1) Year of the rookie QB?
After enduring losing seasons just a year ago the Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks are all playoff bound— in large part due to the spectacular play of their rookie quarterbacks. Now, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson will attempt to prolong their unprecedented first-year campaigns by doing something only four rookie quarterbacks have done since the 1970 merger: win a playoff game.
2) How worried should Houston and Baltimore be?
Remember when the Texans were 10-1 and the Ravens were 9-2 through 11 games? It looked as if each team was locked into a top-two seed in the AFC with the highly coveted bye week awaiting them. Oh how quickly things can change.
After losing three of their final four games, Houston has fallen all the way to the third seed, losing the bye that seemed like a lock just a few weeks ago. Baltimore is in complete disarray after losing four of their final five games and have plummeted to the fourth seed in the AFC.
To make things worse, both face extremely hot opponents in their first playoff games. Houston will host Cincinnati, who has won seven of its last eight games. Baltimore will welcome the Colts, who have won nine of their previous 11 games.
3) Another chapter in the greatest quarterback rivalry of all time?
Although Peyton Manning now calls Denver home, he finds his team in a position he became accustomed to while leading the Indianapolis Colts for 14 seasons— a top seed in the AFC and a first round bye. In New England, the beat goes on for Tom Brady as he has led the Patriots to 12 or more wins for the seventh time in his illustrious career.
With first round byes and a home game waiting in the divisional round, Manning and Brady look primed to renew their storied rivalry in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 20, with a trip to Super Bowl XLVII on the line.
If they do indeed meet, it would be the fourth time the two have met in the playoffs, and the third time they have met in the AFC championship game. Brady leads the postseason series 2-1, yet a meeting in 2013 would take place within the confines of Mile High Stadium.
4) Can a team playing this weekend make a run all the way to Super Bowl XLVII?
Although the New York Giants will not be a part of this year’s postseason, recent history tells us that one of the red-hot teams playing this weekend is going to make a Giant-esque run to New Orleans on Feb. 3. In six of the past seven seasons, at least one of the teams playing in the wild-card round has made the Super Bowl.
Two of those teams, the 2007 Giants and the 2010 Packers, went on to win the big game as wild-card teams. Just last year, the Giants finished with a 9-7 record (but won the division) and also went on to win it all without the luxury of a first round bye.
This year, six of the eight teams playing in the first round have been extremely hot over the past several weeks. Seattle and Cincinnati have won seven of eight games, Minnesota has won four games in a row, Green Bay and Indianapolis have won nine of their previous 11 games and Washington has won seven games in a row.
5) Who is the most important player in the AFC?
The easy answer would be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Yet, it is safe to assume that these two will not be the reason their teams lose. On the other hand, Matt Schaub is instrumental to the success of the Houston Texans. Gary Kubiak relies on Schaub to make smart decisions when called upon.
But, as Schaub has gone over their three recent losses, so has the Texans’ offense. In these three losses, Schaub has zero touchdown passes while tossing three interceptions - leading his team to only 36 total points.
6) Who is the most important player in the NFC?
In what has become a pass-heavy league over the past five years, it has been amazing to witness Adrian Peterson dominate week in and week out, ultimately falling only nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s rushing record. He averaged about 172 yards per game in December: the highest average for a running back in any month in NFL history.
What makes Peterson’s feat even more astounding is that opposing defenses haven’t had to worry about a Manning, Brady or Rodgers when facing Minnesota. They’ve routinely stacked nine guys in the box daring the Vikings to throw the ball. If Minnesota has any chance to beat the Packers at Lambeau on Saturday, Peterson will need to continue his super-human effort.
7) Which team has the most to prove this postseason?
Without a doubt, the answer is the Atlanta Falcons. Since Matt Ryan and Mike Smith came to Atlanta in 2008, the Falcons have enjoyed tremendous regular season success, posting a 56-24 record. Unfortunately, playoff success has eluded Smith and Ryan, as they have failed to win a post-season game in three appearances.
For the second time in three years, Atlanta posted a 13-3 regular season record and secured the top seed in the NFC. With a home game awaiting the Falcons in the divisional round, the pressure is on Smith and Ryan to finally get the monkey off their back.
8) Who will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII?
Although the parity of this season has shown us that anything is possible, it is difficult to imagine a young team with a young quarterback winning consecutive road games against experienced teams. Therefore, that eliminates both the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts from this discussion. It is also difficult to imagine either Houston or Baltimore rebounding from terrible finishes to the season and beating New England or Denver on the road.
That leaves us with a Denver-New England AFC Championship game with the winner representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Denver’s last loss was all the way back in Week 5 against these very Patriots in Foxboro. But, since then, the Broncos have rattled off 11 straight wins.
However, only two of those wins came against teams that currently have winning records. Still, because the road to Super Bowl XLVII goes through Mile High Stadium, a place New England has posted only a 2-12 record over the past 30 years, and because Denver is playing as well as anybody in the NFL right now, they appear to be the favorites to win the AFC.
9) Who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII?
While the Patriots or Broncos are the clear favorites in the AFC, the NFC appears to be wide open. Even as the conference’s first seed, Atlanta, has received little respect as a serious contender. Their .422 strength of schedule (by far the easiest in the league) and their inability to convincingly beat inferior opponents suggests that this disrespect is warranted.
Seattle has played lights out over their five game winning streak, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 193-60, and is the trendy pick to win the NFC. Even so, they were only 3-5 on the road during the season, and must play at least two road games (probably three) to reach the Super Bowl.
Green Bay is as explosive offensively as any team in the NFC, yet their offensive line issues could prove costly if they were to face a team like the 49ers. Speaking of the 49ers, they are perhaps the most complete team in the NFL. Although anyone, outside of the Vikings (sorry A.P. but Christian Ponder isn’t going to take you far), has a chance to win the NFC, San Francisco has the weapons on both sides of the ball to beat anyone.
10) Who will host the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 3 in New Orleans?
The Denver Broncos. With all the focus on Peyton Manning and the explosive Denver offense, many overlook the fact that Denver’s defense has allowed the second fewest yards in the NFL. The deadly pass rushing combination of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil can disrupt any team’s offensive rhythm.
Peyton Manning will get his second Super Bowl ring as Denver defeats San Francisco 28-21.