More than anything, the playoffs are about momentum, and John Harbaugh has it on his side after leading the Ravens to victories the past four games. Their last loss — to the Steelers on Dec. 5, which wound up deciding the division championship — came by a field goal. Two of the Ravens' other losses — a 23-20 defeat in New England and a 26-21 loss in Atlanta — were against the NFL's top two seeded playoff teams. And with a 13-7 victory against Cincinnati, they avenged a 15-10 loss in Week Two in what is always a hard-fought, extremely physical matchup.
QB Joe Flacco does not inspire confidence, but GM Ozzie Newsome surrounded him with more skill talent than ever, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron knows how to manage Flacco and the ground game remains strong behind an athletic offensive line. Flacco managed to produce 12 victories and earn a wild-card berth much like Trent Dilfer did in 2000 when Ray Lewis led a dominant defense with a killer instinct.
Lewis still strikes fear into quarterbacks, as he did Carson Palmer on the Bengals' final drive with less than two minutes to play. Escaping the pocket and seeing Lewis closing in from one side and CB Fabian Washington from the other, Palmer simply dropped the ball before he could take cover and dive to the ground, fumbling the ball right into Lewis' hands to seal the victory. He is not as quick or athletic as he once was, but he diagnoses as instantly as any linebacker in football and elevates the play of everyone around him, on both sides of the ball, holding them accountable.
Lewis defines Baltimore's makeup and is the reason the Ravens have not lost by more than a touchdown this season. His football IQ is off the charts, and he is as mentally tough as they come. He does not look to tackle opponents, he seeks to drive through them and break their will. Few linebackers have been as consistently great as Lewis has been the last decade, and he is still playing at a very high level, directing traffic like a coordinator on the field.
Expectations are generally lower for wild-card teams painted as underdogs taking to the road every week, but this Ravens' team should not be underestimated. They easily knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs last season in Foxborough and are more battle-tested in Flacco's third year at the helm. They are well positioned to follow the path of the Giants in 2007 and the Steelers in 2005 and bring home the hardware from the wild-card slot.
• Like the Ravens, the Colts have won their last four games. Behind the determination of Peyton Manning and a revamped 4-4 defense, the Colts are hitting their stride at the right time. They have been presented with more adversity this season than usual, riddled with injuries. In 2006 when they beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, they were confronted with similar questions about their health and their run defense, and the adversity helped sharpen their focus and catapult them to a championship.
• The Patriots and Falcons enter the postseason with the NFL's best records, but areas of both of their defenses remain open to be exploited. Falcons CB Dunta Robinson was signed to address a key need in the offseason, but he has taken a lot of time to adapt to Mike Smith's defense and has been outplayed by the very underrated Brent Grimes, whom the Falcons use much more heavily in man coverage. Bill Belichick might be producing his best coaching job ever with a young group of rookies, and the group has played years beyond its age and been very opportunistic, but as Cleveland showed, they still can be slammed and outmuscled.
• Both Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu grabbed deflected passes in the opening minute against Cincinnati and Cleveland respectively. They always seem to be in the right place at the right time. Even though Reed played only 10 games, he still led the NFL in interceptions this season after picking off two Carson Palmer passes. Polamalu finished directly behind him with seven picks in 14 games.
• In one of the most meaningless weekends of the season, there were many lopsided losses. The Panthers' John Fox, the Browns' Eric Mangini and the Dolphins' Tony Sparano — whose jobs have all come heavily in question — were each handed losses by at least three touchdowns. On the flip side, Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson put on a dominant offensive showing against the Chiefs without the services of Darren McFadden as he makes a bid for control in the Bay Area. Niners interim coach Jim Tomsula blasted the Cardinals to the tune of 38-7 in an eye-opening showing. And Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, seeking to remove the interim title from his title, knocked off an injury-plagued Eagles squad without Michael Vick that heads into the postseason with a two-game slide.
• Rams rookie WR Danario Alexander had two very costly drops late in the de facto NFC West championship game on perfectly thrown passes when he had separation from Kelly Jennings along the sideline and a step on Lawyer Milloy down the middle of the field. For as good as QB Sam Bradford was as a rookie — and he was generally very good — he could really take off next season if Donnie Avery, Mark Clayton and Laurent Robinson can stay healthy, and the Rams continue to upgrade their receiving cast.
• When the Panthers decided not to retain Julius Peppers and made John Fox a lame-duck head coach last season, they had to know they could be setting back the franchise. Owner Jerry Richardson likely did not envision falling quite so hard, but that's exactly what happened as the team finished with the league's worst record and was awarded the top pick in next year's draft. The encouraging news is that the roster was hit hard by injuries, GM Marty Hurney has been one of the best in the league in drafting talent and seldom has missed on a first-round pick. They have not had one the past two years after mortgaging future first-round picks to select Everette Brown and Jeff Otah, but few GMs can boast as strong of a record in the first round. Hurney's hits include Jonathan Stewart (13th, 2008), Jon Beason (25th, 2007), DeAngelo Williams (27th, 2006), Thomas Davis (14th, 2005), Chris Gamble (28th, 2004), Jordan Gross (eighth, 2003), Peppers (2nd, 2002) and Dan Morgan (11th 2001).
• Not only are there five new teams in the playoffs this season, three of them — the Falcons, Bears and Steelers — entered with first-round byes, alongside perennial power New England. The Seahawks and Chiefs, the other two newcomers, both earned fourth-place seeds as the best of the worst divisions, both hailing from the downtrodden west, and landed the toughest wild-card draws. Seattle has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde look this season, but are always a more formidable opponent at home, where long-distance travel and raucous crowd noise are difficult to overcome. The Chiefs are coming off a demoralizing loss to the Raiders following news that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis would be departing following the playoffs to accept a job with the University of Florida as its offensive coordinator. Weis played to Matt Cassel's strengths, turned Jamaal Charles into one of the NFL's leading rushers and helped Dwayne Bowe emerge as a receiving force. A strong argument could be made that Weis was the Chiefs' MVP this season, and the loss was a painful reminder of what they now must replace.
• Based on the way they finished the season, four teams that could enter the playoff mix in 2011 are the Buccaneers, Lions, Raiders and 49ers. Winning 10 games with such a young team was a lofty accomplishment for Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. The Lions have turned the corner and could contend for a division crown next season. They were a play or two from beating the NFC North-champion Bears in both matchups this season. The Raiders finished with a perfect record in the AFC West, the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to accomplish the feat and not qualify for the playoffs. And the 49ers are brimming with a talented roster that could shine with the right coach. A fifth team to watch is the Jaguars, who are right on the brink of success with a young, ascending roster, but questions still remain about how well Jack Del Rio can tap its potential.