Expect a Cowboys-Chargers Super Bowl
Not even two notorious postseason fall guys (Romo, Turner) can prevent this
Now that we know who's in the postseason, it's time to give serious thought to how this deal will play out in the next month. We have once-dominant teams that suddenly appear flawed (New Orleans, Minnesota), heavily scrutinized teams that have turned hot at the right time (Dallas, San Diego) and plenty of familiar faces (Indianapolis, New England, Philadelphia). In other words, this year's playoffs should be as wide-open as any in recent memory.
So here are 10 predictions as the first round of wild-card games nears:
1. Tony Romo finally will know what a playoff win (or two or three) feels like: Whatever issues Romo faced as a quarterback in December and January seem to have vanished. The seventh-year veteran has led Dallas to three straight triumphs, including two victories over fellow postseason participants (New Orleans and Philadelphia).
He's produced the kinds of numbers that people aren't used to seeing from him at this time of year. (In his past five games, he's completed 72.4 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.) And Romo just helped the Cowboys win the NFC East with a 24-0 thumping of the Eagles.It seems inevitable that Romo finally will get his first playoff win when the Cowboys meet Philadelphia in the wild-card round Saturday. He has the look of a quarterback hitting his stride at the right time, and his defense has been downright scary of late. So don't be surprised if Romo keeps rolling. The same goes for a team that could be in the Super Bowl once this next month plays out. 2. The New Orleans Saints will not reach the Super Bowl: It's likely that this isn't the first time you've seen this prediction in the past few days. That's how meek the Saints have appeared since starting the season 13-0. You can forgive them for losing to Carolina on Sunday -- starting quarterback Drew Brees watched as Mark Brunell led the team -- but losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas before that point are harder to explain. It's as if the Saints suddenly forgot how dominant they were in the first three months of the season. What's particularly disturbing about this bunch is how much the ineffective play is spreading throughout the team. It has had breakdowns on defense, special teams and an offense that was once as good as it got this season. This is why it's hard to see the Saints fixing these problems quickly. With their offense having a harder time blowing people out, it's tougher for the Saints to disguise some weaknesses that might have been there all along. 3. The Green Bay Packers will be this year's surprise team: They might not make it all the way to the Super Bowl, but there is plenty to like about the Packers. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) surrounded by an assortment of playmakers and an offensive line that has improved immensely after struggling in the season's first half. Their defense also has forced 40 turnovers and played at an elite level for most of the past two months. In fact, the only loss the Packers have sustained in their past eight games was at Pittsburgh and that came on a last-second touchdown pass by Ben Roethlisberger. This is a young team that is gaining more confidence with each passing week. It will be dangerous. 4. The Eagles aren't going anywhere without more help from DeSean Jackson: The most disturbing sight for Philadelphia on Sunday was how easily the Cowboys shut down Jackson again. The Pro Bowl wide receiver had just three receptions in that 24-0 loss. He had just two catches in the first meeting with the Cowboys, also an Eagles defeat. Even if you argue that Jackson is only one weapon of Philadelphia's offense, the reality is that he's its most dangerous. When he's providing big plays -- and no other receiver in the league has supplied his team with more explosive moments this season -- the Eagles play at a higher level. When he vanishes as he did this past weekend, they lose their mojo. If that happens against Dallas again, the Eagles can wave goodbye to their Super Bowl dreams. 5. Brett Favre will not be a problem in Minnesota: Yes, Favre has reminded us lately of how high-maintenance he can be. But it's a safe bet that he'll be at his best once the postseason begins. Favre didn't come to Minnesota to bicker with coach Brad Childress about play-calling power. Favre came to stick it to the Packers and make one last run at a championship. He's already accomplished his first goal. So expect him to look more like the man who just riddled the Giants in the season finale than the one who was pouting about his say in the offense a few weeks back.
AFC1. The Patriots won't make it past the first round: It's bad enough that New England lost Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker to a serious knee injury in its loss to Houston on Sunday. What makes that setback even more painful is that the Patriots face Baltimore in the first round. Without Welker on the field, the Ravens can focus more attention on Randy Moss while worrying less about a rookie like Julian Edelman hurting them. This is the best possible news for a team with a shaky secondary. It's also the worst possible scenario for a team like New England, one that has relied heavily on the pass all season. 2. Colts fans eventually will see the wisdom of resting starters in late-season games: Let's hope there's a little more perspective in Indianapolis after Week 17. There was complete outrage in that town after the Colts rested their starters -- and sustained their first loss of the season -- against the New York Jets in Week 16. But how comfortable would those same fans have felt if Reggie Wayne had blown out his knee as Welker did this past weekend? The Packers (cornerback Charles Woodson), Bengals (wide receiver Chad Ochocinco) and Cardinals (wide receiver Anquan Boldin and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) also faced scary moments when some of their stars sustained Week 17 injuries. Yes, we've heard the argument that this is part of football. But that's also why teams such as the Colts decide it's better to play it safe at this time of the year.
3. The Jets will remind us why they don't belong in the playoffs: You have to love what the Jets have on defense, as that unit ranks first in the NFL in points allowed (14.8), total yards per game (252.3) and passing yards per game (153.7). What you can't like is how the Jets squirmed into the postseason after playing two teams (the Colts and Bengals) that didn't have much incentive during those contests. All we really know about the Jets is that they've benefited from fortuitous scheduling. Once they face a postseason team that takes the game seriously -- and can exploit a feeble offense led by struggling rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez -- the truth will be known: The Jets never should've been here in the first place.4. The Bengals will play better once the postseason begins: There are plenty of reasons to be down on Cincinnati, especially because it has lost three of its past four games. But let's also not forget the emotional trauma that came from the death of receiver Chris Henry. The Bengals also gave away one of those games (to the Jets) while losing the other two on the road to fellow playoff teams (Minnesota and San Diego). These are still the same Bengals who went undefeated in the AFC North. Cincinnati also has the kind of makeup -- strong running game, tough defense -- that generally leads to success in January. The Bengals might not seem pretty at this stage. But they also have a great shot of reaching the divisional playoff round (they face the Jets in the wild-card round), which means anything is possible after that.
5. Norv Turner will not keep the San Diego Chargers from winning the Super Bowl: As easy as it is to still question Turner's coaching skills, what can't be disputed is the job he's done with this team. Even though there are teams with better records, the Chargers are clearly the hottest squad in the league. They start fast. They make explosive plays. And their defense -- which had been a weakness early in the season -- has become a strength despite the absence of stud nose tackle Jamal Williams. The only thing this team can't do consistently is run the football, but that won't matter. After winning 11 straight games heading into the postseason, it's hard to see the Chargers losing again this year.
In fact, write this down as a bonus prediction: The Chargers will beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XLIV.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.