I could make the argument—easily—that this is the most mysterious postseason the NFL has seen in years. Here's why: When was the last time you could honestly say that nine playoff teams have a real chance to win the Super Bowl? The way I see it, only the Bengals, Broncos and Texans are serious long shots. Look at the lowest-seeded NFC team, the Lions. They beat the playoff-bound Broncos by five touchdowns in midseason and the red-hot Chargers by four in Week 16. Their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, had the finest passing season in Detroit history—becoming the fourth QB to surpass 5,000 yards in a season—thanks largely to Calvin Johnson, the most dangerous deep threat in the league. The Lions may not win it, but they won't make it easy on any foe. Nor will the Falcons (who won 23--16 at Detroit in Week 7) or the Giants (a 24—20 winner at New England in Week 9).
But I'll give six teams true Super shots. The Patriots, Ravens and Steelers in the AFC—put them all in a hat. In the NFC the Packers, Saints and 49ers—take your pick.
Wire to wire Green Bay was the best team in football, but the Pack is not invincible. One of the brightest defensive coordinators in recent years, Dom Capers, seems powerless to stop even the most mediocre backs: The Bears' Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen shredded the Packers in Week 16 with a combined 161 yards on 34 carries. New Orleans also has had its share of trouble against the rush, which gives the Niners some hope; while their Alex Smith--led offense is average, their run defense is the stingiest in the league. When you go the first 59 quarters of the season without allowing a rushing touchdown and you pressure the quarterback as effectively as San Francisco has, you've got a chance to upend any great offensive team.
The picture is more muddled in the AFC. When Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are healthy and playing well, the Patriots and the Steelers have been the class of the conference. The Ravens were never far behind, and this year, with Joe Flacco winning big games when needed, Baltimore has finally earned at least one home playoff game. With the Ravens' experience and multifaceted defense—and with injuries to Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall hobbling their bitter rivals—Baltimore can make a deep run. The Ravens are the AFC's 49ers: excellent defense, good running the ball but iffy in the passing game.
In this aerial circus of a season, I believe, the difference will be the quarterbacks who can outscore teams. Aaron Rodgers had the best regular season ever by a Green Bay passer—and don't forget that Bart Starr and Brett Favre are among his predecessors. With 5,476 yards, Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing productivity in a season and led New Orleans to an eight-game winning streak during which he threw 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. New England's Tom Brady (page 74) also surpassed Marino's mark (albeit by 241 fewer yards) and also finished the season on an eight-game winning streak—and he threw just two picks during that span. Those three quarterbacks have won a combined five Super Bowls. All have excelled with the Lombardi Trophy on the line: Brady led a last-minute drive to set up the winning field goal against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Brees completed 16 of 17 in the second half to beat the Colts two seasons ago, and Rodgers led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to hold off Pittsburgh last year. (Roethlisberger is in that league, too, but his physical ailments just seem too much to overcome this year.)
Every quarterback needs moxie—the ability to shut out pressure and perform at his highest level at some time in the playoffs. And judging by the major football obstacles they've overcome, Brady, Brees and Rodgers have more than their fair share. Brady, the 199th pick in 2000, had the inner confidence to tell Pats owner Robert Kraft the first time he met him that he'd be his starting QB; within two years he had stepped in for the injured Drew Bledsoe and made the job his own by leading New England to its first Super Bowl victory. Brees, the 32nd pick in 2001, by the Chargers, watched San Diego bring in his long-term replacement, Philip Rivers, in '04, and then tore up his shoulder in '05 in his last game before becoming a free agent. Rodgers, a one-time candidate to go No. 1 in the '05 draft, first sat in the greenroom for what seemed like an eternity before finally being taken 24th, then sat on the bench for three years behind Favre. If there wasn't enough pressure on Rodgers already, Favre unretired and played for the Jets in 2008, and Rodgers had to play every game with Green Bay fans thinking, Favre could have done that. Or, He's no Favre. Crazy thing is, Rodgers has been Favre—only better. Favre's touchdown-to-interception differential over his three MVP seasons: +70. Rodgers's over his last three years: +79.
"It's a testament to those three guys," Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said last week. "All three of them had to overcome what everyone thought they couldn't do. You see some athletes who come into this game who have that special trait you can't quite describe, but it's basically that—[the ability] to overcome what most people in life couldn't. It's fun to watch. Even when everyone watching knows everything's on the quarterback, you watch them orchestrate everything out there and they still can come through like there's no pressure on them."
If there's something about those QBs that makes them different, it's that they play in an August practice the way they play in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. Rodgers rose to the occasion last February, executing a third-and-10 pass up the seam to a well-covered Greg Jennings with a three-point lead and six minutes left. The ball was barely grazed by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor before settling into Jennings's hands, precisely where it had to be thrown. Gain of 44. Green Bay went on to kick a field goal and win 31--25.
"That throw," Rodgers said this fall, "only happens because we've done that—that play, that route—in the off-season, and the off-seasons before that, in individual work. And because of confidence: confidence that he'll be in the spot I want him in, confidence I can make that throw, confidence in my coaches to trust me to be able to make the throw. One of the things my quarterbacks coach, Tom Clements, always tells me is, 'Play your best when your best is needed.' "
As for the Super Bowl XLVI winner: I fret over something on every team, and every team is seriously flawed—for the first time in memory. Of the six teams best equipped to overcome those flaws and win the title, it will come down to the two that met in the first game of the season. I see New Orleans and Green Bay facing each other again for the NFC championship, with the survivor going on to win the Super Bowl.