Beginner’s guide to the NFL playoffs

New England Patriots

The Patriots are easily the best team in professional football right now, especially with Tom Brady having another MVP-worthy season. In the regular season, the “Pats” posted a league best record of 14-2, their only losses coming in Week 2 (bitter divisional rivals the New York Jets) and a stunning Week 9 loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns. Disregarding those two speed bumps, the Pats have outscored all other opponents by a mean average of about 17 points.

Despite the midseason loss of Randy Moss, the Patriots have more than enough weapons at their disposal on offence. After missing last year’s post-season with a knee injury, WR Wes Welker is healthy and ready to be the reliable target that Brady needs. The running game has been solid with both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead having breakout seasons: Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards and 13 TDs, while Woodhead chipped in with 926 all-purpose yards.

If any other team in the AFC is going to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to go through Gillette Stadium and that’s no easy task; the Patriots were a perfect 8-0 at home this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger started his first game for the Steelers in Week 6, having been suspended for the first four games after breaking the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Without “Big Ben,” the Steelers still managed to start the season 3-1, and when Roethlisberger returned, the team only gained more momentum.

While the offence was good enough to put up enough points to win 12 games, it’s the defence that gets the most accolades in Pittsburgh. Led by Pro-Bowl safety and Defensive MVP candidate Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ defence have lived up to legacy of the “Steel Curtain” mantra from the mid-seventies. Good luck to any team who tries to run the ball against the Steelers, as they’ve only allowed five rushing touchdowns and an average 62.8 yards per game this season. This complete dominance on the ground have forced teams to get yards through the air, where the Steelers are just as dominant, finishing the regular season with 21 interceptions.

The Steelers are no strangers to the Super Bowl stage, having won their last two appearances in 2005 and 2008, so if they keep up their defensive dominance and Big Ben can manage the game well, you’ve got to love the Steelers’ chances.

Atlanta Falcons

In only his third year as starting quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan has led his team to the first seed in the NFC playoffs. That’s pretty impressive given that he was forced into the starting role in 2008 after Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for his role in the now infamous dog fighting ring. Ryan has come into his own over the past few years, creating an incredible chemistry with his receivers, but especially Roddy White. The two have connected for a league-high 112 receptions, as the Falcons have coasted to a 13-3 record.

But their record might be slightly deceiving. The Falcons play their best football at home in the Georgia Dome, where they won all but one game. They also played half of their games against teams with a record under .500, including the laughable NFC West teams. These games, including their last of the regular season against the Carolina Panthers, guaranteed that the Falcons would play at home throughout the playoffs, which is where they’re most comfortable. And with the Super Bowl being played in Jerry Jones’ Cowboys Stadium in Texas, the Falcons would have an edge even if they make it to the championship game.

Chicago Bears

Perhaps no team in the NFL has been as lucky in 2010 as the Chicago Bears. After signing DE Julius Peppers and bringing in offence guru Mike Martz as offense coordinator, the Bears got off to a great start. They began the season with a controversial win against the lowly Detroit Lions, in which Calvin Johnson was robbed of a game winning TD. Two weeks later, the Packers gave the Bears the game as they were flagged for 18 penalties, allowing Chicago 152 free yards.

Those two games alone would have completely shifted the NFC North title towards the Packers, but you really can’t blame the Bears for being opportunists. They’ve capitalized on their good fortune with some dominating performances to wrap up the second seed in the NFC. Mike Martz has provided QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte with a balanced offensive scheme to work with, and with Devin Hester a constant threat returning punts, the Bears can score from anywhere on the field.

The only concern for Bears fans might be Jay Cutler’s propensity to force the ball into tight coverage and his inability to avoid sacks; he’s been sacked a career high 52 times in 2010 . If he can avoid making mistakes and beat the opponents’ blitz, the Bears are a threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Week 1: Wildcard results

Green Bay def. Philadelphia 21-16 (will play Atlanta, Jan. 15)

Baltimore def. Kansas City 30-7 (will play Pittsburgh, Jan.15)

Seattle def. New Orleans 41-36 (will play Chicago, Jan. 16)

New York Jets def. Indianapolis 17-16 (will play New England, Jan. 16)