In this NFL season the mighty Cardinals beat the Patriots in Foxborough. The Jets actually scored 48 points in a game. The 75th pick in the draft (Seattle's Russell Wilson) finished with a higher passer rating than Tom Brady and Drew Brees; the 173rd pick (Washington's Alfred Morris) rushed for more yards than Ray Rice and, well, everyone not named Adrian Peterson. The same Giants defensive cast that stifled Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Brady in last year's postseason ranked 31st in the league in defense this year.
This is an article from the Jan. 14, 2013 issue
The Colts, Redskins and Seahawks won 14 games combined last year, and none made the playoffs. The Colts, Redskins and Seahawks started rookie quarterbacks every game this season and won 32 games combined this year. All made the playoffs.
In other words, forecast the regular season at your own risk.
But the playoffs? Not as tough to pick as you'd think. You don't have to be Nate Silver to see how past performance helps predict future results. Here are five pieces of advice when you sit down to figure out who will meet in Super Bowl XLVII—and who will win.
1. Seeds are meaningless. Seeding of the last seven Super Bowl champs, starting with the most recent: 4, 6, 1, 2, 5, 3, 6. The last two teams to win the Super Bowl, the Giants and the Packers, played five of their six conference playoff games on the road, showing that the playoffs are about who's playing best in January, not who's playing at home. The fifth-seed Seahawks will have to win at Atlanta and then at Green Bay or San Francisco to reach the Super Bowl this year, but recent history says you shouldn't discount their chances.
2. It's good to have a quarterback with a pedigree. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers—is this a list of the six quarterbacks who have won the last nine Super Bowls or a roll call of the Canton-bound QBs of this era? Or both? When San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh benched Smith for Colin Kaepernick in November, part of his thinking was that he knew he needed a quarterback in January who could make more plays than Smith did against the playoff-tested Giants in last year's NFC title game. And certainly when Denver president John Elway went all in chasing free agent Peyton Manning last March, he was thinking of winning a Super Bowl, not a wild-card game.
3. It's best to have a quarterback you trust in the biggest moments. Brady began to make his bones with a field goal drive in the last two minutes to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl 11 years ago. Eli Manning might have fashioned a Hall of Fame bust with his late touchdown drives to beat the Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Those two Eli wins bracketed three other superb performances by the winning QBs in the intervening Super Bowls: Roethlisberger's threading the needle to Santonio Holmes to beat Arizona, Brees's completing 15 straight against the Colts and Rodgers's making a perfect arcing throw downfield to Greg Jennings on the winning drive against the Steelers.
4. You'd better be playing good defense, with a pass rush. All 16 Super Bowl winners since 1995 have allowed fewer than three touchdowns per game, on average, in their postseason runs. The Giants' pass rush is what stood in the way of Brady's having four or five Super Bowl rings. Think of the roles that Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Robert Mathis, respectively, played in the Packers', Steelers' and Colts' recent Super Bowl runs.
5. Being hot down the stretch is important—but not as essential as being healthy. In 2007, the Giants lost two of three and squeezed in as a wild card. Two years later New Orleans went from 13--0 to 13--3 before rampaging through the postseason. But the last nine Super Bowl winners had their starting quarterbacks and top two offensive weapons intact in the playoffs, except for a gimpy Plaxico Burress in '07 for the Giants—and even he caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII.
So let's see who fits the criteria as the NFL enters the divisional playoff round this weekend. In the AFC, Denver has the established quarterback in Peyton Manning, the pass rush with Von Miller (page 56) and Elvis Dumervil, good health and the hot-down-the-stretch element—the Broncos have won 11 in a row. New England has most of that ... but its best pass rusher is potentially wounded. Rob Ninkovich, who led the team with eight sacks, limped off the field in Week 17 with a hip injury, and though he'll play on Sunday against Houston, he may be limited. The Texans' Matt Schaub hasn't proved he can be trusted in the big spot yet, and Baltimore's struggling offense and patchwork defense make the Ravens long shots.
In the NFC all bets are off with the Seahawks because this rookie-quarterback thing in the NFL is uncharted territory. Never before had three rookie quarterbacks started in a postseason—never mind on the same day, as happened on Sunday. But Wilson has been defying conventional wisdom all season, so if the Seahawks stay hot and continue to pass-rush the way they have down the stretch, they'll contend. For top seed Atlanta, Ryan fits the pedigree part, but he's never won a playoff game. And the Falcons' only sack threat, John Abraham, was carted off the field in the regular-season finale with a sprained left ankle, which could limit his effectiveness when he returns this weekend. Plus there's the pressure that comes from being a very good regular-season team and a very bad playoff team: Under coach Mike Smith, Atlanta is 0--3 in the postseason.
That leaves the 49ers and the Packers, who will meet in San Francisco on Saturday night. The temptation with the Niners is to say Kaepernick is not ready for this stage. But he was ready when he faced—and outdueled—Brees at the Superdome and Brady in Foxborough, so why wouldn't he be ready to play anyone anywhere now? The Niners' defense, clearly, will be good enough.
The Packers had to win in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago two years ago to make the Super Bowl, so the trip to the Bay shouldn't be a bother. And how good did Aaron Rodgers look last Saturday night, especially on the run? To make it to the Super Bowl, Rodgers is going to have to do precisely what he did against Minnesota in the Packers' 24--10 wild-card win: roll out and throw accurately. Right now no quarterback in football, including all the fuzzy-cheeked precocious ones, throws an accurate dart outside the pocket the way Rodgers does.
