The journey began back in the spring, with offseason workouts and minicamps. Then came training-camp practices, staged in the heat of summer. Those were followed by 65 meaningless preseason games played in August and early September. We enjoyed 256 regular-season games played throughout the fall.
And now it all comes down to this, the NFL's second season. Just 12 of the NFL's 32 teams are still alive, and only 11 games (not including the Pro Bowl) remain to be played.
For the playoff participants — and the loyal fans who live and die with their favorite team's every play — only one game really matters: Super Bowl XLIV, set to be played Feb. 7 in Dolphin Stadium in South Florida.
PFW takes a look at each of the playoff teams, analyzing their offenses and defenses, identifying a key player to watch and speculating on what it will take for each team to win the NFL title game.
Here are the AFC teams, in the order in which they are seeded.
1. Indianapolis Colts
14-2 / AFC South champion
Keys to offense: In the playoffs, it will be imperative for the Colts' running game to pose a consistent threat and make the team's high-powered, Peyton Manning-led passing game that much more dangerous. As good as it's been, the offense still needs to do a better job of finishing drives. With defenses expected to focus on containing WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, both Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie will need to continue making significant contributions. It would not be a shock if first-round rookie RB Donald Brown makes his presence felt, spelling Joseph Addai.
Keys to defense: A strong push up the middle from the interior defensive line will be essential with opponents likely to frequently double-team dangerous sack specialist Dwight Freeney. The Colts can't allow opposing QBs like San Diego's Philip Rivers to step up in the pocket. LBs Clint Session and Gary Brackett, CBs Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey and safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt all need to continue making tide-turning plays in crunch time. Indy's "D" has been dynamite in the fourth quarter and needs to keep it up.
Player to watch: There's no denying that Manning stirs the drink, but the guy who provides much of the flavor is Clark, who has been an outstanding performer all season. With his excellent size and speed, sure hands and flawless route-running ability, Clark presents matchup problems for most safeties. Consistently effective both in the slot and lined up outside, it is usually Clark who opens up opportunities for other receivers.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... their offense brings its "A" game. In recent playoff losses, while the defense has performed fairly well, the offense has failed to step up to the plate when push came to shove.
2. San Diego Chargers
13-3 / AFC West champion
Keys to offense: Formerly a run-first offense, the Chargers have proven this season that they don't need to run the ball to score, averaging 28.4 points despite having one of the league's lower-ranked rushing attacks. The man responsible for that is QB Philip Rivers, who has been both effective and efficient this season in leading the offense to success. For the Bolts to be at their best in the postseason, the O-line needs to provide Rivers with time in the pocket. That way, he'll be able to throw deep balls to WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd and find TE Antonio Gates over the middle.
Keys to defense: San Diego's "D" ranks only in the middle of the pack, but it has made great strides from 2008 in defending the pass, thanks in large part to an improved pass rush. Although CBs Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer are playing well, their jobs become much easier when OLBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips can get heat on opposing QBs, forcing them into errant throws. The Chargers can survive teams racking up yards on them, but they must buckle down in the red zone in order to come out on top.
Player to watch: It's been a relatively quiet campaign for Darren Sproles, but he vaulted back onto the scene with his three-touchdown explosion in Week 16. A big kick return, run or pass reception from Sproles could be the type of game-changing play that turns a Chargers loss into a win this January, making him an X-factor. Don't forget: This guy single-handedly won San Diego a playoff game last season.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they protect Rivers and give him the opportunity to make big plays downfield. It certainly would help if RB LaDainian Tomlinson is able to punch the ball in around the goal line. And if the defense prevents home-run plays and doesn't get gashed on the ground, the Bolts could wind up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Miami.
3. New England Patriots
10-6 / AFC East champion
Keys to offense: The Patriots were one-dimensional against the Saints and Panthers, games in which Wes Welker was held to short passes. With Welker out with a knee injury, they must get production from Julian Edelman (10-103-0 in Week 17). Randy Moss can be one of the more destructive receivers in the NFL, but he must stay focused, even if defenses roll safeties his way. Running the ball hasn't always been easy this season, but the offensive line the team has used down the stretch might be able to open holes for the run and allow Tom Brady to attack vulnerable secondaries.
Keys to defense: Good offenses such as those of the Colts, Saints and even Dolphins were able to carve up a secondary that still is learning on the job. Without much of a pass rush, they often were out of position and hung out to dry. Late-season improvement against lesser passing teams (Panthers, Bills and Jaguars) offered hope, but the caliber of teams they will face will increase a lot. The Patriots were not consistently great against the run, and late-season injuries to NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren thin the ranks up front.
