Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Ranking the 12 NFL playoff qualifiers

Tom Brady (12) of the New England Patriots reacts in the huddle during the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 28, 2014, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Tom Brady (12) of the New England Patriots reacts in the huddle during the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 28, 2014, in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Getty Images

OK, we have seen the first round of the historic debut of the College Football Playoff. Now let’s see what the adults can do, shall we? The NFL’s 12-team Super Bowl tournament commences with four Wild Card Weekend games, a time of year that unfortunately mandates the annual mea culpa from me as I look back on how badly my preseason predictions turned out.

I correctly forecast six of the dozen playoff teams on these pages four months ago: the AFC’s Patriots, Bengals, Colts and Broncos, and the NFC’s Packers and Seahawks. (That’s closer to a confession than bragging, by the way.) My Super Bowl pick was Broncos over Saints. At least I’m still alive with Denver. (Let’s not talk about the other team.)

Moving on, quickly, we rank the 12 playoff qualifiers top to bottom based on the likelihood they’ll be raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy in a month:

1. Patriots — New England last won it all in ever-distant 2004 (twice losing the Super Bowl since), and it feels like it’s about time for another hurrah — maybe a last one — for Bill Belichick & Tom Brady.

2. Seahawks — Seattle is the betting favorite, and I get that. But a voice keeps whispering that only eight times in a half century has a team repeated as SB champion.

3. Packers — In Aaron Rodgers I trust, but I also recall that when Pack last visited Seattle, in this season’s opener, Mr. Discount Double Check took a 36-16 pounding.

4. Broncos — In Peyton Manning I also trust, but last year’s 43-8 Super Bowl loss and the prospect of having to go through Foxborough give me pause.

5. Cowboys — For your consideration, Dallas is only sixth team since the 1978 advent of 16-game schedule to go 8-0 on road. And four of previous five reached the Super Bowl.

6. Steelers — A longshot, yes, but the offensive triumvirate of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell make almost anything seem possible.

7. Panthers — Here begins a huge dropoff from the top six, but get over bemoaning a losing team making the playoffs. Cats are what you need to be: Hot and playing your best going in.

8. Bengals — Cincy last won a playoff game in 1990, but rookie RB Jeremy Hill has given the offense a spark that could change that this weekend.

9. Colts — Andrew Luck threw 40 TD passes, and yet I still don’t quite trust Indianapolis not to be its own worst enemy with an ill-timed turnover.

10. Ravens — Baltimore rose from fourth seed to Super Bowl champs only two years ago. Joe Flacco did that. But this year’s squad needed luck just to make the tournament.

11. Lions — Detroit isn’t a great road team and doesn’t have a great offense despite Calvin Johnson. Oh, and anybody really trust Matthew Stafford?

12. Cardinals — Third-string QB, can’t run, mediocre pass D. Arizona is more likely to raise Vince Lombardi from the dead than to raise his trophy in its own stadium.

ANNUAL AWARDS

Our King Sport 2014 season awards:

▪ MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers QB — There is not a clear-cut winner, and I can’t give it to a defender whose team didn’t even make the playoffs. A vote for Tony Romo tempts, but Rodgers excelled without nearly the ground support Romo had.

▪ Offensive Player of Year: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys RB — This is more of an individual, stats-driven honor than MVP is, and rushing champ Murray had almost 500 more yards (484), a record disparity, over the runner-up for the title.

▪ Defensive Player of Year: J.J. Watt, Texans DE — This category is the biggest rout since that time it was William Shakespeare vs. me for writer of the year. Mega-Watt had 201/2 sacks and 98 QB hurries or batted-down passes. Relentless.

▪ Offensive Rookie of Year: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants WR — What a great, loaded category. Beckham had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 TDs despite missing first month of season. Miami’s Jarvis Landry had 84 catches and 28.1 kick-return average, and might not make top 10 in rookie voting.

▪ Defensive Rookie of Year: C.J. Mosely, Ravens LB — Tight race, tough call, but Mosely meant more to his team going farther than other top candidates Aaron Donald (Rams DT) or Khalil Mack (Raiders LB).

▪ Coach of Year: Bruce Arians, Cardinals — Arizona lost QB Carson Palmer early, won with backup Drew Stanton and reached playoffs with third-stringer Ryan Lindley, still somehow winning 11 games.

▪ Dolphins MVP: Ryan Tannehill, QB — Clear call. Showed much improvement in becoming first Miami 4,000-yard man other than Dan Marino. DE Cam Wake, CB Brent Grimes and WR Landry also were notable. OT Branden Albert (before his injury) and S Reshad Jones (if not for his suspension) also would have been in the hunt.

Happy New Year, all!

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