When the Packers gathered in Green Bay last July, coach Mike McCarthy thought long and hard about what he wanted to say to set the stage for the season. He's not a fire-and-brimstone guy. He's a pragmatist. And after Green Bay's 37--20 home loss to the Giants in the divisional playoff round last year, he soul-searched and found ... not a lot wrong. He knew he still had a good team, a team that had to play better defensively, but a good team nonetheless. And so this is what he told his players in July, inside Lambeau Field: There are two types of championship teams. One's the kind that goes on a run at the end of the season, gets hot and takes it into the playoffs and wins. The other starts out winning and stays hot the whole season. But either way you've got to play great at the end. There's no prize for being great just in the regular season.
Four quarterbacks know that, painfully. Brady's Patriots have lost in the postseason six times since their last Super Bowl win. Three times Ryan's hopes have been dashed in January. And Manning and Rodgers ... they've had January nightmares in the very recent past. But watching Rodgers put up 113 points over the last three weeks, with those receivers, sells me, as does a defense that will be better with Matthews and safety Charles Woodson (who missed the final nine games of the regular season with a broken collarbone) making plays. Watching Manning put up 30 or more in nine of the last 11 games shows me he's ready for one last duel at 10 paces with Brady in a championship game. And he's ready to win it.
I picked Green Bay 33, Denver 30 in August. Rodgers and Manning have shown me there's no reason to change it now.
The Final Eight Forecast
After a wildly entertaining—and often mind-boggling—18 weeks of football, Peter King is sticking with the Super Bowl picks he made at the start of it all
SUPER BOWL XLVII
6:30 p.m. Eastern Superdome, New Orleans
BEST OF 2012
After much meditation—some of it ongoing—Peter King dishes out his year-end honors
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Running back, Vikings
It's hard not to pick Peyton Manning, but Peterson's phenomenal finish—135 carries, 861 yards and six TDs as the Vikes went 4--1 against a bear of a stretch-run schedule—made the difference, taking his team to the playoffs.
Running back, Vikings
With every defense game-planning solely for him (the Vikes were 31st in passing), Peterson still had the second-best rushing total in history—2,097 yards, including 150-plus in seven of his last 10 games.
Defensive end, Texans
I'd argue that he had the best season ever for a 3--4 defensive end: a league-leading 20½ sacks, an NFL-record 16 pass deflections and 39 tackles at or behind the line on running plays. Name a better season by a complete end.
He edges out RG3, Andrew Luck and Alfred Morris thanks to his stretch run: an eye-popping 120.3 passer rating in November and December, with a better TD-INT differential (+14) in that time than Peyton or Tom Brady (+13 each).
Walked in on Day One and raised the play of a needy linebacker corps, particularly impressive for a second-rounder from mid-level Utah State. The tackling machine improved in coverage as the year went on.
TIE: CHUCK PAGANO & BRUCE ARIANS
With the leukemia-stricken Pagano coaching for 12 weeks by text, voice mail, e-mail and inspiration, Arians went 9--3 and sailed Indianapolis into the playoffs. Then Pagano returned, and the Colts beat the big, bad Texans.
TIE: ADRIAN PETERSON & PEYTON MANNING
After undergoing four surgeries in two years and missing all of 2011, Manning had one of his three best seasons. Peterson, returning 37 weeks after major knee reconstruction, had arguably the best rushing season ever. Call it a draw.
He edges out Indy's Ryan Grigson, who rebuilt 70% of his roster in one off-season. Schneider could very well become the first NFL G.M. to have drafted both rookies of the year—Wilson and Wagner—after the first round.
The Rest of 2012
Charting the season's highs and lows
Washington QB Robert Griffin III singing "Hail to the Redskins" one hour after being drafted by them
BEST DRAFT CHOICE
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, taken 75th overall, after five other QBs
MOST INVISIBLE DRAFT CHOICE
49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins, taken 45 picks before Wilson: 37 snaps, zero catches
BEST UNDRAFTED ROOKIE
Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict, whose 127 tackles topped the AFC North
MOST INDELIBLE LOSS TO FOOTBALL
The death on Sept. 18 of NFL Films cofounder Steve Sabol, at age 69, of cancer
Jets deal fourth-rounder for Tim Tebow and get 77 plays, 141 yards, zero TDs, loads of negative attention
TURN PAGE FOR GAME ANALYSIS
SI's experts break down the divisional round matchups, making the case for each of 2012's final eight teams.
Five-way tie: Chiefs, Eagles, Mark Sanchez (right), Bills defense, David Akers
Adrian Peterson rushed for 861 yards in December, more than all but 18 running backs gained all season
The read option, popularized by the Redskins, making the wishbone (sort of) hip once again
WORST REFFING GAFFE
Clete Blakeman's crew lost track of 72 seconds—2% of the time!— in a Rams-49ers game
KR Deji Karim, signed by the Colts on Dec. 11 out of a hotel parking lot, had a 101-yarder three weeks later
Best of 2012 In Pictures
A closer look at Peter King's picks for this season's awards
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Defensive end, Texans
J.J. Swatt, Mega Watt—whatever you call him, he's become the league's most disruptive defensive force.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
A 100.0 rating and 26 TD passes—not bad for a third-round pick.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
His 140 tackles led Seattle and ranked seventh in the NFL.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
Sensing a pattern? Schneider builds smart: for now and the future.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR (TIE)
Running back, Vikings
If you don't know why, you just haven't been paying attention.
COACH OF THE YEAR (TIE)
CHUCK PAGANO AND BRUCE ARIANS
Under the most trying circumstances, they piloted the most unlikely playoff team in years.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR (TIE)
A cinch if not for Peterson, the four-time MVP showed zero rust after four neck procedures and a year on the sidelines.
Complete coverage of the NFL playoffs, including Peter King's and Chris Burke's breakdowns of each divisional-round game, at SI.com/mag