Celizic: No Favorites in Wide-open NFL Playoffs

Good luck if you’re in a postseason office pool

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We could have had an epic story line or two going into the NFL playoffs, if only the Colts and Saints cared as much about our narrative as they do about their season.

Indianapolis could have been undefeated and going after that prehistoric Dolphins team everybody talks about. For a while, it looked as if New Orleans would also be undefeated, setting up a battle of the titans that Homer would have liked.

But, alas, the Saints lost their mojo and the Colts sneered at their shot at immortality, tossing it aside as if an undefeated season were no more desirable than a sinus infection. At the same time, the Vikings, the other team that could have been the NFC’s designated juggernaut, also decided to take December off.

So the postseason drama that begins with all eyes focused on one super team and ends with the blogosphere debating whether we have seen one of the great teams of all time is dead on arrival. But as much fun as it is rooting against a dominating team, it’s even better watching everyone take their shot.

That’s what we’ve got this year. The big names — except for the defending champion Steelers — are in. And they’ve all got a shot.

It's one in which a handicapper can make a case for — and against — everyone. Good luck if you’re in a postseason office pool.

That’s appropriate for a season that’s been as unpredictable as the weather. Remember back in September when the Giants rolling? That was around the same time when the Packers and the Chargers couldn’t get things together. And then there were the Jets, who were in it, then totally out of it, and now they’re in it, the last team to make the field.

The Chargers started slow and finished fast. The Saints started fast and finished slow. The Bengals have looked like world beaters and like the old Bungles.

Going into Week 17, the Eagles were the NFC's hottest team. After getting thrashed by the Cowboys, you could argue that the hot team is now Green Bay, which has won seven of eight and ended the season by kicking the Cardinals from Mexico to the Grand Canyon and back.

Still, it’s hard to pick the Packers or anyone else when you think about how incredibly good the Saints can be. But it’s also impossible to pick the Saints when you remember their stumbling finish and the franchise’s history of postseason failure. Picking New Orleans to get to the Super Bowl is like picking the Cubs to go to the World Series.

The Vikings are similar. When they play like they did against the Giants, it’s easy to think they could beat any team. But the Giants were mailing it in, and in December, the Vikings looked utterly ordinary. And what if Brett Favre starts throwing the ball to the wrong jerseys?

On talent alone, the Cowboys can be favorites. Plus, they’ll break their string of first-round playoff losses sooner or later. After winning two games in December, Tony Romo is playing like he’s relieved not to have to face Jessica Simpson after the game.

Is all this a sign that the Cowboys are ready? Or is it just a set-up for another pratfall? We’ll find out this weekend when the Eagles return to Texas in an attempt to prove that the team that got plucked and stir-fried in Week 17 was a gang of impostors.

And what about the Cardinals? Are they hiding in the cactus, waiting to ambush a division that never gave them a great deal of thought or respect all year? 

The AFC is a little clearer, but only because most are writing off the Jets, and only a handful think the Ravens are ready to return to the big game.

The Colts remain the team to beat. Unlike the Saints, Vikings and Eagles, their losses weren’t caused by a sudden attack of incompetence but by the team’s own indifference to winning. Still, the very idea that losing is OK takes a the glow off their image. Their light doesn’t shine as brightly as when they were 14-0. Plus, there were way too many times this year when the Colts needed to play heroically in the second half to eke out a victory. That’s not a formula for playoff success.

Until Indy can take the final two weeks off and then enjoy a bye week — a three-week vacation — and then turn it on again, they can’t be called favorites to do anything other than leave their fans wondering where it all went wrong.

No problem, a handicapper would say. The Chargers are the top team. They’re the team with the quarterback who has never lost a game in December. They’ve run off 11 straight wins and are the hottest team around. Plus, they seem to have the Colts’ number.

And yet the Chargers, too, have this problem with postseason disappointment. They’ve been to the Super Bowl just once, when they got scalded by the 49ers. Like the Saints, they have a ton of bad memories to drag through the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Patriots lost possession receiver Wes Welker, the defense is suspect and the Bengals are coming off a thrashing by the Jets.

It was all so simple a month ago. The Saints were going to play the Colts, and maybe both teams would be undefeated. And there’s no question we would have worked ourselves into a lather over the prospect.

It’s hardly simple anymore. There are no true favorites in this wide-open tournament, but there are plenty of outstanding and powerful teams. It may not be legendary, but it should be memorable.

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