We have this NFL playoff thing all figured out. It comes down to six things:
• Coaching. Do you have an experienced coach who knows how to game plan?
• Quarterback. Is he good under pressure? Seven of the 12 QBs in the playoffs have started a Super Bowl.
• Running game. Can you run the ball and control the clock?
• Defense. Can you stop the other team?
• Turnovers. Can you avoid them on offense and create them on defense?
• Momentum. Are you hot or cold going into the big tournament?
So here's a look at those six categories and how the playoff teams match up.
Ranking the coaches
1. Tony Dungy, Colts. Has missed the postseason only twice in 13 seasons, and has won a Super Bowl.
2. Tom Coughlin, Giants. Like his QB, questions put to rest after his team won it all last season.
3. Jeff Fisher, Titans. Longest active tenured coach with one team, but hasn't won a postseason game since 2003.
4. Andy Reid, Eagles. Has an 8-6 record in the postseason.
5. John Fox, Panthers. Only third postseason in seven years, but his teams are 5-2 in the playoffs.
6. Mike Tomlin, Steelers. Lost his lone playoff game last season.
7. Mike Smith, Falcons. Our pick for coach of the year.
8. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals. Have to go back more than 20 years to find a Cards coach who won 17 games over two seasons.
9. Tony Sparano, Dolphins. Took a 1-15 team and turned it into a division champ.
10. John Harbaugh, Ravens. Rookie coach with rookie QB and rookie RB went 11-5 this season.
11. Brad Childress, Vikings. Has a 24-24 record as Vikings coach. First postseason appearance.
12. Norv Turner, Chargers. Nice guy, but a good head coach? Lifetime regular-season record of 77-95-1.
1. Colts. Won final nine games, including victories against Pats, Steelers, Chargers and Titans.
2. Chargers. Won last four to make postseason.
3. Dolphins. Won nine of last 10, including gutsy victory in New York against Jets in finale.
4. Panthers. Went 6-2 in second half with only losses to Falcons and Giants (in overtime).
5. Ravens. Won nine of last 11 and only losses were to excellent teams — Steelers and Giants.
6. Vikings. Went 7-2 down the stretch and won five of their last six to win division.
7. Eagles. Won four of last five, including victories against Cards, Giants and Cowboys.
8. Falcons. Won five of last six, including victories against Panthers, Chargers, Bucs and Vikings.
9. Steelers. Won six of last seven, but lost badly in big game against Tennessee two weeks ago.
10. Titans. Lost two of last three, but really weren't playing for anything in regular-season finale loss to Colts.
11. Giants. Have lost three of four and have struggled since loss of WR Plaxico Burress.
12. Cardinals. Weren't playing for much, but still beat only St. Louis and Seattle while going 2-4 down the stretch.
The turnover battle
Most football people subscribe to the theory that whoever wins the turnover battle wins the most games. If that's you, then the Miami Dolphins are your team. The Dolphins had a turnover ratio of plus-17. But the Titans (plus-14), the Ravens (plus-13) and the Colts and Giants (both plus-9) also ranked in the top five. Of the 12 playoff teams, only two lost the turnover battle. The Falcons were minus-3, while the Vikings were minus-6.
A big edge here to the Steelers and Ravens — the top defensive teams in the league. The Steelers held opponents to less than 300 yards total offense in 15 of their 16 games. Statistically, the Giants have the best defense in the NFC. They allowed opponents 292 yards per game. And here's a surprise: the Vikings were right behind, allowing opponents 292.4 yards per game. The Chargers and the Cardinals have the worst defenses going into the playoffs. The Chargers allowed 349.9 yards per game, worst among postseason teams. Meantime, the Cardinals gave up 26.6 points per game — the fifth-worst total in the entire league and nearly eight points more than the next closest playoff team.
Running the ball
The old playoff adage is the teams that win are the teams that control the ball. And you control the ball by running it. No surprise that six of the top seven rushing teams in the NFL are in the postseason. (The Patriots were sixth in team rushing and are the first 11-5 team since 1985 to miss the postseason.) The Giants led the NFL with slightly more than 157 rushing yards per game. The Falcons (152.7), Panthers (152.3), Ravens (148.5), Vikings (145.8) and Titans (137.4) ranked in the top seven. Surprisingly, the Colts finished next to last in the NFL in rushing at 79.6 yards per game. The only team that was worse? Arizona at 73.6 per game.
Final team rankings
1. Carolina Panthers. Thanks to running game, looked better than any team in the second half.
2. Tennessee Titans. Victory over Steelers convinced us they're best in the AFC.
3. New York Giants. Let's not forget they are defending champs. That matters.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers. If Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, this could be team to beat.
5. Indianapolis Colts. QB Peyton Manning is best player in postseason. By far. He can win this whole thing himself.
6. Atlanta Falcons. They can run and play defense. That's a dangerous combination.
7. Baltimore Ravens. Defense is good enough, but offense is the big question, especially with rookie QB.
8. Philadelphia Eagles. Looked good of late, but consistency is an issue. Can they put together four good games?
9. San Diego Chargers. Bad matchup against Peyton Manning because Chargers had second-worst pass defense in NFL.
10. Minnesota Vikings. If they can run the ball, they have a chance to win a game.
11. Miami Dolphins. We hope it doesn't, but nice little story will end this weekend.
12. Arizona Cardinals. This team faded badly down the stretch, can't run ball and has a leaky defense.
Ranking the quarterbacks
1. Peyton Manning, Colts.
NFL MVP. Making a case as the greatest QB who ever lived.
2. Eli Manning, Giants.
Perception changed after he won it all last season.
3. Kurt Warner, Cardinals.
Even at 37, threw for 30 TDs and more than 4,500 yards.
4. Philip Rivers, Chargers.
In last six games, has 13 TDs and one interception.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Good in the clutch, but health is an issue.
6. Jake Delhomme, Panthers.
Threw only 15 TDs with 12 picks this season.
7. Donovan McNabb, Eagles.
Never know what you're going to get. Great one week, mediocre the next.
8. Kerry Collins, Titans.
Nothing special, but manages the game well.
9. Chad Pennington, Dolphins.
NFL comeback player of the year after 19 TDs and only seven interceptions.
10. Matt Ryan, Falcons.
Only knock is this is his first postseason.
11. Joe Flacco, Ravens.
Same as Ryan. How will he handle the pressure?
12. Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings.
Takes care of ball — only two interceptions in 149 attempts.