Once again, the NFL, which prides itself on parity and equal opportunity, got its way. Seven new teams made the playoffs.
The Saints and Jets came completely out of nowhere to make it. The Chargers rebounded from a tough 2005 schedule and ended up with the league's best record at 14-2. The Ravens turned the Steve McNair acquisition into a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the AFC. And somehow, the Eagles re-emerged in the tough NFC East to win a division that featured three playoff teams.
The Chargers, Ravens, Jets, Chiefs, Saints, Eagles and Cowboys are the new playoff teams this season. Since 1996, 66 teams have made the playoffs after not qualifying the previous season. It's an amazing string of consistency. The NFL has had 11 consecutive seasons with at least five new playoff teams.
Last year, there were seven. This year, there are seven.
The elite playoff teams appear to be in the AFC. The Patriots won 12 games but ended up the No. 4 seed. That's two games better than the Saints, who finished with the NFC's second seed at 10-6.
The AFC is loaded with Super Bowl-experienced coaches and playoff quarterbacks.
Here are some observations on the 2007 playoffs:
1. Quarterback experience: There is virtually no playoff experience in the NFC. Rex Grossman of the Bears, Drew Brees of the Saints and Eli Manning of the Giants are each 0-1 in playoff games. Who would have ever thought Jeff Garcia of the Eagles would be the second-most experienced playoff quarterback in the NFC? He's won one of three playoff games. Tony Romo of the Cowboys will be seeing his first playoff action. The most experienced and most dangerous quarterback in the NFC is Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks. He's 2-3 in the postseason, including a trip to the Super Bowl last year.
The AFC is loaded at quarterback. Philip Rivers of the Chargers is the only AFC quarterback making his playoff debut. Tom Brady is 10-1 in the playoffs. Steve McNair has a 5-4 postseason record. Peyton Manning is 3-6. Chad Pennington is 2-2. Trent Green is 0-1. The AFC has a clear edge at quarterback.
2. Coaching experience: Coaching could be a major factor in the NFC. The top two seeds in the conference are led by relatively inexperienced coaches. The Bears' Lovie Smith has one game of playoff experience (a loss last year) and Saints coach Sean Payton is making his first venture into the playoffs. Each stop along the way they will be facing a more experienced playoff coach. Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks is 11-9 and Bill Parcells of the Cowboys is 11-7. Andy Reid of the Eagles is 7-5 in the playoffs and Tom Coughlin is 4-5 with two different franchises. In the AFC, only 35-year-old Eric Mangini of the Jets does not have playoff experience as a head coach. The AFC is loaded with playoff-tested coaches: Marty Schottenheimer of the Chargters (5-12), Brian Billick of the Ravens (5-2), Tony Dungy of the Colts (5-8), Bill Belichick of the Patriots (11-2) and Herm Edwards of the Chiefs (2-3).
3. Hot teams: The hottest team in the NFC is the Eagles. They've won five games in a row and have come together as a team with Garcia as Donovan McNabb's replacement at quarterback. Despite their loss to the Packers on Sunday night, the Bears won four of their final five games. The Cowboys and Seahawks lost three of their last four while the Giants (a 2-6 second half) and Saints have lost two of their last three. The Chargers are the hottest team in football. They have won 10 in a row. The Ravens enter on a four-game winning streak. The Patriots have won three straight since their 21-0 loss to the Dolphins, but I wouldn't call them hot.
4. Will home-field advantage mean anything? You have to wonder. In the AFC, home-field means everything. The Chargers and the Colts are 8-0 at home. The Ravens are 7-1. The Chiefs are the worst road team in the AFC playoffs at 3-5, which should give the Colts a huge edge and help them reach the next round. But the Colts have struggled on the road this season. They are 4-4 and really had trouble in the second half of the season. The worst AFC home team was the Patriots at 5-3, including a loss to the Jets in Foxborough. The weird part about the NFC is how bad these teams are at home. The Bears were the best at 6-2 and have home-field advantage. But Bears fans are booing struggling quarterback Rex Grossman. They want Brian Griese to start in the playoffs. The Eagles and the Seahawks are 5-3, but they become road warriors for the remainder of the playoffs if they win this weekend. The Saints drew the first-round bye, but like the Cowboys, they are just 4-4 at home. The Saints and Cowboys actually are better teams on the road. The Saints are 5-3 away from the Superdome, and the Cowboys are 5-3 outside of Texas Stadium. Face it, nothing makes sense in the NFC.
