Time to peak, playoffs are here
The way the Green Bay Packers blew through the regular season, it would be foolish to pick against them repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Yet they aren't on the hottest streak nor playing the best football as January rolls around. And as the Steelers, Giants and, yes, the Packers have proven in recent years, being a wild card isn't an overbearing burden, so don't dismiss Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit or Atlanta entirely.
New England, the top seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record, and New Orleans, No. 3 in the NFC, haven't lost in the second half of the schedule. Like Green Bay (15-1), both have dynamic, sometimes unstoppable offenses led by magnificent quarterbacks, bolstered by a deep and dangerous group of receivers.
All three also have so-so defenses that often require Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady to win shootouts. That's a difficult way to prosper in the postseason, particularly when playing against a rugged, versatile defense such as the 49ers, Ravens and Texans possess.
''A lot of it is working on what we need to work on; working on things that have been a problem for us, that if they come up again we need to handle better,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, not mentioning in particular a penchant for falling into deep holes. New England rallied from 17-0 and 21-0 deficits to win its past two games.
Remember, also, that New England has lost its past three postseason games, including at home to the Ravens and Jets the past two years.
Behind Brees' record-setting performances, the Saints soared past all eight opponents at home, but if they can handle the Lions next Saturday night in the Superdome, then they must head to San Francisco. And if they get by the formidable Niners, who rode a stingy, big-play defense to a 13-3 mark, a date at potentially frigid Lambeau Field is likely.
That is, if the Giants don't start partying like it's 2007. They were seeded fifth that year, but closed the regular season with a close loss to unbeaten New England. Then the Giants knocked off division winners Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay before shocking the Patriots for the championship.
New York won three of its last four, including impressive defensive efforts in wins over the Jets and Cowboys to grab the NFC East title. Defense was an issue for much of the season, but with the pass rush suddenly reborn, the Giants can be dangerous.
''Different guys, different teams. I'd love to have the same ending as the `07 team,'' Giants guard Chris Snee said. ''We certainly have the capability of doing that, as we have shown. I'm happy just to be in the playoffs. We'll take it from there. I don't spend too much time reminiscing about that glorious time in our life.''
Baltimore, like New Orleans and Green Bay, went 8-0 at home and is an entirely different team on the road (4-4). Still, with some help from outside - ironically, the AFC North rival Steelers are the most likely to provide it - the Ravens might not have to leave the Inner Harbor to get to Indianapolis in February.
Ah, the Steelers. The loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall to a torn right knee ligament is particularly damaging for a veteran team that has been to the Super Bowl three times in the past six seasons, winning twice.
Pittsburgh was the only contender not to lose to a weak team, falling twice to Baltimore, and to San Francisco and Houston. The Steelers won seven of their last eight as their supposedly aged defense looked fresh and frugal.
''We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is all about,'' said safety Ryan Clark. ''Now's the time to go play it.
''Now we have to go and play better on the road,'' he added of Sunday's game in Denver. ''I believe this team can win anywhere.''
When a team is peaking, that certainly is true. The Steelers (2005) and Packers (2010) got going in December and carried their superb play right through the postseason.
Unfortunately for some playoff qualifiers, their recent performances spell early exit.
The banged-up Texans (10-6) lost their final three games, are playing a rookie, third-string quarterback, and have never been in the playoffs. Their opponent Saturday is Cincinnati (9-7), loser of three of its past five, backing into the postseason thanks to other team's defeats in their finales.
Detroit was torrid in going 5-0, tepid in losing five of the next seven. The Lions (10-6), in their first playoffs since 1999, already have lost at New Orleans this season.
Atlanta went 4-4 on the road and, barring a slew of surprises, won't get a home game. The Falcons don't match up well with any of the NFC's other playoff teams except, perhaps, the Giants. A win in the Meadowlands on Sunday wouldn't be shocking, but anything beyond would be.
Then there's Denver (8-8), which sneaked away with the AFC West despite losing its final three games as Tim Tebow stopped performing great escapes. The Broncos have a good defense, a terrific placekicker, and a lot of questions.
''It's what you make it,'' coach John Fox said of the Super Bowl chase. ''I know not too many years ago, there was a team in New Orleans that lost their last three, and I think they won the Super Bowl.''
These Broncos don't resemble those Saints at all.