National Football Conference playoff teams
Green Bay Packers (NFC North Champion)
I would highly advise against taking a shocking divisional playoff loss to the eventual champion New York Giants as a sign of things to come. If anything, it should just make the Packers hungrier this year.
The fact is the Packers really could’ve won the Super Bowl during any year of the Aaron Rodgers era, and should’ve been the favorites for most of them. He took the team over in 2008 where they were competitive during every game of the season, but their defense was decimated by injuries and they lost seven extremely close games to eliminate them from playoff contention. They went 11-5 in 2009, only to once again see their defense shredded by injuries to all of their starting safeties, eventually falling to Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals in a playoff overtime shootout that shattered all kinds of offensive records. 2010, as we all know, was their Super Bowl year. And last year they almost went undefeated.
They’re a popular (nearly unanimous in some expert polls) Super Bowl pick this year, and it isn’t difficult to understand why.
Atlanta Falcons (NFC South Champion)
The Falcons, on the other hand, have a lot of legitimate questions following their playoff loss to those same Giants. Many are starting to wonder if Matt Ryan has taken this team as far as he can. He’s a franchise quarterback, but heads are being scratched over why one of the most talented offenses in the NFL just can’t get it done in the playoffs. Still, there’s been nothing to doubt about their regular season performance, and with the Saints rocked by scandal and playing musical chairs with their coaches, the Falcons seem like the easy choice to coast to a division title.
San Francisco 49ers (NFC West Champion)
Rarely has a change at head coach had such a clear and immediate effect on a football team, carrying essentially the same squad of players that went 6-10 under Mike Singletary to a 13-3 record, a huge upset over the New Orleans Saints, and one game from the Super Bowl. Their division isn’t going to be the cakewalk it was last year with the suddenly resurgent Seattle Seahawks waiting in the wings (no pun intended), but I expect a strong performance from this team. (My dream scenario would still be Manning having landed there, but we can’t always get what we want, and Alex Smith’s comeback story is a lot of fun anyway.)
New York Giants (NFC East Champion)
I know what you’re thinking. The Giants are supposed to be inconsistent. The Cowboys will take this division. You know: just like they’re predicted to do every year even though they’ve never done anything to deserve that. More likely, in my opinion, is the Philadelphia Eagles rebounding from a disappointing season last year and rallying around Andy Reid.
But not the Giants, right? They’re supposed to just up and disappear after a great season. They’re not allowed to make another Super Bowl run until Tom Coughlin is fearing for his job again.
You know what? Not so much. Eli Manning’s success last year was partially owing to the fact that he is a legitimate franchise quarterback, and partially owing to the fact that he has more toys to play with than at any other point in his career.
Chicago Bears (Wild Card)
Only uncertainty about the offensive line and Brian Urlacher’s status kept me from at least seriously considering picking them as a huge NFC North upset. The Bears were marching confidently along to the playoffs last year before having the wind taken out of their sails by Cutler’s season-ending injury. It would take injuries of a similar magnitude to derail this team’s return to the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (Wild Card)
I was hesitant to pick such an inexperienced team to take the NFC’s second Wild Card spot, but none of the other options really thrilled me. Philadelphia and Detroit are obviously strong possibilities, but both have irreplaceable quarterbacks with a history of injury, and I didn’t want to predict which one wouldn’t get hurt. I would really love to see Cam Newton take this big step in just his second year as a pro.
Conference Champion: Green Bay Packers
You could make this pick almost every year for a while and have it pretty clearly be the right pick. It might be boring, but it’s also the most likely thing to happen.
American Football Conference playoff teams
New England Patriots (AFC East Champions)
I don’t really have to say very much here, do I?
Houston Texans (AFC South Champions)
It took a Peyton Manning injury to move the Colts out of the way, but this is the team that’s been nipping at their heels in that division for years, and you knew they were going to be the ones to step into the void as soon as Manning went down. More than that, this is just an extremely solid football team with excellent players at every skill position. There’s really no reason to pick anyone else in this division.
Baltimore Ravens (AFC North Champions)
Joe Flacco was forced into an out-of-context quote where he called himself the best quarterback in the NFL. Sound familiar? It’s how the New York Giants started their season last year, and it worked out pretty well for them.
Denver Broncos (AFC West Champions)
All four teams in this division have legitimate reasons to be considered likely playoff teams, and all four have reasons to write them off. Denver has the truly unfair Manning-for-Tebow swap that would immediately make your Madden team 5 wins better, but there are some questions about Manning being rusty (yeah: sounds like the weakest case “against” to me, too.) San Diego thinks Phil Rivers and the team as a whole can bounce back in a big way, but also don’t have any especially compelling reason for that belief. The Chiefs have Jamaal Charles returning, but running backs coming off ACL injuries are notoriously unpredictable. The Raiders gave up the farm for Carson Palmer, and… well, let’s just leave it at that.
I’m going to go ahead and go with the team who has by far the weakest case against them.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Wild Card)
This team bores the crap out of me, and genuinely angers me in some ways (I’m looking at you, Ben Roethlisberger), but it’s difficult to imagine them not in postseason contention.
San Diego Chargers (Wild Card)
Call me old fashioned, but it really feels like this team “belongs” in the playoffs. It’s been strange not having them there. I know that’s not much to go on, but I tried to build a compelling case for teams like the Bills, Jets, Raiders, Chiefs, and Bengals, and I just wasn’t feeling it.
Conference Champion: Baltimore Ravens
I will fully admit that this is an extremely unscientific prediction. The fact is, I see the Patriots, Ravens, and Texans as fairly neck-in-neck in this conference, and I didn’t want to pick the Patriots to repeat as conference champions for both the logical fact that it seldom happens and for personal reasons. And it’s not like the Ravens missed by much last year.
Okay, embarrassing confession: the thing that put this over the top was the preseason “declaration” that Flacco–like Manning before him–was maneuvered into. The symmetry of having the Patriots defeated by a team whose preseason narrative is almost identical to the Giants’ last year is just impossible to resist. And, honestly? When three teams are this evenly matched, the criteria for choosing between them isn’t actually all that important, because the season is going to confound our expectations.
Super Bowl Champion: Green Bay Packers
You probably guessed this was coming.
Regular Season Awards
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
The best player on the best team. Seems likely.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
If the Panthers make the playoffs, this is a virtual mortal lock, and I couldn’t be happier for the guy. I’m still upset with the Bears for not doing more to retain him.
Offensive Player of the Year: Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons
This is difficult to handicap, actually, because OPOY just comes down to who puts up the biggest numbers.
Defensive Player of the Year: Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
We may be witnessing the greatest cornerback of all time. That isn’t an exaggeration.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
He’s going to face some stiff competition, but if he lives up to his potential this should be fun to watch. (Then again, there’s no guarantee his first year will be brilliant even if he is as good as advertised.)
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly, OLB, Carolina Panthers
It would be awfully nice for the Panthers to pull off back-to-back Rookies of the Year on different sides of the ball, wouldn’t it?
Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Barring a setback with his injury or (more unlikely) uncharacteristic ineffectiveness, this is his award to lose.