1. Tennessee Titans
Coach: Jeff Fisher (128-102). Obscure because of where he hangs his whistle and a failure to win the really big one, he's the longest-tenured head coach with the same team (1994); his reign dates to the organization's days as the Houston Oilers.
Best players: RB Chris Johnson (1,228 yards, 9 TDs); RB LenDale White (15 TDs); FS Michael Griffin (seven INTs).
Most interesting player: DL Albert Haynesworth. The sometimes-troublesome lineman once tried to stomp an opponent's head as he lay on the field, and once returned from a practice scuffle involving a college teammate with a pole (presumably for swinging, not vaulting). Apparently more settled, he's arguably one of the NFL's best defensive players.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: With Adam Jones now the Cowboys' problem, the Titans' police blotter has cleared measurably, but White was cited for destruction of property, disobedience to a lawful order/interference and resistance near a club hosting a party in his honor this March. So don't host/attend a party in his honor and you should be fine.
Will make it to Tampa if: They continue to grind the ball with Johnson and White and play stifling defense.
Will watch it from their couch if: They play like the Titans normally play in the postseason.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: Erstwhile Bucs QB Chris Simms is two heartbeats from the starting job on a team that has already proved efficiency (Kerry Collins) means more than star power (Vince Young).
Our prediction: Homefield advantage will help to a point.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Coach: Mike Tomlin (22-10). Just 34 when he was hired as the Steelers' third coach since 1969. In 2007, he went 10-6, becoming just the second coach in team history with a winning record, division title and playoff berth in his first season.
Best players: SS Troy Polamalu (seven interceptions); LB James Harrison (16 sacks, fourth-best in NFL); LB LaMarr Woodley (11.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries).
Most interesting player: Polamalu: Long hair, crazy, wild eyes, intercepts passes. Plays piano, makes furniture, grows flowers. Scares me.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Santonio
Holmes. Police found marijuana-filled cigars in the receiver's SUV during a traffic stop in October. Not cigarettes. Cigars. Welcome to Cigar City, my man.
Will make it to Tampa if: Their historically dominant defense continues to dominate. A team can win a lot of games allowing just 13.9 points per game.
Will watch it from their couch if: The offense has to work too hard, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's concussion (sustained in Sunday's 31-0 win over Cleveland) affects his play or they stop getting the benefit of every iffy big-game call.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: This town developed a taste for defense watching the Bucs grow into contenders and, eventually, win a title. It also developed a patience for a plodding offense.
Our prediction: Defense could punch their ticket to Tampa.
3. Miami Dolphins
Coach: Tony Sparano (11-5). Tony Soprano, hardy-har, Don't Stop Believin', "Is Pauly Walnuts the defensive coordinator?" Sure, you thought it was awfully funny when the sad-sack Fins hired a no-name (make that funny-name) to take over a team that went 1-15 in 2007. He made the AFC East an offer it couldn't refuse in his first season as an NFL head coach.
Best players: QB Chad Pennington (3,653 passing yards, 19 TDs); RB Ronnie Brown (916 yards, 10 TDs); LB Joey Porter (17.5 sacks, second in NFL).
Most interesting player: When will opposing players ever stop trying to trash-talk with Pro Bowl player Joey Porter? Then-Seahawks TE Jerramy Stevens tried before Super Bowl XL — when Porter was a Steeler — and ended up getting out-talked and out-witted, dropping several key passes and looking like he was bracing to take his medicine instead of trying to win a game. Porter is outlandish and infuriating but best not rankled. Broncos WR Brandon Marshall tried this season and failed, saying Porter had "popcorn muscles" after Porter called him "soft." Marshall looked like he was afraid Porter would leap into the media scrum and clothesline him as he was spouting his ridiculousness.
Will make it to Tampa if: They continue to be just average enough to stay within reach of a big rushing/scoring day by RB Ronnie Brown, and if QB Chad Pennington continues to prove he's better than the guy for whom the Jets dumped him.
Will watch from the couch if: Their thin margin for error swings the other way in the pressurized playoffs. Or if a valiant late run (winning nine of their final 10) was too mentally and physically exhausting.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: If one Florida team were to make the playoffs, odds were it was to be the Bucs. And seriously, who wants to see Miami ever do well?
