FR: Wild-card round

Here is our Football Relativity comparison of the 12 playoff teams from the NFL at the end of the regular season. Note that these teams would have fallen between the 10 and 6 levels in the Week 16 comparison of all 32 teams. We leave some levels blank to show the gap between teams. We’ll make actual picks of the wild-card games Friday.

10 – San Diego Chargers – It’s the Chargers that look like the best team entering the playoffs. An 11-game winning streak will do that, but it’s not just smoke and mirrors. San Diego has an elite quarterback in Philip Rivers, a terrific group of receivers, a solid offensive line, and a defense that has come around as the season progressed. Plus, the Chargers have finally experienced a modicum of playoff success the last two years. PK Nate Kaeding’s postseason meltdowns are a concern, but on the whole San Diego is a dynamic team.

9 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts mailed in the final two weeks of the year, and so momentum is off the board. But the talent is still there, and Peyton Manning is still head and shoulders above anyone else in the league as an impactful quarterback. The thought of the Colts matching up with the Chargers troubles me, but it would be no surprise if the Colts make it all the way to Miami. For that to happen, youngsters like WRs Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon and CBs Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers will have to perform at a high level, but their track record this season suggests this is possible. The Colts aren’t a perfect team, but they’re a very good one. 

8 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints are still the class of the NFC despite a three-game losing streak at the end of the season. No team in the NFC can put up 35 points more easily, and the Superdome home-field advantage is huge. The question is on defense, especially in the secondary, but the Saints have shown the ability to create turnovers in that area. With the Saints offense, getting one turnover is even more lucrative, and the Saints have more return touchdowns than any other defense in the playoffs. All those are good things. New Orleans must protect Drew Brees, and that puts a load on OLT Jermon Bushrod, who has fallen off during the season. But if the Saints can address that issue, they should still be able to sprint into the Super Bowl.

7 – Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles – And now we have the clump in the NFC. The Vikings have a bye, but the way their defense has gone lately is problematic. CB Antoine Winfield isn’t healthy enough to play well (maybe a bye will help, but we’ll see), and that makes the Vikes vulnerable to the pass. On offense, Adrian Peterson’s numbers have fallen off over the second half of the season, and that points to a problem on the offensive line. The offensive tackles are big – maybe too big, because they seem to be wearing down as the season progresses. All those factors, plus Brett Favre’s less than stellar late-season record over the past several years, make the Vikings the most vulnerable of the four teams with a bye. The Cowboys may be the beneficiary of that – if they can get past the Eagles in round one. Dallas now has a third impact front seven player in OLB Anthony Spencer (joining NT Jay Ratliff and OLB DeMarcus Ware), and that has added a scare element to the defense. The Cowboys’ cornerbacks aren’t phenomenal, but Dallas generally generates enough pressure to cover for that. On offense, the Cowboys have a playmaker in Miles Austin, a security blanket in Jason Witten, and an offensive line that seems to have rallied in recent weeks. While the Cowboys’ recent playoff history is awful, there are a lot of pieces in place in big D. The same is true in Philly, where the Eagles had a six-week winning streak until their stink bomb in Dallas last Sunday. Again, this is a team that can get on a roll with a win. To do that, they’ll need some big plays from DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, and the rest of their young offensive weapons. They’ll also need their blitzes to be more fruitful than they were last week against the Cowboys. Whichever team wins this game is going to be a real threat in round 2, which makes the matchup so good.

6 – Green Bay Packers – I almost included the Packers with the group above, but I still have lingering questions about their offensive line. It’s been better (much better) lately, but it’s still not good. Maybe OK, but not good. And that could prove to be a fatal flaw in the playoffs. But everything else is there – a top-flight QB in Aaron Rodgers, a stacked group of receivers, a good running back in Ryan Grant, and a defense that’s playing better and better as the weeks go by. It’s entirely conceivable that the Packers could run through the NFC bracket, but it’s also conceivable to see them lose in Arizona this week. Regardless, this team will be fascinating to watch.

5 – Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots – The Cardinals would probably rate even with the Packers if not for the injuries that could hold Anquan Boldin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out of this week’s game. Regardless, the Cards have the talent to win not only this week but for weeks to come. Even without Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston are a scary pair of wideouts, and Beanie Wells gives Arizona a run-game dimension they didn’t have last year. And on defense, the Cards can generate pressure with Darnell Dockett and even S Adrian Wilson. It still sounds weird to say, but the Cards could repeat as NFC champs – if they can win this week. New England, like Arizona, has a big injury to overcome with Wes Welker out for the playoffs. That’s a huge blow, because Welker was a receiving threat, and he was also basically the Pats’ running game. Maybe the returning Fred Taylor can help move the chains, but that’s a concern. New England could have some Brady-to-Moss big plays, but I don’t foresee enough of those plays to carry them four games in a row. And New England’s defense just isn’t enough of a lockdown unit to carry the team in games where the offense is struggling. A first-round win is likely, but the Pats don’t look like they can go to San Diego and win when they’ll need to.

4 – none

3 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens finished just 9-7, but they let games slip away by missed field goals (vs. Minnesota) and missed touchdowns (vs. Pittsburgh). And the truth is that the Ravens are a little closer to an 11-5 quality team than a 9-7 group. That makes them a scary postseason opponent. The Ravens have a dynamic running game with big-play threat Ray Rice and big load Willis McGahee, running behind a big-time offensive line. Joe Flacco had a good season even though he doesn’t have big play threats. Still, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap are solid. And the Ravens still have a stud front seven that can generate pressure. The problem is pass defense, because the corners are subpar and S Ed Reed has missed time. That makes them susceptible to a Randy Moss type receiver, which is exactly what they must face in round 1. Reed will be back, and that among other things gives the Ravens a chance, but ultimately the cornerback shortcomings may prove to be the difference this Sunday.

2 – none

1 – Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets – These two teams are the least threatening to make the Super Bowl this season. That’s because the way they play – good defense and good run game – isn’t usually sustainable for a four-week run unless that defense is elite (Ravens in 2000 or Steelers in 2005 special). The Jets aren’t that. They have a top-level corner in Darrelle Revis and good statistics, but that defense isn’t going to win four games all by itself. And while the running game featuring Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene is good, eventually the Jets will have to rely on rookie QB Mark Sanchez, and when that happens Sanchez is far more likely to cost them a game than win them one. They’d have to hold Sanchez to limited passes (15 or so) in all four games to win, and that’s just not realistic. The Bengals have a more reliable quarterback in Carson Palmer, and a solid run game in Cedric Benson, but they got a bad matchup in round 1 because instead of counterpunching against a faster-paced team they’re going to have to slug it out. Cincy will probably have to put eight in the box to stop Jones and Greene and then dare Sanchez to beat them. The Bengals do have the corners in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph to win most 1-on-1 matchups, but that’s a risky strategy. Cincy is a good team that has had a good season, but without Antwan Odom, Rey Maualuga, and the late Chris Henry, they don’t have the playmakers to strike fear now that the second season is here.

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