Player to watch: On a defense short of big-play makers, ILB Jerod Mayo has a chance to step up into the void. He has been a tackling machine for a second straight season, but he hasn't made the game-changing plays the team has expected. This could be his chance to change that.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... they can play like they did for the first three quarters against the Colts in Week 10. They piled up 477 yards in the game but fell apart defensively in the final period after doing a nice job against Peyton Manning up to that point. When the Patriots win the turnover battle, they are 6-1; that and avoiding major coverage lapses comprise the defensive formula they need to win. Offensively, there are few major questions at this point.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
10-6 / AFC North champion
Keys to offense: The Bengals are at their best when they have a lead and can pound away with their running game. If RB Cedric Benson is getting 25-30 carries and 120-150 yards, they will be tough to beat. However, they will need to stretch the field in the passing game on occasion if they are to be true title contenders. QB Carson Palmer has the arm to do so, and WR Chad Ochocinco has the necessary speed, but other receivers must step up, too.
Keys to defense: This is a sound, stout defense led by one of the game's top coordinators (Mike Zimmer). The Bengals have one of the NFL's better CB tandems in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall and have proven they can shut down elite receivers. If FS Chris Crocker (ankle) is back at full strength, the secondary will be all the more formidable. The front seven is physical and adept at stopping the run, but its ability to muster a consistent pass rush was compromised when DE Antwan Odom suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in October.
Player to watch: Palmer's first trip to the postseason (in '05) ended in disaster; he suffered a serious knee injury that some thought would threaten his career. He bounced back from that, and he still ranks among the NFL's more respected passers. However, the running game, not the passing game, has driven the Bengals this season. Opponents will likely try to shut down the run and double-team Ochocinco in obvious passing situations. Palmer will need to play his best for the Bengals to survive and advance.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... Palmer and Ochocinco play like Pro Bowlers, the offensive line protects its quarterback and opens holes for Benson, and the rugged defense proves the regular season was no fluke.
5. New York Jets
9-7 / Second place in AFC East
Keys to offense: It's pretty simple for the Jets — if they can't run the ball, this team isn't going to score many points. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez has regressed after getting off to a good start, and he has had some disastrous multi-turnover games. The Jets have to limit Sanchez to 20 passing attempts or fewer. Head coach Rex Ryan relies on RBs Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene (to a lesser extent) to keep the pressure off Sanchez. The Jets' veteran offensive line has done a good job of clearing holes, and Jones and Greene are powerful runners with the ability to wear a defense down.
Keys to defense: It starts up front with NTs Sione Pouha and Howard Green, who have filled in well since Kris Jenkins was placed on injured reserve in October. The Jets' nose tackle must hold his ground and allow inside linebackers to flow to the ball against the run. Ryan dials up blitzes frequently in an attempt to rattle quarterbacks, and the Jets' defense is dominant when it's pressuring signalcallers into making poor decisions. NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate CB Darrelle Revis shut down No. 1 wide receivers throughout the season. His presence allows the Jets to use a safety to double the opponent's tight end or step into the box to help against the run.
Player to watch: If Sanchez can simply avoid making turnovers, the Jets are going to be very competitive and might even pull off an upset or two. He's under pressure to not mess things up and needs to get back some of the confidence he seems to have lost.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... Sanchez's mistakes don't result in costly turnovers and the defense collects some takeaways to win the turnover battle. Jones can't afford to have an off day. Having a rookie QB at the helm makes the Jets a long shot, but they could surprise.
6. Baltimore Ravens
9-7 / Second place in AFC North
Keys to offense: Job No. 1 for the Ravens: get the ball into RB Ray Rice's hands at least 20 times a game. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can deploy Rice in many ways; the Pro Bowler catches the ball well, and he's dangerous in space. At their best, the Ravens have a potent, versatile offense and can combine a physical running game with an explosive passing game led by strong-armed QB Joe Flacco. However, the offense has started slowly in some games, and protecting Flacco emerged as an issue of concern in the second half of the season. If either problem crops up in the postseason, the Ravens will struggle.
Keys to defense: The Ravens don't get after opposing quarterbacks like they once did, but they shut down the run and slam the door on TD-scoring chances in the red zone. Make no mistake: This defense is still loaded with talent, from NT Haloti Ngata up front to Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs in the LB corps to FS Ed Reed in the secondary. This is a smart, resilient defense that has acquitted itself well, even as injuries have decimated the secondary's depth.
Player to watch: Flacco has a 2-1 record as a starter in the playoffs, but he has yet to exceed 161 yards passing in a postseason game, and his accuracy was lacking throughout Baltimore's run to the AFC title game last January. If he plays that poorly in this postseason, the Ravens will not last long, but his talent (particularly his rare arm strength) and poise should serve him well.
They'll win the Super Bowl if ... Flacco plays wonderfully, WR Derrick Mason works open time and again despite opponents keying on him, and the defense starts getting to the quarterback more. If OLBs Jarret Johnson and Suggs play like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley did for the Steelers last postseason, look out.
PFW has launched its brand-new NFL Draft Newsletter series, with the second issue now ready for mailing. Produced by PFW's player personnel department under the direction of Nolan Nawrocki, the series consists of four information-packed issues. For more info or to subscribe — click here for PDF e-pub or here for print format.