5. Deck stacked against Colts: The defense that presents Peyton Manning the most trouble is the 3-4, which gives opposing coaches the ability to keep Manning guessing where the pressure is coming from. The worst nightmare for Manning is that four of the six AFC playoff teams -- San Diego, Baltimore, New England and the Jets -- use the 3-4. The Colts draw the only other 4-3 defense in the wild-card round when they host the Chiefs. To go to the Super Bowl, the Colts will face two 3-4 defenses. Still, while it may be the defense that gives the Colts the most problems, Peyton and company went 3-1 against the 3-4. The other thing stacked up against the Colts is they are giving up 173 rushing yards a game and they open the playoffs against Kansas City and Larry Johnson, who rushed for 1,789 yards on a league-record 416 carries.
6. But don't give up on Indy: The Colts still have Peyton Manning. On top of that, they have done well against a tough schedule -- 8-3 against teams with .500 records or better. The Colts beat the Patriots in Foxborough 27-20, and they beat the Jets at home 31-28. Tony Dungy saved safety Bob Sanders for the playoffs, figuring his knee has only a game or two of quality, eight-in-the-box run-stopping skills. Like John Lynch in Denver, Sanders can inspire the run defense with a hard hit or two. Plus, he's a good tackler and tackling has been a problem for the Colts all season.
7. The Super Bowl defense eliminator: Don't you get the feeling an unconventional team could win Super Bowl XLI? Since 1983, every Super Bowl winner has ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense. If that eliminates teams from consideration, then you can scratch seven teams -- the Chiefs (11th at 19.7 points a game), the Saints (13th at 20.1), the Eagles (15th at 20.5), the Seahawks (19th at 21.3), the Cowboys (20th at 21.9), the Colts (23rd at 22.5) and the Giants (24th at 22.6). Five of the defenses not ranked in the top 10 for scoring are in the NFC, meaning only the Bears would have a chance of winning the Super Bowl. The four AFC teams in the top 10 are the Ravens, Patriots, Jets and Chargers. The Chargers are clearly the most complete team. They score 30.8 points a game and they give up 18.9 points a game, eighth best in the league. The Ravens score 22.1 points and give up a league-low 12.6. Will defense win the championship or will it be offense?
8. Wild-card rematches: The Eagles and Giants, along with the Jets and Patriots, split their two games this season. What's interesting about the Giants' second trip to Philadelphia is how much different the Eagles are now than when the Giants last played in Philly (Sept. 17). In that game, the Giants rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit to beat the Eagles in overtime, 30-24. Back then, the Eagles were a pure passing team. Donovan McNabb came out in a no-huddle and had Giants linebackers running around as though they were lost. Andy Reid's inability to run the ball in the second half gave the Giants enough possessions to come from behind. Now, the Eagles are a more balanced team and can run the ball with the lead. The Eagles won the rematch in Giants Stadium, 36-22. Over in the AFC, the Patriots won the first game against the Jets 24-17 in the Meadowlands, but the rematch in Foxborough was more interesting. The Jets eked out a 17-14 victory but Belichick didn't want to shake Mangini's hand. It will be interesting to see which is colder -- the Foxboro weather or the reception for Mangini by Belichick.
9. Injuries: The Seahawks have the biggest concerns. They are down three cornerbacks -- Marcus Trufant, Kelly Herndon and Jimmy Williams. The Ravens should have left tackle Jonathan Ogden back for the playoffs. The bye week should give ample time for the Saints' Joe Horn to recover from his groin injury and be ready for the playoffs. The Patriots hope to have tight end Ben Watson and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork back. The Chargers will have defensive end Luis Castillo back from his high ankle sprain after getting the week off. The Colts had the return of tight end Dallas Clark, which helped the passing offense. The defense will have safety Bob Sanders to help stop the run.
10. Prediction: Logic says it's the Bears against the Chargers. The Chargers have nine Pro Bowlers and five alternates, best in football. The Bears are the only team in the NFC that has a top-10 scoring defense. Still, I picked the Colts at the beginning of the season. I'm going to stick with them. They can't stop the run and they will have to win two road games to get to the Super Bowl. One of these years Manning will get to a Super Bowl. It doesn't look like it will be this year because of Indy's defensive problems, but I'm just trying to stay consistent with my picks, which usually don't work out anyway.