Insider: NFL Playoff Bracket, Who Hoists the Lombardi?

We are on the eve of the postseason and the first thing that comes to mind is how quickly the regular season came and gone. It feels like just a few weeks ago we were talking about the lockout, and now we’re talking about the playoffs.

The NFL had six new playoff teams from a season ago, which is a little higher than the usual four or five. It’s now time to let the brackets play out and give you our predictions on which teams will be meeting in Indianapolis.

AFC

The seeds read as follows: (1) New England, (2) Baltimore, (3) Houston, (4) Denver, (5) Pittsburgh and (6) Cincinnati.

It hardly seems fair that a 12-4 Pittsburgh team has to travel to Denver to play the 8-8 Broncos who backed their way into the postseason. The tough-luck Steelers will play the game without running back Rashard Mendenhall who is out for the playoffs with a torn ACL and safety Ryan Clark, who has a sickle-cell trait which could potentially kill him if he were to overexert himself in the high altitude.

First round: (3) Houston over (6) Cincinnati, (5) Pittsburgh over (4) Denver.

The Cincinnati-Houston matchup will be all about which rookie quarterback makes the fewest mistakes, and the Texans defense has coordinator Wade Phillips back who will design coverages to force those mistakes. The Texans will win a close one…..As for the Steelers and Broncos, even though Pittsburgh is without Mendenhall and Clark, and Ben Roethlisberger is gimpy, the Broncos can’t score enough points to win with their one-dimensional offense.

Divisional round: (1) New England over (5) Pittsburgh, (2) Baltimore over (3) Houston.

The Steelers defeated the Pats soundly in the regular season so why will things be different this time around? To put it simply, it’s difficult to sweep Bill Belichick and Tom Brady twice in a season and the Steelers health will come into play….In another regular season rematch, the Baltimore Ravens beat up the Houston Texans in their first meeting in Baltimore. This time around, the Texans are without quarterback Matt Schaub and the result will be even worse for Houston.

AFC Championship Game: (2) Baltimore Ravens over (1) New England Patriots.

As painful as it is to pick Joe Flacco over Tom Brady, this is just a bad matchup for the Patriots. The Ravens defense will limit the dynamic Pats tight ends and force Brady to throw outside to less than stellar targets. Baltimore will make just enough plays on offense to send the Pats fans home unhappy again.

NFC

The seeds read as follows: (1) Green Bay, (2) San Francisco, (3) New Orleans, (4) New York, (5) Atlanta, (6) Detroit.

This is one of the best playoff fields in recent memory as you can make a legitimate case for each team to go to the Super Bowl. Will Atlanta finally get over the hump and win a playoff game? Can the Saints offense be effective enough outdoors?

First round: (3) New Orleans over (6) Detroit, (5) Atlanta over (4) New York.

Nobody beats the Saints in the Superdome and the young Detroit Lions will feel the nerves of the postseason. This one shouldn’t be close…..The New York Giants have been great with their backs against the wall, but they don’t handle prosperity all that well. This should be an excellent game and we like the Falcons to win their first playoff game in the Mike Smith era.

Divisional round: (1) Green Bay over (5) Atlanta, (3) New Orleans over (2) San Francisco.

The Falcons are the most balanced offense in football, but they are no match for the explosive passing attack of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers weapons are just too much for a suspect Falcons secondary….It’s Drew Brees versus Alex Smith. Who did you think we were going to go with?

NFC Championship: (2) New Orleans over (1) Green Bay.

The Saints offense isn’t the same outside of the Superdome, but the Green Bay Packers are built for the indoors even moreso than New Orleans. In a bad weather game, the Saints will be able to run the football where the Packers will not.

Super Bowl XLVI: New Orleans over Baltimore

The Saints will treat Lucas Oil Stadium like it’s the Superdome as the fast track will certainly benefit the Saints wide open offense. Baltimore is certainly capable of slowing down this team, but it’s tough to imagine Joe Flacco being able to put together another solid game and keep up with Drew Brees. Something similar played out about five years ago when the talented, yet inconsistent Rex Grossman and the ’06 Bears ran out of gas against Peyton Manning’s Colts.

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie

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