It's been an AFC league for years, but now, at least for a season, the heavies have shifted back to the National Conference.
How many old guard clubs can win it all? Well, the four division winners, for sure. Count in the spacey Eagles, with all their fine weaponry, who always seem to be thrashing around come late January. That's five teams. In the AFC, you think Indy and you think San Diego, then you stop thinking. Shortest American roll call in some time.
Here's a look at how things could break in NFL Round No 1.
New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals — The Jets find a gold ticket in their Wonka Bar and a win a trip to the postseason. You're guests here, New York. Please be polite and wipe your feet at the door.
Three weeks ago New York was a .500 operation, and suddenly QB Mark Sanchez is jumping around and launching high-fives after a couple of opponents went beddie-bye for him. Not really the way you'd like to sachet into the postseason, but hey, it counts.
Cincinnati can't be a confident club either. They were playing Paul Brown football through mid-November but they've won only three of their last seven, and those came against the muscle trio of Cleveland, Detroit and K.C. — which pretty much makes the Bengals seem guest-like, as well. Not a lot of high notes in this matchup.
I see Cincy defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer spending his afternoon screwing with Sanchez's head … linebackers popping up where they don't belong, safeties and corners invading the pocket. Yeah, Willie Wonka-type trickeries. The Jets will try to keep things calm with their big running game, but the Bengals play comfortable in that world, too, and sooner or later Sanchez is going to have to use his gun to win it. Rookie guests aren't known for that sort of thing. Bengals 17, Jets 6.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys — Something snapped with these Cowboys before they took the field in New Orleans back in December. There'd always been a fragility about them, a chamomile scent, even dating back to when Bill Parcells was first wiring the whole operation together. Call it a fear of success. In New Orleans they finally seemed to embrace it, along with a disdain for mercy.
Dallas owns the conference's hottest club. Not just in wins, but in will. They're gearing up for business. Credentials: No. 2 scoring defense in football (15.6 ppg); 7th overall in rushing offense; and here's the biggie, only three turnovers since Week 12.
Last week's win over Philly was no lay-down game. The Eagles came ready for action, the prize of a division title at hand, and the Cowboys wiped them out. For once they're embracing these high-level games. They've cracked their December heebie-jeebies. Who knows why? Maybe a few Cowboys will do some explaining during the offseason. As for right now, it's hard to ignore their momentum. Cowboys 31, Eagles 18
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots — I once had a boss who's calling card in times of crisis was,"Remember, these aren't problems; they're opportunities." The wisdom of the M.B.A. And those opportunities kept stacking up like dirty shirts and a few years later the whole place went bankrupt, belly up. Problems solved!
There are problems in New England. Brady ribs, Welker knee, a run defense that's turned so-so (4.4 yards allowed per carry). It's a playoff team, but it's not the kind of Patriot precision we're accustomed to. They're not always crisp in the tight spots. They can be handled. They're human now.
Last Sunday, Houston demolished what Bill Belichick was hoping would be a tune-up game for his defense — 439 yards allowed. And they open as only slight favorites against a Ravens team they stopped once already, back in October. Baltimore, with its 212 ground yards per game over the last month. We can assume the kind of thrust they'll be aiming at the Patriots this weekend.
Can New England handle it? Can Tom Brady muster enough points with his suddenly thin receiver corps? The Ravens aren't a wild sacking team but know how to dial up the pressure if they spot wounded prey.
Problems or opportunities? It's been a long time since those kind of questions have been asked around Foxborough. Ravens 23, Patriots 19.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals — It's a shame their preview last Sunday was another of the swelling number of in-season exhibitions. The Pack chose to hone its blades, the Cards phoned it in. Nothing to be learned.
In last year's sprint through the postseason, Arizona lined up as underdogs in all four games. This season, they're an early playoff favorite — uncharted waters for a franchise that finally seems to have turned the corner in terms of coaching and player collecting.
The points will fly — dome conditions, Warner vs. Aaron Rogers, the high-gloss pass catchers, etc. A last-possession kind of thing. The Pope could tell us that.
Who wins? Recent data says home field hasn't meant much in this round of action. The betting line points to Green Bay keeping it close. I'm not a fan of forfeit football, and the Packers were a club that took Week 17 seriously when they didn't have to. Expect a late Arizona touchdown, a failed 2-point try, and a win for rust-free Green Bay. Packers 31, Cardinals 29.