By Don Banks
January 06, 2010

In a regular season in which teams starting 6-0 (Denver) and 5-0 (the Giants) didn't even make the playoffs, the postseason that's about to unfold promises to be just as unconventional. The NFC's six-team field appears to have no favorite, but plenty of solid possibilities to reach Miami. The AFC is led by powerhouses in San Diego and Indianapolis (a combined record of 27-5), and four scuffling teams that seem fortunate just to have survived into January. Let the intrigue and surprise plot-twists begin.

We didn't even bother to list how our 12 playoff qualifiers finished in our Week 17 NFL power rankings, because regular-season records and rankings don't matter now. We've re-set the field based on how we see each team's up-to-minute strengths, weaknesses and mojo readings. As always, your results may vary.

Now on to this week's rankings...

NFL Playoff Power Rankings
1 San Diego Chargers
AFC Seed: 2
The thing the Chargers don't do under Norv Turner that they did under Marty Schottenheimer is play tight once the playoffs arrive. Playing Martyball in both 2004 and 2006, San Diego wasted huge seasons with one-and-done homefield playoff exits, but the Chargers have won three playoff games the past two seasons under the laid-back Turner, and only the Giants have won more in that span. Maybe it's because Turner's Chargers have started slowly each year, forcing them to play with a sense of urgency from midseason on. By the time the playoffs roll around, they're used to the pressure, and it doesn't paralyze them. San Diego has played free and easy over the course of its NFL-high 11-game winning streak, and the timing finally seems right for the Chargers to return to the Super Bowl in Miami, where they last appeared on the game's grandest stage 15 years ago.
2 Dallas Cowboys
NFC Seed: 3
Having proven they could handle the pressure of winning big games late in the regular season for the first time in years, the Cowboys now face their biggest hurdle: Winning in the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was still in his first term. Believe it or not, I think over-confidence might be their enemy this week, because how can they possibly play better at home against Philadelphia than they did in last week's 24-0 smackdown of the Eagles? And remember this: the NFC East has two teams in the playoffs for the NFL-best fifth consecutive year, and eighth time this decade. But in three of the past four years, the NFC East champ has lost its playoff opener at home (2005 and '08 Giants, '07 Cowboys) while a wild-card entry from the division has advanced further (2008 Eagles, 2007 Giants, 2005 Redskins).
3 Green Bay Packers
NFC Seed: 5
When the Packers were 4-4 and coming off a loss at Tampa Bay at midseason, my pick of Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl didn't look so sage, but I love the formula the Packers have won with since then to become the second hottest team behind only San Diego. Green Bay's defense produces sacks and turnovers and is stingy against the run, while its offense is consistently winning the battle of the passing game. That's how you win in the playoffs. The Packers also enter this weekend playing with supreme confidence, having come within a last-second Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass of going 8-0 in the season's second half. Green Bay just seems to match up well against the Cardinals, whom it mauled in Week 3 of the preseason, when teams at least try to simulate the regular season for some of the game, and mauled again in last week's somewhat meaningless finale.
4 Indianapolis Colts
AFC Seed: 1
I keep coming back to this set of statistics when I consider how far these play-it-safe Colts will go in this year's playoffs: In the three seasons in which Indy has had a first-round bye in the Peyton Manning era, it's 0-3, with divisional-round losses at home in 1999, 2005 and 2007. In the six seasons in which the Colts have been forced to take part in the first round of the postseason, they're 3-3 in those games, with a 7-5 overall playoff record in those years. This is a team that has clearly struggled with the how-much-is-too-much-rest issue.
5 New Orleans Saints
NFC Seed: 1
Here's a sobering statistic for Saints fans to chew on as the playoffs open: New Orleans led the NFL in scoring this season with a franchise-record 510 points, but the last team to lead the league in that department and win the Super Bowl was the 1999 Rams. Throughout the decade of the 2000s, no Super Bowl winner even led their conference in points scored, let alone the league. The only scoring leaders to even get to the Super Bowl this decade were the 2001 Rams (503 points) and the 2007 Patriots (589).
