USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell previews NFL playoffs: Denver Broncos look great

1:43 PM, Dec 31, 2012   |    comments
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Sure, the week off matters for the four teams that earned a bye. The Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots can take a bow.

They earned some rest. Or the chance to completely lose their rhythm.

Recent history suggests the top seeds should be wary.

The defending Super Bowl champs, the now-unqualified New York Giants, got into the playoffs last year on the final day of the regular season with a 9-7 record.

The year before, the Green Bay Packers were a battered sixth seed.

"The last two Super Bowl winners give everybody hope," Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton said before Sunday night's finale at FedEx Field, where Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-18 to win the NFC East and move on to host the Seattle Seahawks next week. "It builds the same type of hope that you have in August."

In other words, it's wide open.

Among the dreamers are the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings -- who got in Sunday thanks to Adrian Peterson, who finished the season with 2,097 yards rushing, eight shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season record.

Where's the dominant team?

In September, I thought it might be the 49ers after they went into Lambeau Field and smacked down the Packers. Pack a hard-hitting defense and hard-nosed running game for the road, and you're dangerous.

By Halloween, the Falcons looked Super Bowl-bound at 8-0. Then they lost. Break up the Falcons. They are beatable.

In November, the Patriots had that look. You know the faces. GQ quarterback. Coach in a hoodie. Evil Empire stuff.

Then there's Houston. This team was 11-1 in early December. And balanced.

Now Denver rolls in with an NFL-longest 11-game winning streak. Peyton Manning is supported by the best defense he's ever had (sorry, Dwight Freeney). The Broncos entered Week 17 with the NFL's third-ranked defense and led the league with 48 sacks. And the road goes through the Mile High City, with all that altitude.

The Broncos look like a surefire pick ... until you consider that the Texans won in Denver. And the Falcons picked off Manning three times. The Evil Empire cut Manning's meat, too.

None of that matters now.

Houston beat Denver, but New England crushed Houston. Seattle beat San Francisco, but the 49ers pounded the Patriots. The Packers got jobbed in Seattle and shut down by San Francisco, but Aaron Rodgers and crew laid a number on the Texans.

Try to find a dominant team out of that round-robin of an equation. Or clues for what happens next.

"That's the beauty of this," says Lofton, now an analyst for Dial Global Radio Sports. "That day, for that 60 minutes, that's all that matters. You don't bring baggage with you into the playoffs."

Are the Falcons listening? Atlanta has been to the playoffs three times in four years under coach Mike Smith and with Matt Ryan at quarterback. They are 0-for-the-postseason.

Says Lofton, "They may be the hungriest team in the playoffs. They certainly have the most to prove."

Maybe this is their time. But first, they've got to win a playoff game.

Then there's the 49ers. The quarterback who led them to last year's NFC title game, Alex Smith, is on the bench. If San Francisco falls short of the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick, coach Jim Harbaugh's approval rating will take a hit.

It's been quite the year for young quarterbacks. Kaepernick, along with rookies Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and RGIII, can take it another step.

But would you bank on a young quarterback over someone who's won it all before, such as Manning, Rodgers or Tom Brady?

Then again, quarterbacks like Ryan and Matt Schaub will beg to argue that there's nothing like the first time.

That old-school mantra about defense winning championships also seems a bit diluted in this pass-happy age. Better to have a tough defense than not, but it's even better to have a big-time quarterback.

With that in mind, I'll predict the Broncos -- after another Manning vs. Brady showdown -- over the ... Falcons.

For all of the potential upsets, I'll ride with both No. 1 seeds -- which is another way of expecting the unexpected. You know how often both No. 1 seeds advance to the Super Bowl? It's happened once in 18 years.

Who's with me? Time for a quick press-box poll:

Rick Gosselin, Dallas Morning News: Denver over Green Bay.
Sal Paolantonio, ESPN: Denver over San Francisco.
I feel a trend coming.

George Willis, New York Post: Denver over Green Bay.
Clark Judge, CBS Sportsline: Green Bay over Denver.
Mark Maske, Washington Post: San Francisco over Denver.
Five random picks, and the Broncos are the unanimous choice as AFC champs ... and nobody's picking the Falcons. Guess we'll see.

Just don't give me this business about the "hot" team. The Super Bowl champ is always the hottest team at the right time.

"The NFL playoffs is like going to the movies," Lofton says. "You know how you get to the end of the movie and they flip the script? That's the same kind of drama in the NFL."

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Single-game tickets for the Broncos AFC Divisional playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, will go on sale Monday at noon.

Tickets will be available only to those with a billing address in the Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Western Kansas.

Tickets will not be available at the Broncos Ticket Office until Wednesday - if any remain.

Ticket prices range from $60 to $200 for reserved seats and $175 to $425 for club seats. There is a limit of four tickets per household.

Tickets for the game to be held Jan. 12 at 2:30 p.m. will be available at all Ticketmaster locations by calling 1-800-745-3000 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)

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