Our prediction: Complete lack of playoff experience may end the fairy tale soon.
4. San Diego Chargers
Coach: Norv Turner (77-95): A two-time Super Bowl winner as an assistant with the Cowboys, his team is laden with so much talent and experience, it figured to have a smoother ride. But San Diego overcame an earlier lost game on a blown officiating call to overtake Denver in the final game.
Best players: QB Philip Rivers (34 touchdowns, 11 interceptions); RB LaDainian Tomlinson (1,110 yards, 11 touchdowns); TE Antonio Gates (eight touchdowns).
Most interesting player: Defensive end Luis Castillo made headlines during the 2005 scouting combine by mailing a letter to all 32 teams admitting he used steroids, claiming he needed them to help overcome a nagging elbow injury.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Linebacker Shaun Phillips was once arrested for getting into a fight with a patrol officer after he saw Phillips grab a woman by the hair and the woman slap him back. Phillips started to walk away, the
officer told him to stay, and the scuffle ensued.
Will make it to Tampa if: Rivers tears up the postseason the way he tore up the Bucs and Broncos the last two weeks of the regular season, and LT becomes the LT who once ruled the NFL.
Will watch it from their couch if: Ed Hochuli refs one of their games. Ouch. Low blow.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: They'll cheer for Bolts, any Bolts.
Our prediction: Now in, capable
of a deep run.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Coach: Tony Dungy (139-69). The stoic head coach this season set a record with 10 consecutive playoff appearances, including all seven with Indianapolis. Fired after never winning the biggest one for Tampa Bay, he captured Super Bowl XLI with the Colts in February 2007.
Best players: QB Peyton Manning (4,002 yards, 27 touchdowns); WR Reggie Wayne (1,145 yards); DE Robert Mathis (111/2 sacks).
Most interesting player: Peyton Manning: He wins Super Bowls (once) and MVPs (twice and likely again this season) and is chuckle-worthy on Saturday Night Live. He also has stealth knee surgeries so his legs are strong enough to haul his team into title contention. The Colts' nine straight wins to end the season were of his making.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: WR Marvin Harrison, unless he keeps his gun locked up.
Will make it to Tampa if: Manning continues his hell-bent dash. He rescued a season wallowing at 3-4 and has the Colts primed for a run. The development of a running game with Joseph Addai (544 yards) and Dominic Rhodes (538) would help immeasurably.
Will watch it from their couch if: Their horrific rush defense (122.9 yards per game) doesn't stiffen just a little.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: Tony Dungy, Tony Dungy and Tony Dungy. Still a beloved, respected figure in Tampa Bay, reaching a Super Bowl on the field where he helped guide the Bucs to glory would be poignant.
Our prediction: Battled-test quarterback has a hot hand.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Coach: John Harbaugh (11-5). One of three first-year head coaches to reach the playoffs this season, he sprouted from the Andy Reid branch of the Mike Holmgren tree via Philadelphia and became just the Ravens' third coach. The Ravens, winners of nine of their past 11, are the first in NFL history to win 10 games in a season with a rookie coach and quarterback (Joe Flacco).
Best players: LB Ray Lewis (117 tackles); FS Ed Reed (league-high nine INTs, two for TDs); FB Le'Ron McClain (10 TDs).
Most interesting player: Ray Lewis is to the Ravens what Derrick Brooks is to the Bucs, only louder and with a more outrageous set of dance moves. But at 33 he can still play, and the Lakeland Kathleen product is the catalyst of a savage defense that will determine how deep a less-talented offensive team goes in the postseason.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Please, please keep Ray Lewis out of the limo.
Will make it to Tampa if: The defense rises. Only the Steelers played better, and not by that much. The Ravens allowed just 261 yards a game (second in NFL) and 15 points per game (third).
Will watch it from their couch if: The defense rests. As usual, the Ravens are plain offensively and Flacco doesn't figure to win many games alone.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: Bucs castaway Trent Dilfer can't lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl win in Tampa Bay this time.
Our prediction: This defense is capable of a push southward.