Julio Jones has been a fantasy beast this season. But can you trust the Falcons in the playoffs? It's hard to go wrong with Arian Foster. But the Texans have featured the pass a lot more in recent weeks. How about those 49ers? That defense is something else and the offense put a 40-burger on the Patriots. Then again, they also were held to 13 points by the Rams.
It's easy and understandable to look at the division winners and presume they've found the yellow brick road to New Orleans for this season's big game. But you and I know that there's always a wild card team in the mix. And more often than not, that wild card is ... a Wild Card.
Since 2000, eight different Super Bowl participants have played in the first weekend of the NFL playoffs. During that same stretch, four of those teams made the postseason as wild cards. Even more impressive, all four of those squads hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. Getting into the dance by the skin of one's teeth is sometimes the best motivation to make a championship run. Case in point...
2000 Baltimore Ravens: One word can sum up this improbable run to a Super Bowl title. Defense. Okay, maybe four more. Jamal Lewis. Shannon Sharpe. But mostly defense. The Ravens allowed just over 10 points per game and pitched four shutouts during the regular season. Then they turned it up in the playoffs. Baltimore's vaunted defense averaged 24.50 points through the four rounds of the postseason. The point totals just kept getting better, finishing with a playoff-high 30 points in the Super Bowl win over the Giants.
Potential 2012 wild card equivalent: Chicago Bears. At the start of the year, the Monsters of the Midway were as formidable as any defense the league had seen. Their downfall has (at least in part) come at the hands of an offense that has been inefficient for long stretches of the season. Jay Cutler is certainly no Trent Dilfer, but he hasn't exactly set the league on fire either. Substitute Brandon Marshall for Sharpe and Matt Forte for Lewis and your narrative is all set.
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh's '05 run to the title might be best remembered for Mike Vanderjagt's miss that preserved the Steelers' win over the Indianapolis Colts. But that would be overlooking Ben Roethlisberger's own run. Big Ben, in just his second season, averaged better than 17 fantasy points per game in the playoffs -- highlighted by a 26.20-point effort against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. He also had a little help from his friends, with receivers Cedrick Wilson, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El playing supporting roles along the way.
Potential 2012 wild card equivalent: Cincinnati Bengals. These cats have a second-year quarterback that doesn't always dazzle in the stat sheets, but has found a way to put together quality fantasy performances. On the other side of the ball, Cincy has a defense that doesn't always factor in the conversations of the NFL's best, but they're certainly better than average. The big difference? The '05 Steelers didn't have a receiver quite like A.J. Green.
2007 New York Giants: Big Blue sort of stumbled into the playoffs, losing two of its final three regular season games (although the Week 17 nailbiter against the Patriots was a sign of things to come). Once into the dance, the Giants were steady, if not spectacular. Eli Manning (14.29 ppg), Brandon Jacobs (11.65) and the aging Amani Toomer (11.50) continually made plays throughout the playoffs. And David Tyree, you ask? He posted 10.30 points in the Super Bowl. Too bad you don't get extra points for helmet catches.
Potential 2012 wild card equivalent: New York Giants. Who better to personify the New York Giants than the New York Giants? People still argue over Manning's elite status, they have a running back rotation that's good, but not great. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks can be huge playmakers, but can also vanish at times. And Big Blue's defense isn't always excellent, but is normally good enough. Plus, just when you start to count them out, Tom Coughlin flips the switch and gets them going again. The downside? They only seem to really put it together every four years, which sould seem to count them out after a championship in 2011.
2010 Green Bay Packers If the Ravens won with defense, the Packers did it with offense. James Starks was the biggest surprise of the playoffs, jumpstarting a dormant Green Bay running game with a 13.20-point performance in the postseason opener against the Eagles. He would beat that two weeks later with 14 points against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game. But not to be outdone, Aaron Rodgers unleashed the championship belt, averaging 23.29 points per game -- including a high-water mark of 33.94 in a blowout win over the Falcons. Rodgers' receivers prospered as well with both Greg Jennings (10.58 ppg) and Jordy Nelson (10.15) posting double-digit averages on the way to the Super Bowl title.
Potential 2012 wild card equivalent: Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson has been a scoring machine in the second half of the season and Marshawn Lynch has been locked into Beast Mode. But Seattle's hallmark is Pete Carroll's defense (Green Bay's defense finished the 2010 regular season having allowed the second-fewest points in the league). That group has been outstanding for most of the season, but the 'Hawks have really turned things up in the past couple of weeks. An active secondary and a run-stuffing front has been a big part of the reason Seattle is looking like a team that no one wants to tangle with in the first round of the playoffs.
So there you have it. A starter guide on who could lead you to success in this season's NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge. Then again, if Einstein was right about imagination being more important than knowledge, feel free to make up your own reasons about who can guide you to a title. Regardless, pick and enjoy!