It is often said that defense wins championships. That may be true, but offense wins football games. The days of teams winning Super Bowls with a subpar quarterback and subpar offensive play are long gone.
While the running games will be key to some teams' success in terms of finding offensive balance, it will be the quarterbacks who determine whether teams keep their playoff dreams rolling or get sent home for the rest of the postseason.
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This is the toughest offensive group to rank in the playoffs. The depth at this position is pretty impressive when you have players such as the Eagles' Donovan McNabb ranked eighth or the Bengals' Carson Palmer ranked 10th. The Colts' Peyton Manning is the cream of this class because of his playmaking ability and leadership. The Patriots' Tom Brady is second because of his intangibles and three Super Bowl rings. The Saints' Drew Brees slides in at No. 3, but there are concerns about how the Saints finished the regular season, and Brees doesn't have a lot of playoff experience. The Vikings' Brett Favre comes in red-hot after finishing the season on a strong note. The two QBs who are the most intriguing to me are the Cardinals' Kurt Warner and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. They will have to play extremely well if they are going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. I say that because I'm not sure either team is good enough in other key areas to survive if its quarterback doesn't play well. The last QB on the list is the Jets' Mark Sanchez, and he is last by a large margin. The key for Sanchez will be balancing game management with taking enough chances downfield to open up the run.
While I don't believe there's a team on this list that can run the table on the back of its running game, there are some teams whose running games will be critical to their overall success. While there are teams that may be a little deeper at the position, the Vikings get the top spot because they have arguably the best RB in the game in Adrian Peterson. Even though Favre makes a huge difference at the controls, the Vikings' running game will be critical to their ability to stretch the field. Ravens QB Joe Flacco has struggled at times this season, but the team has ridden the strengths of RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. They basically put the team on their backs down the stretch to carry them into the playoffs. Even though Cowboys QB Tony Romo has played well in December, their running game will be critical. They have a massive offensive line, and when the team is clicking the linemen are firing off the ball, getting into defenders quickly and drive-blocking opponents into the turf. Some might think the Saints are ranked a little high at No. 3, but Reggie Bush is their X factor. The Saints are another team where offensive balance will be key. While the Jets' lifeline runs through the running game, do not be surprised if Indianapolis, San Diego and New England abandon the running game if they are not getting production early. All three teams believe they have the quarterback play to overcome lack of production at this position.
Sure, quarterback play will be huge for whatever two teams make it to the Super Bowl in Miami, but the quarterbacks' success will be directly related to these guys, the playmakers. Indianapolis is the perennial top unit here, and it would be hard to argue you would want any other receiver on your playoff roster over Reggie Wayne. The Colts also have the No. 1 pass-catching tight end in the NFL in Dallas Clark. Minnesota checks in at No. 4 with emerging star Sidney Rice, who reminds me more and more of Larry Fitzgerald every day. Percy Harvin is healthy now and Bernard Berrian is starting to make plays down the stretch. The Chargers' receiving group looks like a basketball team -- in WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd and TE Antonio Gates, they have players who can go up and get the ball at its highest point. When Wes Welker went down with a severe knee injury in Week 17, the Patriots' unit took a huge hit. WR Randy Moss will now have to fight through constant double-teams. The Ravens and Jets are ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, at QB and receiver, which makes you wonder how deep either team can go in the postseason.
Offensive lines tend to go unnoticed for much of the regular season, but when the lights come on down the stretch and in the postseason they somehow get thrust into the limelight. Two units that need to play better in the postseason are those of the Vikings and Saints. Both are not ranked nearly as high as they would have been around midseason. While the Jets do not have great strength at the skill positions, they do have the best offensive line. If they are going to make any noise in the playoffs they will have to dominate the line of scrimmage. Three offensive lines that will be under the microscope are those of Dallas, Philadelphia and Green Bay. In Week 17, the Dallas offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, while the pass-happy Eagles' high-priced offensive line sat back in pass protection for much of the day and never established the line of scrimmage. The biggest injury coming into the postseason has to be Eagles center Jamaal Jackson. In Week 17, the Eagles' offensive line looked out of sorts and a big reason was losing its leader in the middle for the season. Dallas often goes the way of its offensive line. When they establish the run, this unit is very good and when they don't, they are very bad. The most improved offensive line the last quarter of the season has to be the Packers'. After giving up sacks at an alarming rate the first two-thirds of the season, they have been very good down the stretch. If the Green Bay offensive line continues to play at a high level, the Packers will be one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason.
This is a solid overall group with a lot of guys who have playoff experience and others making their first appearance. One coach to watch is the Colts' Jim Caldwell. He has a lot of experience as a Colts assistant in the postseason, but this is his first playoff experience as a head coach. So far he seems to be taking a similar approach to his mentor Tony Dungy in how he has handled things leading up to the postseason. The Patriots' Bill Belichick is the best head coach in football. In terms of scheming during the week and making in-game decisions, I would want Belichick on my sideline any day of the week. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt doesn't get a lot of credit, but don't discount his postseason résumé. He is 3-1 in the postseason and gained a lot of experience last season as the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl. Who could be the Cinderella coach this season? Don't discount the Packers' Mike McCarthy, who has made great strides as a game-day coach this season. You had better believe that Vikings coach Brad Childress will be under the microscope this postseason. In an unprecedented move, he gave his team the first week of the postseason off because they have a bye week. This is done in the regular season at times, but I can't remember a team doing it in the postseason. Will this be the year for the Chargers' Norv Turner or the Cowboys' Wade Phillips? Both have done outstanding jobs this season. But the regular season and the postseason are two very different entities.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.