Ranking NFL playoff teams starts with Patriots | VailDaily.com

Ranking NFL playoff teams starts with Patriots

Dave Goldberg
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Darron Cummings/APSafety Bob Sanders and the Indianapolis heads into the playoffs with the league's No. 2 pass defense and, more important, having allowed the fewest points in the league.

Any handicapping of the playoffs starts, of course, with the Patriots, the first team ever to finish a regular season 16-0 and only the second to go unbeaten in the modern era. Indianapolis is right behind them, and the rest of the AFC is follows.

But Terrell Owens’ injury and Dallas bad form lately makes the NFC a free-for-all, a conference where an argument might be made for any of the six playoff entries. Yes, Dallas and Green Bay probably have the edge, but none of the teams that play the first week is out of it.

Here, by conference, is a team-by-team rundown.

1. New England (16-0, top seed). There’s no way to argue against the Patriots. But Bill Belichick and his players will concede they needed a little luck to finish unbeaten. There were three 3-point wins, including one against 5-11 Baltimore when they needed a couple of fortuitous late calls, one against them that wound up to their benefit.

Then there was Saturday night’s finale at the Meadowlands, when they trailed the Giants by 12 points in the third quarter. Simply the most memorable game of this season and many others.

That 38-35 win was what makes the Patriots so formidable.

“We always believe that we have a chance. We always believe that we are in the game,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “We always believe that we are going to win. Until we prove otherwise, this is how we think.”

Until anyone proves otherwise, the clear favorite to head to Arizona and win a fourth title this decade.

2. Indianapolis (13-3, second seed). Still the team with the best chance of knocking off New England, even if Marvin Harrison is iffy. Led the Patriots by 10 points with 10 minutes left at home before losing 24-20.

The Colts are better equipped than in the past for winter weather, especially because New England’s wide-open offense might not be ideal for a blustery day in Massachusetts. Last season’s Super Bowl ring supplies the confidence the Colts didn’t have in previous playoff trips there. But to get there, they probably have to get by San Diego in the second round, which won’t be easy.

3. San Diego (11-5, third seed). Should get by Tennessee and get to Indy, where the Chargers have had success before by putting pressure on Peyton Manning.

The big question is Philip Rivers, who has had a so-so season at quarterback. The Chargers lost in Foxborough 38-14 in Week 2. Another game there would be closer, but there’s no real reason, short of a 250-yard game by LaDainian Tomlinson, to think the Chargers can win.

4. Jacksonville (11-5, fifth seed). The Jaguars are trendy because they are a southern team with a northern offense, which they will need in Pittsburgh and again in New England if they get by the Steelers. They won 29-22 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 16, rushing for 224 yards against a team that’s supposed to be solid against the run.

They opened as 1-point underdogs against Pittsburgh, then took enough money to become 1-point favorites. Another sign of the perception they’re a better team.

The Jags won’t be favored if they get to New England. But they have a chance if QB David Garrard keeps his composure. A chance is all anyone can ask for against the Patriots.

5. Pittsburgh (10-6, fourth seed). RB Willie Parker is out with a broken ankle. Aaron Smith, the unsung defensive end, is out with a torn biceps. QB Ben Roethlisberger and star safety Troy Polamalu aren’t at full strength.

Yes, there’s tradition and experience; this is a team that won a Super Bowl two years ago. But it just seems worn out and if it has to go to New England, it’s returning to a place where it lost 34-13 three weeks ago ” with Parker.

6. Tennessee (10-6, sixth seed). Jeff Fisher would never say “just glad to be here.” But that’s what the Titans are after getting in by beating the Colts’ B Team. It’s not a reflection on Tennessee, simply the fact that in the stronger conference, the Titans don’t hold up. In the NFC, things might be different.

If Vince Young’s leg is OK, the Titans have a slight chance in San Diego. Slight.

1. Dallas (13-3, top seed). Very shaky top seed, largely because T.O. is a question mark. The dreaded high ankle sprain often takes four to six weeks to heal, which means he might not be ready for the first game.

Without T.O., it’s harder on tight end Jason Witten and WR Patrick Crayton as well as quarterback Tony Romo, whose thumb may still be hurting. The Redskins beat the Cowboys 27-6 Sunday and scared them in their first meeting in Dallas, 28-23, in which a replay ruling and a late interception allowed Dallas to pull out the game.

In any case, the Cowboys haven’t been playing very well on offense lately.

2. Washington (9-7, sixth seed). Not really a stretch. Closed with four straight wins. Todd Collins, who sat and watched for 10 years, brings stability to quarterback that the younger and more athletic Jason Campbell doesn’t. And Joe Gibbs, whatever his coaching faux pas this season, still has three Super Bowl rings.

Beyond that is emotion. Sean Taylor’s death seems to have instilled a new purpose in the Redskins. They will have to go coast-to-coast on a short week, Sunday to Saturday, so they may not get by Seattle. But if they win there and get to Dallas …

3. Green Bay (13-3, second seed). Maybe the loss in Chicago two weeks ago was simply a case of losing focus in a rivalry game. Or a problem of special teams mistakes that can be corrected. Or maybe an indication that a team that is one of the NFL’s youngest beyond its 38-year-old quarterback isn’t quite ready for prime time.

First-round winners might determine the Packers’ fate. They might prefer the Seahawks in the second round more than any other team because Seattle doesn’t run the ball, a necessity at Lambeau Field in January. The Packers don’t run well either, although Ryan Grant has provided a lift.

4. New York Giants (10-6, fifth seed). The question is whether the supreme effort against the Patriots gives the Giants momentum. Or did it mentally exhaust them?

“You have to go into the playoffs healthy, you have to go with confidence, you have to go in there with a little bit of a swagger, and I think we have all of those things,” middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said Monday, brushing off injuries that could keep three starters out in Tampa.

A positive: The Giants are 7-1 on the road and can run, always a plus in the playoffs. The X factor is Eli Manning. If he plays as he did against the Patriots, the Giants have a shot. But it’s easy to see Ronde Barber picking off a pass, returning it for the winning TD in Tampa, and watching brother Tiki chortle.

5. Seattle (10-6, third seed). No momentum after clinching the West on Dec. 9 and resting folks. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, especially against a hot team like Washington.

One thing the Seahawks have is experience from their Super Bowl run two years ago. They might even have made it two straight last season ” they took the Bears to overtime in Chicago. They are 7-1 this season at Qwest Field, where they beat the Redskins 20-10 in a second-round game two years ago.

As noted, their lack of a running game will hurt if they have to go to Green Bay in the second round.

6. Tampa Bay (9-7, fourth seed). Kind of a mystery team because the AFC South was so weak ” not one player from the division made the Pro Bowl. Jeff Garcia has had success against the Giants because his short drops, quick release and mobility can neutralize New York’s pass rush. Giants-Bucs is like Washington-Seattle: New York has momentum, the Bucs basically took off the last two weeks.

It’s hard to completely dismiss the Bucs. Yes, they are young, but Barber, Brian Kelly and Derrick Brooks have Super Bowl rings and plenty of experience in the “Tampa Two,” their eponymous defense.

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