Senior writers Jim Trotter and Damon Hack forecast the race to Super Bowl XLIV
1. COLTS (South)
Peyton Manning hasn't missed a beat despite breaking in two young wide receivers and rookie running back Donald Brown, and the defense, even without some key players, is more creative and aggressive under new coordinator Larry Coyer. With a 3½-game lead in the division, Indy's biggest enemy down the stretch could be complacency.
November 16, 2009
2. STEELERS (North)
The defending Super Bowl champs are in a divisional dogfight with surprising Cincinnati, but as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (below) stays healthy and safety Troy Polamalu shows he's fully recovered from that Week 1 knee injury, this battle-tested team will make a run at a seventh Super Bowl title.
3. NEW ENGLAND (East)
The Patriots haven't dominated many teams, but the three-time champions know how to win games at the end. Tom Brady, who's coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, looks more comfortable each week, and the defense is jelling after losing a handful of veteran stalwarts to retirement, trade or release.
4. DENVER (West)
The Broncos have been the surprise of the league under new coach Josh McDaniels. The offense is efficient and largely turnover free with Jay Cutler's replacement, Kyle Orton, at quarterback, and the defense is at or near the top of the league in most significant categories. That's a proven recipe for reaching the playoffs.
5. CHARGERS (Wild card)
San Diego made late-season runs under coach Norv Turner in the past two years, and the schedule is set up for yet another surge. The Chargers, winners of three in a row, could be dangerous in the playoffs—they ended the Colts' season in the last two Januaries.
6. BENGALS (Wild card)
Marvin Lewis has his club believing. Carson Palmer is healthy and back in form, Cedric Benson has provided the running attack Cincy lacked in previous seasons, and the defense is coming together under second-year coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Wild-card Round PATRIOTS over BENGALS, CHARGERS over BRONCOS
Divisional Round CHARGERS over COLTS, STEELERS over PATRIOTS
Championship Game STEELERS over CHARGERS
1. SAINTS (South)
New Orleans has become the most complete team in football thanks to a healthy offensive cast around Drew Brees (below) and a new defensive philosophy instilled by coordinator Gregg Williams. They could have the comfort of spending the playoffs in the Superdome.
2. VIKINGS (North)
In many ways Minnesota was the story of the season's first half, with Brett Favre twice taking down his old team Green Bay, Adrian Peterson barreling over and breaking away from tacklers and Jared Allen toppling opposing passers. It isn't unfair to ask, though, whether a 40-year-old quarterback can keep winging passes—strongly and accurately—deep into the postseason.
3. COWBOYS (East)
Dallas has asserted itself as the bully of the deepest division in the league. Quarterback Tony Romo is finally hitting his stride by limiting his mistakes and spreading the football around, and the Cowboys' defense has become especially stout.
4. CARDINALS (West)
Like previous Super Bowl runners-up, Arizona has found the following season to be a grind. Inconsistency and turnovers have dogged quarterback Kurt Warner at times, and the Cardinals' defense has given up too many big plays. In a weakened division, however, Arizona will find a way to the top.
5. FALCONS (Wild card)
Matt Ryan's sophomore season has had a few more valleys than his rookie year (successive QB ratings of 68.4, 66.1 and 46.6 in Weeks 6 through 8), but his poise remains impressive. Better offensive balance will carry Atlanta to its second straight postseason.
6. EAGLES (Wild card)
In DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek, Philadelphia is discovering it has a group of receivers as dynamic as the Terrell Owens--led unit that went to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. But home losses to the Saints and the Cowboys suggest this year's Eagles will have trouble making it as far.
Wild-card Round COWBOYS over EAGLES, FALCONS over CARDINALS
Divisional Round SAINTS over FALCONS, VIKINGS over COWBOYS
Championship Game SAINTS over VIKINGS
SUPER BOWL XLIV Dolphins Stadium, Miami, Feb. 7, 2010 SAINTS 31, STEELERS 27