Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
After a wild final day of the 2012 season, we know who's in, who's out, and what the matchups are for the first round of next weekend's playoffs.
What we don't know is who will win the NFL's three big individual awards: MVP, Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year. That's why we're here. But we'll give our picks.
Top Seeds: Denver, New England; Atlanta, San Francisco. As the No. 1 or No. 2 teams in their conferences, these four get byes this week, resting up and preparing for whoever survives the weekend. Since all playoff games are held at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team, No. 1 teams Denver and Atlanta will play all their games at home.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans: A month ago, after roaring to an 11 - 1 record, Houston looked like they'd booked tickets to the Super Bowl, but after losing three times against playoff teams in the last four weeks, they're looking more like Eddie Money waving two tickets to paradise. Worse, Houston gave away the AFC's top seed in a lackluster loss to Indianapolis Sunday. The Bengals, however, lost just once in the second half of the season, by a single point. And this is the playoffs, so somebody will pack their bags and leave Saturday night.
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Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens: Cue the "Changing of the Guard" meme, as super-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck takes on the aging, possibly last-gasping, Ray Lewis-led Baltimore defense. The Raven's Ray Rice should be able to grind out yards against Indy's suspect rushing defense (22nd in the league), but they'll be hard-pressed to keep up with Luck, who Sunday put up 28 points against the vaunted, J.J. Watt-led Texans.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: One of the rarest and most wonderful of playoff treats: a rematch of a great week 17 game! For 60 minutes Sunday, the Packers and Vikings simply tore into each other in one of 2012's most thrilling games of the day, with playoff implications on both sides. Aaron Rodgers threw for 365 yards and 4 TDs while Adrian Peterson rushed for 199, including 36 on the final game-winning drive, breaking the mythical 2,000-yard season along the way. Now they get to do it again, this time in Green Bay. By far the can't-miss game of the first round.
Seattle at Washington: that awkward moment when you are hosting a playoff game as the higher seed, but the other team is better than you. This will be the de facto second-straight playoff for Washington, who beat Dallas in a winner-take-all game Sunday night. But all eyes will be on the match-up of the rookie QBs, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson. But while RGIII probably hasn't faced a defense as solid as Seattle's, Wilson and the Seahawk's No. 2-ranked rushing offense spent December running over stiffer competition.
And now for the individual awards, for which, honestly, it's easier to just list the candidates:
Peyton Manning could be named MVP thanks to his 4,659 yards and 37 TDs. He could also receive Comeback Player as he missed all of 2011 with four career-threatening neck surgeries.
Adrian Peterson might grab the MVP title with his 2,097 yards or the Comeback Player honor—he suffered a knee injury in 2011 that usually requires over a year to return to even heavy practice.
Tom Brady's up for MVP as he avoided the Super Bowl curse: the tendency of Super Bowl losers to miss the playoffs the next year, transferring it instead to Eli Manning's Giants, last year's winner. Also, he threw for 4,827 yards.
J.J. Watt is also in the running for MVP. His 2012 has been one of the most terrifying seasons any defensive player has ever had.
Rookie of the Year: Luck, RGIII and Wilson could nab the honor.
Our Picks for NFL Winners:
MVP: It's not Watt, who didn't lead his team to late wins. Nor is it Manning, who was terrific, but faced a light schedule in the AFC West, and his candidacy for Comeback Player is even strong than his MVP one. So what's an MVP? Some say the player with the best statistics, others the best player on the best team, others a combination. But we use a different measure: In mid-December, hosting the red hot 49ers, the Patriots fell behind 31 - 3 midway through the third quarter. Then Brady shredded the NFL's best defense for 28 straight points in 15 minutes. Asked to describe the outburst afterwards, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh called it "very Tom Brady-like." No player in the NFL reached a higher level of play in 2012 than Brady did in those 15 minutes, which is our definition of an MVP. Except this year.
There is just too much magic in the "2,000", and Adrian Peterson became the seventh player to reach it in a game his team had to win. Peterson first, Brady second.
Comeback: Any other year, Peterson's historic season after an ACL injury is the easy winner. But four neck surgeries? Manning.
Rookie of the Year: Come on. Only one man can answer a question so irrelevant and arbitrary. Play us off, James Earl Jones-Simpsons cameo voice: "So the children learned how to function as a playoff team, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say...RG III."