Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we break down the NFL's 12-team playoff field from as many angles as occur to us...
• Six new teams made the playoffs this season, so the trend of having the familiar mixed with the fresh is again a significant part of the postseason equation.
We know the Patriots, Steelers and the Ravens so well in the AFC, because they've made a whopping 25 playoff appearances collectively from 2000 on, winning six of the eight Super Bowls they've appeared in during that span.
It's not quite the same success story in the NFC, but still, New Orleans is back in the tournament for the fourth time in six years, Atlanta is making its third trip in four seasons, while Green Bay (eight) and the Giants (seven) have been to the postseason plenty of times since this century began. And did we mention the Packers, Saints and Giants have won three of the past four Super Bowls?
But this month also brings with it the opportunity for some NFL cities and fan bases that have waited an awfully long time to party and celebrate a playoff win. And that's the best part about January.
In the NFC, Detroit is back in the postseason for the first time since 1999, and hasn't won a playoff game since the 1991 NFC divisional round. San Francisco is making its first playoff run since 2002, the Falcons haven't won a game in the postseason since 2004, and even the Giants have gone four years between tastes of playoff success, getting blanked after knocking off the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl in early 2008.
In the AFC, the highlight is Houston making the first playoff appearance in the 10-year history of the franchise, with the city having not experienced the postseason since the Oilers last made it in 1993, and not having won a game since 1991's wild-card round. But let's not slight Cincinnati, Houston's first-round opponent on Saturday. Yes, the Bengals made the playoffs in both 2009 and 2005, but they haven't won a game in the postseason since 1990, when Sam Wyche was still their coach and Boomer Esiason their quarterback. Somebody's long playoff drought is about to end.
AFC West champ Denver is another surprise playoff qualifier. The 8-8 Tim Tebow-led Broncos backed into the berth beeping like a garbage truck in reverse, but they're at home on Sunday against heavily favored Pittsburgh (12-4), where we last saw them in the postseason, losing to the wild-card Steelers in the 2005 AFC title game.
There's your 2011 NFL playoff field: A little old, a little new, something Tebowed and something blue (the Giants, Lions and navy-clad Texans?). What else could we possibly ask for?
• One particular media behemoth -- and funny, but I don't recall which one -- dubbed this the Year of the Quarterback some time back. But in reality, it's the year of the quarterback every year in the playoffs. Of the 12 starting passers who made this year's tournament, five already own Super Bowl rings: Tom Brady (three), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers (one each). Other than Peyton Manning, who sat out the entire season, there are no other active starting quarterbacks in the league who have won a Super Bowl.
Those six elite QBs have combined to win nine of the most recent 10 Super Bowls (a streak interrupted only by Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson in the 2002 season), and together they've combined for 12 Super Bowl appearances from 2001 on. And I'm pretty sure that number is destined to grow next month.
• Besides quarterbacking, coaching is the other difference-making component come playoff time, and it's no surprise that exactly half of this year's headset crowd in the postseason has been there and done that when it comes to making Super Bowl runs.
Bill Belichick (three), Tom Coughlin, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy already have scaled the NFL's ultimate mountain, winning the Super Bowl, and John Fox led his 2003 Carolina Panthers into the big game but lost narrowly to New England.
The only playoff newbies in the coaching field are San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh (the only rookie head coach to make the postseason), Detroit's Jim Schwartz (third season), and Houston's Gary Kubiak (sixth season). Baltimore's John Harbaugh (four trips), Atlanta's Mike Smith (three trips) and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (three trips) all have made multiple playoff appearances with their teams, although Smith and Lewis are still seeking their first wins.
• There are no slouches among the four highest-seeded teams in this year's playoffs. The Packers, 49ers, Patriots and Ravens have combined to go 53-11 (.828) this season, and from 2000-on that's the second-highest winning percentage authored by the clubs with first-round byes. Only in 2007, when the vaunted 16-0 Patriots led the way, did the top-four-seeded teams do better in the regular season, going a gaudy 55-9 (.859) jointly.
