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Sports Illustrated NFL Power rankings Playoff

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Sports Illustrated NFL Power rankings Playoff

Old 01-06-2011, 10:40 AM
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Default Sports Illustrated NFL Power rankings Playoff

1Seed: AFC No.1
New England Patriots (14-2)
The good news for the Patriots is that they've had either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and a first-round bye on five occasions since the playoffs expanded in 1990, and they've launched a Super Bowl run from that position each time. But if there's a cause for concern, it's that this isn't the battle-tested New England team of yore when it comes to playoff experience. I count only six active-roster players who were with the Patriots when they last won a Super Bowl after the 2004 season, and two of those are players who left and came back in recent years (Deion Branch and Tully Banta-Cain). Then again, they do still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. So nevermind. 2Seed: NFC No. 1
Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Gotta love the equal-opportunity NFC. Atlanta is the seventh different team to earn the conference's top seed in the past seven years, with four of the first six winners using that slot to reach the Super Bowl. Last year's Saints, however, were the first NFC top-seeded champion since St. Louis won it all in 1999. The Falcons have their formula for victory down pat, now they've just got to stick to it and perform under pressure. If there's a late-season development that should worry the Falcons, it's those two Michael Turner red-zone fumbles in the past two weeks. The guy hadn't fumbled in more than 400 touches, and now he's coughed up two down close to the goal line, where it hurts the most. Not a good omen. 3Seed: AFC No. 2
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
This is the eighth time the Steelers have had a first-round bye in the playoffs since the field expanded to 12 teams in 1990, and they have made it to at least the AFC title game in each of those except for 1992, when top-seeded Pittsburgh lost at home to two-time defending conference champion Buffalo in the divisional round. The Steelers looked playoff-ready last week at Cleveland, but the only thing that really matters in Pittsburgh this month is getting some playoff-time payback against the Patriots, who have twice beaten the Steelers at home in the AFC Championship in the Belichick era. Do they really have much hope that their luck will be any different in Foxboro this time? 4Seed: AFC No. 5
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
They've got 12 wins and a four-game winning streak entering the postseason, and you still don't feel all that good about these Ravens, do you? Me neither, and I picked them to win it all in the preseason. Baltimore just doesn't seem to have what it takes to put teams away, rarely doing much more on offense than what it takes to win. The Ravens' biggest margin of victory this season against a team that finished with a winning record was its seven-point win over Tampa Bay in late November. Maybe they were saving themselves for the playoffs and are about to play their first complete game this Sunday in Kansas City. Or maybe winning the tough, close ones is who these Ravens really are. 5Seed: NFC No. 5
New Orleans Saints (11-5)
So the Saints and Colts both made it back to the playoffs, and that's a rarity in today's NFL. It had been 10 years since both Super Bowl teams returned to the playoffs the following season, with the Rams and Titans being the last duo to turn that trick, in 2000. The Saints are also the first ever No. 5 seed to earn a first-round bye, drawing the 7-9 Seahawks as their playoff-opening opponent on Saturday. OK, that's not fair, but New Orleans should out-class Seattle, having outscored its opponents by plus-77 while the Seahawks compiled a minus-97 point differential this season. It looked like New Orleans was getting Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush healthy at the right time, but now both Thomas and rookie Chris Ivory have been placed on IR. The other concern? Those career-high 22 picks for Drew Brees (including one in 12 straight games). That's not the blueprint for playoff success. 6Seed: NFC No. 6
Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Aaron Rodgers needs to win a playoff game to fully take his place among the game's top five quarterbacks and get the credit he's due. But the pressure of Green Bay having to win out to reach the playoffs should serve him well, because it has put him in postseason mode these past two weeks and prepared him for the big-stage games to come this month. The best news for the Packers is the way their defense has come on and started to dominate of late. They can rush the passer and they can play the pass, and that's the formula for winning playoff defense. I'm on record saying the Eagles are in trouble this Sunday in Philly. 7Seed: NFC No. 2
Chicago Bears (11-5)
I'll grant you that a No. 7 ranking is fairly low for a No. 2 seed, but the Bears aren't a dominant team as much as they are an opportunistic one. Of the four teams with first-round byes, the Bears rank a distant fourth in terms of scoring differential, with a +48 margin spread out over their 11-5 record. Compare that to New England (+203), Pittsburgh (+143), and Atlanta (+126), and you get the idea. A lot has to go right for Chicago to wind up in Dallas, and its margin of error is fairly slight. Then again, a lot already has gone right for Lovie Smith's team this season, and maybe that mojo will keep on flowing in an NFC field that looks wide open. 8Seed: AFC No. 3
Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
The Colts very well might have spent themselves just getting here, playing what amounted to playoff games in the season's final four weeks. But I've got the sense they've got one more strong performance in them this Saturday night at home against the Jets, the club they out-dueled in last season's AFC title game. Indy is the only home team I like in this weekend's first round, and the Colts have to play their best game to even give their fans one playoff victory to savor in this most challenging of seasons. 9Seed: NFC No. 3
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Losing two home games at the end of the season, to the so-so Vikings and Cowboys no less, makes me think the Eagles are virtually repeating their late-season disappearance of 2009. A big win over the Giants last December prompted talk of how unstoppable the Eagles were with their big-play weapons, but that was really the high point for Andy Reid's club, rather than the start of something special. Sound familiar? The Eagles have too much boom-bust potential on offense to win consistently in the playoffs, and their defense has been injury-plagued and unimpressive all season. 10Seed: AFC No. 6
New York Jets (11-5)
I don't think it's going out on a limb to say if New York can rush for 276 yards every week in January, it's headed for Dallas. But doing that kind of business on the ground at home against Buffalo in a meaningless Week 17 game, and doing it in the playoffs is two different things. Still, it's encouraging to see New York's run game come to life, because Rex Ryan's team needs to recreate the formula that worked in last year's playoffs. The Jets defense just isn't creating the same amount of pressure this year, and that means Mark Sanchez and the offense must carry an even larger burden. A ball-control running game would really help keep Peyton Manning off the field for long stretches Saturday night in Indianapolis.
11Seed: AFC No. 4
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
12 Seed: Seattle Seahawks
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