball against Tennessee.
- Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have a swarming defense led by playmakers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
- New York Giants
Despite losing Michael Strahan (retirement) and Osi Umenyiora (injury) from their Super Bowl squad, the Giants’ defense remained strong throughout the season.
- Minnesota Vikings
Jared Allen gives Minnesota a lethal pass rusher to go with one of the league’s best run derenses.
- Carolina Panthers
Julius Peppers is back to Pro Bowl form this year, and that spells trouble for Panther opponents.
- Indianapolis Colts
A healthy Bob Sanders could be the key to another Colts Super Bowl run. The NFL’s 2007 Defensive Player of the Year has played in just six games this season and has played in more than six games only twice in his five year career.
- Philadelphia Eagles
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the best at dialing up blitz packages, and veteran safety Brian Dawkins seems determined to make a run at that elusive Super Bowl ring.
- Miami Dolphins
Joey Porter is the emotional leader of this revamped Dolphins defense.
- Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta’s defense is suspect at times, but veteran pass rusher John Abraham is always a threat to sack the quarterback.
- San Diego Chargers
In the absence of Shawne Merriman, the Chargers’ defense has been a shell of its former self this season.
- Arizona Cardinals
This list isn’t about stats, but here’s one for you. Not only does Arizona have the worst defense among the 12 playoff teams—they have the fifth worst scoring defense in the entire league.
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