• For a league that doesn't play much defense any more, there certainly is a lot of talent and experience at the defensive coordinator position in the playoffs. No fewer than six of the 12 D-coordinators in the postseason were head coaches at least once in the NFL: Houston's Wade Phillips, Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, Green Bay's Dom Capers, New Orleans' Gregg Williams, Detroit's Gunther Cunningham and the Giants' Perry Fewell, who was an interim head coach for seven games in Buffalo in 2009.
Those guys have been around the block a little bit, eh? LeBeau made his NFL debut as a player in 1959, and has either played or coached with four teams in this year's playoffs (Lions, Bengals, Steelers and Packers). But Capers has that beat, having served on the coaching staffs of five 2011 playoff clubs: Houston, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and New England, leading the expansion Texans from 2002 to 2005.
Phillips first coached in the league with the Houston Oilers in 1976, and was an interim head coach in New Orleans as far back as 1985. Cunningham broke into the NFL coaching ranks in 1982 with the Baltimore Colts, and Williams started his coaching career in the league in 1990 with the Houston Oilers.
The offensive coordinators in the playoffs don't have quite the same pedigree, but still, four of them were once NFL head coaches: Atlanta's Mike Mularkey, Detroit's Scott Linehan, Baltimore's Cam Cameron and the Giants' Kevin Gilbride.
• You might have heard that the two No. 1 seeds in the playoffs, Green Bay and New England, have had their defensive troubles this season. By the somewhat meaningless yards allowed per game ranking, the Patriots are 31st in the league with 411.1 surrendered, and the Packers are dead last, a half-yard worse off at 411.6.
Big trouble ahead in Green Bay and New England? Maybe. But it's not as scary as it sounds. In terms of points allowed -- and that's still the way wins and losses are determined in the NFL -- the Patriots ranked 15th overall, with 21.4 points given up per game. That's better than five other playoff qualifiers, including Atlanta (21.9), Green Bay (22.4), Detroit (24.2), Denver (24.4), and the Giants (25.0).
The Packers' 22.4 points allowed per game ranked 19th this season, not great, but not bottom of the barrel either. Again, three other playoff teams gave up more points per game on average.
And to look on the bright side, even with their defensive challenges, Green Bay and New England still had enough offense to get the job done 28 out of 32 times this season. The Packers averaged a league-best 35 points per game, with New England finishing third in that department (32.1), trailing only Green Bay and New Orleans (34.2). The Patriots (428.0) and Packers (405.1) were second and third in the league in yards gained.
• Not to say there's no correlation between winning and quality defense. Obviously there is, because the top four defensive teams in the league all made the playoff field. In points allowed, it was Pittsburgh (14.2), San Francisco (14.3), Baltimore (16.6) and Houston (17.4). In yards allowed, the order got shuffled only slightly among those same four: Pittsburgh (271.8), Houston (285.7), Baltimore (288.9) and San Francisco (308.1).
Still, we would remind you that three of the past five Super Bowl champions have been offensively-driven teams that won without gaudy defensive statistics, except in the takeaway department in some cases: The 2006 Colts, the 2009 Saints and the 2010 Packers.
• Green Bay and New England fans might want to skip this last item, because it doesn't turn out well for anyone involved. If recent postseason history is any guide, one of the No. 1 seeds won't make the Super Bowl, and the other one will reach Indianapolis, but lose the game.
Seven times in the past 11 seasons, that scenario has held true:
-- In 2000, the No. 1 Titans lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Giants lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore.
-- In 2001, the No. 1 Steelers lost in the AFC title game, and the No. 1 Rams lost the Super Bowl to New England.
-- In 2002, the No. 1 Eagles lost in the NFC title game, and the No. 1 Raiders lost the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay.
-- In 2004, the No. 1 Steelers lost in the AFC title game, and the No. 1 Eagles lost the Super Bowl to New England.
-- In 2005, the No. 1 Colts lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Seahawks lost the Super Bowl to Pittsburgh.
-- In 2006, the No. 1 Chargers lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Bears lost the Super Bowl to Indianapolis.
-- In 2007, the No. 1 Cowboys lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
The past three years have seen four No. 1 seeds lose their playoff openers: the Giants and Titans in 2008, and the Patriots and Falcons in 2010. In 2009, both No. 1 seeds made the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993, with New Orleans beating Indy in the big game.