6 New England Patriots
AFC Seed: 3
The impact of losing Wes Welker extends in a lot of directions for the Patriots, but I look for New England to find ways to cope with it for at least the first week of the playoffs. A three- or four-game postseason run is hard to imagine without Welker, but the Patriots should be able to compensate over the short term. Rookie receiver Julian Edelman has already shown he can run a lot of the same routes as Welker, and I also expect New England to balance out its offense against Baltimore, de-emphasizing the passing game a bit in favor of running the ball. In their Week 4 win over the Ravens, the Patriots threw 32 passes and called 30 runs, and spreading the ball around should minimize the loss of New England's top play-maker.
7 Philadelphia Eagles
NFC Seed: 6
I'm not convinced the Eagles doomed their playoff chances with that egg they laid at Dallas last week, because Andy Reid's teams usually respond to a severe low with a much improved effort the next time around. But I'm not pumping up Philly chances to turn the tables on the Cowboys because of the theory that it's difficult to beat any team three times in one season. I seem to recall that was the mantra in last year's AFC playoffs, but it didn't really keep Pittsburgh from knocking off Baltimore in the AFC title game. If the Eagles can get their share of explosive plays at Dallas, the Cowboys can definitely be had.
8 Minnesota Vikings
NFC Seed: 2
I'd feel a lot better about the Vikings having regenerated some sense of momentum heading into the playoffs if it wasn't the mail-it-in Giants they beat up in Week 17. Nothing about New York's effort the last two weeks of the season was up to NFL standards. It's Minnesota's defense that concerns me most. When was the last time the Vikings D handled a quality offense? It was in Week 8 at Green Bay, and the Packers scored 26 points in that loss. Since then, Minnesota has beaten Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Cincinnati and the Giants. Not an explosive offense among them.
9 Arizona Cardinals
NFC Seed: 4
The Cardinals seem to thrive whenever they're doubted, and that's a powerful psychological weapon to have at your disposal in the postseason. Ken Whisenhunt's club went the whole season without losing consecutive games, and that does speak to its mental toughness and resiliency. But Arizona won't have the element of surprise on its side in this year's postseason, and by now Green Bay is an opponent that's far too familiar with how the Cardinals like to attack. Unless Arizona's defense does a better job of roughing up Aaron Rodgers than I expect, this is a very difficult first-round assignment for the Cardinals.
10 Baltimore Ravens
AFC Seed: 6
As well as the Ravens are running the ball with Ray Rice and a re-energized Willis McGahee, the key to winning in Foxboro this week will be jumping out to a decent lead on the strength of the Joe Flacco-led passing game. If Baltimore can throw some early points on the board, it may well take the crowd out of the game and throw the Patriots defense on its heels. Then Baltimore can pound away with its two-headed running attack and take some chances on defense with the banged up Tom Brady forced to throw more than he would like. It wouldn't be shocking for the Ravens to pull the upset in New England, but they've got to dictate the way the game unfolds.
11 New York Jets
AFC Seed: 5
New York isn't your average 9-7 team, not with the league's top-ranked defense and top-ranked running game to its credit. But New York is that rare playoff team that enters the postseason with a quarterback who has been holding it back for most of the year, rather than propelling it onward. The Jets' formula won't take them the whole way this month, but for the third weekend in a row, they're playing the right team. The Bengals in six days aren't going to be able to close the gap that was on display last Sunday night at the Meadowlands. New York's no-respect tour will last at least into next weekend's divisional round.
12 Cincinnati Bengals
AFC Seed: 4
Credit to Marvin Lewis for building a team that was designed to win in the AFC North. The Bengals were 6-0 in the division this year and got the job done with solid work against the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. But Cincy's 1-5 mark against the rest of the AFC was telltale, and it leaves the Bengals as the longest of the long shots to challenge the rest of the conference's playoff bracket. There's not enough explosiveness in the Bengals offense, and their defense has lost a little of its swagger over the past month.

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