So here we are, just moments away from the kickoff of the first game of the NFL playoffs, and that makes it time for my personal predictions on how this month-long tournament will play out.
Let's start at home with our Philadelphia Eagles. What a tremendous, in some ways over-achieving season it has been for the Birds. When the team left training camp in early September, most fans were planning on a rebuilding year as Kevin Kolb took over at quarterback after a decade behind Donovan McNabb. An 8-8 finish that showed positive signs for 2011 would probably have been considered a success at that point.
But in the opening game against Green Bay, Kolb was injured. In stepped Michael Vick. The rest, as they say, is history. Vick emerged as an uncommon weapon, and an NFL MVP candidate. The team took off behind his acrobatics, bolted to the front of the NFC East, and then capped it all with a rally for the ages in a late December game against the rival New York Giants to take the division crown.
That the team faltered in it's final two regular season games should not be as much cause for concern as it seems to have become for some fans and members of the media. The team was obviously thrown off by the sudden switch of the Vikings game from Sunday night to Tuesday night due to snow a couple of weeks ago.
That surprising defeat led to the full-scale benching of regulars for the finale against Dallas, as Andy Reid basically gave them a bye week. The result was a close, last-minute loss by the Eagles subs to the Cowboys regulars.
The more important factors for the Eagles entering the opening week matchup are their opponents, and the condition of their own players. The Eagles have lost key contributors in the past couple of weeks, while the Packers have played extremely well since the return to health of their outstanding quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
I want the Eagles to win. I will be rooting hard for it to happen.
I want to be wrong. Because putting a gun to my head, which is what you basically do when you come out in public with predictions, and I will pick the Packers to advance.
Most of Eagles Nation cannot be upset with me, because they feel the same way. In a poll taken at Philly.com, a full 50% of fans believe "The Pack will prevail", while 38% said the Eagles will "win - barely" and another 12% said "The Birds will win big."
Let's call the final score something along the lines of 27-20, Green Bay. The Eagles best chance will be for a beat-up offensive line to find a way to give Vick enough time to make a handful of big plays and have the Eagles win a high-scoring affair. I see the banged-up offensive line and a defense that still needs 1-2 more playmakers falling just a bit short. I hope I am wrong.
So with the Eagles fate out of the way with, time to turn attention to the rest of the tournament. In the rest of the opening weekend, I am looking for wins from Baltimore over Kansas City, New Orleans over Seattle, and Indianapolis over the New York Jets.
I think the Ravens are just physical enough to edge out KC on the road. The defending Super Bowl champion Saints are back, are hot, and are much better than the host Seahawks. And I am going to always find it hard to bet against Peyton Manning at home.
This means that my 2nd round matchups will have New England beating Baltimore, Pittsburgh beating Indianapolis, Atlanta beating Green Bay, and New Orleans beating Chicago. The Pats are just too good right now for anyone.
The Steelers get Manning in wintry western Pennsylvania. The Falcons have too much offense, especially inside their dome. And the defending champs are just better than Da Bears, even outside on the road in winter.
In the respective conference title tilts, I will go with the Pats over the Steelers and the Saints over the Falcons. Again, until someone shows me that I am wrong, New England looks like the best team in football right now. And heading back indoors for the NFC Championship, I will pick Drew Brees over Matt Ryan in what should be an epic title game.
That brings us to the Big Game, the NFL Championship at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas. With the Cowboys thankfully not in attendance, I am looking for Tom Brady to lead the Patriots to the title for the fourth time in 10 years. This will put the New England Patriots franchise behind only the Steelers (6), Cowboys (5) and 49ers (5) for all-time Super Bowl victories. Brady should be the MVP.
There ya have it. Let the games begin. Again, I would absolutely love for Michael Vick to become a true miracle worker and lead the Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl title. The team certainly has some of the top offensive weapons, has the 2nd best head coach, and has a rabid fan base. But it will again be the Patriots year come February 6th, 2011 in 'Big D'.