New England's Bill Belichick has it right, of course. Last week's regular-season power rankings don't matter now. The only thing that does is this week's power rankings, because they're the playoff version.
"When we left here last night, we were 14-2 (and ranked first in SI.com's NFL power rankings),'' Belichick said Monday, at least some of it. "This morning we're 0-0 (and still ranked first in SI.com's power rankings)."
If you don't see the distinction there, well, I can't help you. But the good teams know the difference. And this is when they start showing it. It's playoff time. Time for the best teams in the league to step up and prove that we had them ranked in the correct order almost all season long. Or at least roughly. At the end of the year.
Of the eight teams playing this weekend, there's really not an obvious juggernaut in the field. Three of them lost last weekend (Kansas City, Philadelphia and New Orleans), and three others struggled more than expected to win (Baltimore, Indianapolis and Green Bay). That leaves the Jets, who dropped three of their last five games, and Seattle, who went 3-7 since the week before Halloween.
Who knows? Could make for some classic, close games. But probably not, and that's OK, too. We'll watch anyway. It's the playoffs, remember?
Now here's how we rank them as the 12-team Super Bowl tournament begins...
Seed: AFC No.1
|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.|
Seed: NFC No. 1
|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.|
Seed: AFC No. 2
|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?|
Seed: AFC No. 5
|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.|
Seed: NFC No. 5
|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.|
Seed: NFC No. 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.|
Seed: NFC No. 2
|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.|
Seed: AFC No. 3
|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.|
Seed: NFC No. 3
|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.|
Seed: AFC No. 6
|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.|
Seed: AFC No. 4
|Chiefs, who got drilled by three touchdowns at home against Oakland. I suppose we should have expected something along those lines, because of the 12 playoff teams, Kansas City was the only club that didn't go 4-2 or better in its own division. The Chiefs were just 2-4, and even Seattle (4-2) did better. The Raiders almost completely shut down Matt Cassel and the K.C. passing game, and rendered the Chiefs offense one-dimensional. And one-dimensional teams don't usually survive for long at this time of year.|
Seed: NFC No. 4
|Seahawks are the first team in NFL history to post one win apiece in November, December and January and still earn their way into the playoffs. But you never know what can happen when a team gets a little self-confidence in the postseason. Seattle is 5-3 at home this season, and it does own at least one win this season over a fellow playoff team, having won at Chicago in mid-October. But other than that, I think it's we're-just-happy-to-be-here time in the Pacific Northwest.|