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A six-pack of observations heading into the NFL playoffs

Before diving headfirst into Wild Card weekend (complete game-by-game breakdown to come Thursday), let’s first take a broad view of the 2011 NFL season, one which almost didn’t happen (but not really).

1. Parity officially took hold in 2011

Of all the professional sports leagues, the NFL routinely features the most turnover among playoff participants.

This year is no different, as six teams (Giants, Lions, 49ers, Texans, Broncos, Bengals) are returning to the postseason after varying hiatuses. The Lions end the NFL’s longest playoff drought (1999) while the Texans are set to play in January for the first time since entering the league as an expansion team in 2002.

breesBut the league-wide parity runs even deeper, with eight teams having finished 8-8, the most since 2006. An additional five squads went either 7-9 or 9-7, meaning a full 40 percent of teams settled in the seven-to-nine win range.

2. A top-heavy league officially took hold in 2011

Yes, that statement is in direct contradiction to the previous one, yet for only the second time since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, four teams reached the 13-win mark (Packers, 49ers, Saints, Patriots).

As opposed to 2007 – when the Patriots and Colts in the AFC and the Packers and Cowboys in the NFC all won at least 13 games – three of the four 13-win teams reside in the NFC this year.

Losing the conference-record tiebreaker to San Francisco means New Orleans becomes the first team in the 16-game format to win at least 13 and have to play Wild Card weekend.

3. Of the 12 playoff teams, seven are title contenders

Let’s start by crossing off the non-contenders. In the AFC, the Broncos – losers of three straight – are only in the tournament because San Diego and Oakland (both superiorly talented teams) were unable to overcome their respective mid- and late-season swoons. The Bengals went 1-6 against teams with winning records and the Texans fell flat over the final three games, the weight of the losses of Mario Williams, Andre Johnson and all of their quarterbacks too much to bear.

In the NFC, the Falcons are a classic beat-up-on-the-cupcakes and struggle-to-hang-with-the-brass team, their most notable victory coming back in October against the Lions in Detroit. The Lions, meanwhile, are too young and undisciplined to make a serious run.

That leaves the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers in AFC, and the Packers, 49ers, Saints and Giants in the NFC. Early edge in the AFC goes to New England, because Tom Brady is the only elite/healthy quarterback in the field. The NFC figures to be a dogfight from the start; while the Falcons and Lions will ultimately be overmatched, they are both better and/or healthier than any of the AFC’s bottom three. Naturally, Green Bay is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champs. However …

4. Beware of the 15-1 curse

Before the 2011 Packers, only four teams had completed a campaign 15-1. The first pair (1984 49ers and 1985 Bears) finished the job and went 18-1. The most recent two, however, saw their seasons come to crashing halts before reaching the Super Bowl.

The 1998 Vikings, led by Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss and Cris Carter, were bounced by the Falcons in the NFC Championship when Gary Anderson hooked a would-be game-winning 38-yard field goal, after going 39-for-39 up until that point. And the 2004 Steelers, after snapping the Patriots’ NFL-record 21-game win streak in October, were undressed by Tom Brady and Co. at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship, 41-27.

That’s not to say the Packers are destined to fall victim to recent history, though that does bring us to …

5. Beware of the New York Giants

If Eli Manning and the Giants have proven anything, it’s that they are never to be underestimated when the deck is seemingly insurmountably stacked against them. Who can forget the colossal effort the Giants put up in a meaningless Week 17 defeat to the 15-0 Patriots in 2007, a loss that served as a springboard to a rematch in Super Bowl XLII that no 120609Giants08kcfootball fan will ever forget.

Forget the symmetry between the identical 38-35 scores by which New York lost to New England in 2007 and Green Bay in Week 13. Forget that Manning used that Packers loss to rediscover his mojo (likewise for the New York pass rush) and lead the G-Men to (another) improbable postseason berth.

Actually, scratch that. Remember it all. And when the Giants are headed to frigid Lambeau Field in two weeks, remember it was Manning who took down the mighty Packers in Brett Favre’s Green Bay swan song four years ago.

6. The Patriots are somehow under the radar

Which is to say they are exactly where they want to be. Has a team that finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak ever gone into the playoffs with more baggage? From an historically bad pass defense to injuries up and down the unit to multiple-score deficits faced in each of their last three contests, there is ample reason to doubt the Patriots.

That, along with an 0-3 run in the playoffs dating back to Super Bowl XLII and including home defeats to begin the last two postseasons. A combined 27-5 record over the last two regular seasons sure doesn’t buy what it used to.

While it’s crystal clear New England has its flaws, can a case truly be made that Pittsburgh – with an injured Ben Roethlisberger, no Rashard Mendenhall and a defense that ranked last in the AFC in takeaways – and Baltimore – with its persistent road woes, an unreliable Joe Flacco and a secondary that can get be beat – are in any better shape?

Apparently so.

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