Steelers riding high

MATTHEW ROSS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 4:25 PM ET

And then there were 12.

The NFL's regular season grind is over and the slates are wiped clean. Whether you won a few games in a row or backed in to the playoffs, everyone has a chance.

Seemingly, playing on your home field in the postseason is an advantage. However, there have been cases where it has also been a pressure cooker (ask the Eagles).

In terms of conferences, the AFC appears to have more serious contenders for the crown. However, all it takes is a little luck and some consistent play to make Superbowl dreams come true.

Without further ado, here's a look at the 12 participants in this year's NFL title run. We rank them by order of favourites (least to most).

Minnesota Vikings: Only four teams were worse than the Vikes on defence this season. But only three teams were better than them offensively. That explains their 8-8 record and up and down season. Minnesota does have some experience on offence with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss. However, it's their defence that's the main concern. The Vikings lost seven of their last 10 regular season games and play a Green Bay team that beat them twice this season. If they want to have any kind of shot, they will need a better running attack from Michael Bennett/Onterrio Smith and to limit the big plays on defence.

Seattle Seahawks: While they did manage to win their division, Seattle fans aren't too confident in this team. They had a flair for making easy wins look difficult and for not finishing off opponents. In terms of their strengths, the one thing they can bank on is RB Shaun Alexander being a factor. He had a career year and was the second leading rusher in the league this season. Defensively, injuries have been a factor, as have lapses in concentration (ranked seventh worst in the league). Look for Seattle to compete hard, but make a bonehead play or two.

St. Louis Rams: Winning their final two games against playoff teams was a confidence builder. However, St. Louis doesn't play well outdoors in the cold. They'll need to really focus in order to beat Seattle in the first round. The Rams swept the season series against the Seahawks, so confidence is sky high. Offensively, Marc Bulger has got to eliminate his propensity to throw the devastating interception. Plus, they need BOTH Marshall Faulk and Stephen Jackson to run well in order to take the pressure off the passing game. At 8-8, no one is giving the Rams too much of a chance in the playoffs. But, perhaps the clean slate of the postseason is exactly what they needed.

Denver Broncos: How is the only team in the NFL to be ranked in the top five both offensively and defensively being called a long shot? Inconsistent play and key mistakes by their stars have restricted Denver to underdog status. Jake Plummer threw for more yards than Elway ever did this season. But, he also threw too many interceptions and couldn't win a couple of key divisional games during the year. Nevertheless, the Broncos are in the postseason and must face the Colts again -- the team that eliminated them last postseason. Denver will need continued strong play from their running attack, no errors from Plummer and excellent play from their secondary if they want to advance in these playoffs.

New York Jets: The Jets had a good season overall, but a bad December. They must shake off recent failures in order to excel in the playoffs. A top 10 defence and a terrific running game will have to be their strengths. Rushing champ Curtis Martin is a veteran and must carry a big load in order for Chad Pennington to be effective. While their linebackers are strong, it's their secondary that has been troublesome as of late. Look for the Jets to drop their linebackers into coverage more often in an effort to play to their strengths. New York has to travel to San Diego, but they have won on the road before and could pull off an upset or two if things go right.

Green Bay Packers: An inconsistent team all season, the Packers will play at least one game at home, although their play on the road this season has been a bright spot. If they want any chance at going deep in the playoffs, RB Ahman Green will have to step up and dominate opposing teams' lines and Brett Favre can't make his usual mistake or two. Defensively (bottom third of the league), the Packers have been soft all year in the secondary, so opponents will be airing it out on them. This is a veteran team with some playmakers, so anything is possible if Favre is on his game. Don't rule them out of any game until the gun sounds.

San Diego Chargers: While this team does have weapons and tons of talent, playoff experience is something they are short on. QB Drew Brees and RB LaDanian Tomlinson will have to carry the offence, while LB Donnie Edwards will anchor a mediocre defence. The Chargers outscore opponents to win games and will have to continue to do so in the postseason. San Diego is back in the playoffs after a decade of watching on the sidelines, so expect their fans to be absolutely crazy in round one. The Chargers are a dark horse, but with a lot of dangerous players.

Indianapolis Colts: Yes, they have the best offence in football and no one can stop them. However, their 29th ranked defence is a concern and gives opponents a whole lot of hope. The Colts will need Peyton Manning to continue his dominance of the league with his surgeon-like precision and eerie calm at the line. Defensively, this team can come up with a big play every now and then, but those are few and far between. Everyone knows all the pressure is on the offence and Manning has come to accept it. Still, with a 1,000-rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers, this team cannot be ignored.

Philadelphia Eagles: When Terrell Owens went down for the year, experts gave this team their last rites. Still, with an MVP-type QB in McNabb and a hostile home crowd, the Eagles are for real. They have a plethora of experience in the postseason and will play with a chip on their collective shoulders. While both offensive and defensive units were good, they weren't spectacular. It will take a total team effort to win each playoff game. Coach Andy Reid knows he's another injury away from being ousted from the playoffs. But, these Eagles have faced tough criticism for a few years now and will be ready come game time.

Atlanta Falcons: They have arguably the best athlete in the league on offence and have a big play defence. The Falcons were in the middle of the pack in all team stats, but use their team speed and energy to overwhelm opponents. They have proven they can win on the road outdoors if need be, but will play at least one game at home in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome. QB Michael Vick has been holding back for a few weeks, so look for him to run wild over opposing defences in the postseason. The Falcons do have a few vets that know how to win the big game, such as LB Keith Brooking and DE Travis Hall. Some say they had a soft schedule, but if opponents think this way Atlanta will send them home in a hurry.

New England Patriots: Defensive injuries have robbed the Pats of being the favourite to win the Superbowl. Still, they have all the savvy and experience in the world and relish this time of the year. New England ranked in the top 10 in both total offence and defence and have been known to step up their game when it counts the most. RB Corey Dillon has been a fantastic pick up and the Pats will need his ground game to be on. Tom Brady has been shaky of late, but we expect him to rebound and be the playoff MVP that he is. The Patriots may have to win one road game, but it's not something they haven't done before.

Pittsburgh Steelers: This is the most solid team in the league right now. Even their backups have proven they can win games. The Steelers have the league's most feared defence, one of the league's most clutch offence and tremendous special teams. They also have home-field advantage. Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger should continue to be poised despite playing in his first postseason, while Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley will provide a devastating 1-2 punch on the ground. If Pittsburgh gets continued outstanding play out of their defence they will be tough to beat. The road to the Superbowl goes through Heinz Field.

Matthew Ross is a freelance writer and host of the Montreal-based Team 990's Game Points! heard every Sunday night at 10 p.m.


Videos

Photos