4 teams left. Let’s play football relativity on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible team, and 1 being the worst possible team. (Worst possible will be on a playoff-caliber scale; think New York Jets at the end of the year, not Detroit Lions at the end of the year.)
10- None. (Patriots last year would have qualified for the 10 level at some point, but every team this year has flaws.)
8- Pittsburgh – The Steelers aren’t a perfect team, but they’re a cut above anyone left in the playoffs. They have a tested QB, solid RBs, a breakaway WR in Santonio Holmes, an offensive line that has its stuff together, and a devastating defense. The Steelers aren’t going to score 30 very often, but they’re not giving up more than 21 unless something strange happens (only twice in the regular season.) They’re not a prohibitive favorite to win, but if this were the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, they’d be at even par and two shots up after two rounds.
6 – Baltimore – The defense is really good. LeRon McClain and the running game are pretty good. The rookie quarterback isn’t bad. All in all, Baltimore is a worthy team. I’d pick them to win against either NFC team remaining. And they could win a slugfest in Pittsburgh. But if the Ravens and Steelers played best of 7, it would be 4-2 or maybe 4-3 Pittsburgh. So on the relativity poll, the Ravens fall a couple of tiers below.
5 – Philadelphia. Why do I still get the feeling we’re going to see the Hyde side of the Eagles in the playoffs? The Jekylls have been good (but not great) in the first two games. They’ve gotten big turnovers to set up points, and the defense has held firm. But if they don’t get a defensive touchdown (or a drive starting on the opponent’s 1-yard line), can they score? That’s yet to be seen. Arizona’s defense isn’t as good as the Giants or the Vikings, but it’s not bad. And I don’t think the 23 points the Eagles have scored in each of the first two games will be enough in this one. Does Donovan McNabb have a monster game waiting? Or will it just be monstrous – like Mr. Hyde?
4 – Arizona. On the road the Cardinals would be a 3, but they played so much better at home this year that they move up a tier thanks to home-field advantage. At the beginning of the playoffs, Arizona would have been a 1 or maybe a 2, if I was being generous. But the playoffs have shown a team that is much better and more aggressive defensively than the final month of the season showed. That, plus Kurt Warner avoiding fumbilitis, make the Cardinals dangerous. Larry Fitzgerald took full advantage of his first real national platform last weekend, and if he can have a similar performance this week, he could end up as the breakout star of the playoffs. (That’s a mini outlandish prediction; the full monty is coming later this week.)