The New England Patriots struggled most of the year because of injuries, winning the AFC East in part because everyone else in the division had worse problems.
But the Patriots are relatively healthy now and begin their quest for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl tonight in Foxborough, Mass., as an eight-point favorite over Jacksonville, which won 12 games in the regular season, two more than the Patriots.
Jacksonville is a warm-weather team playing a winter night game in New England. The NFL and the networks have been in love with that concept, especially since Jan. 19, 2002, when the Patriots beat Oakland, 16-13, in the snow in the "tuck rule" overtime game that helped propel them to the first of their three Super Bowl victories.
Also think experience, a factor that applies to all playoff games, especially at quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie in 2004, but struggled in the postseason. This game matches Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, against Byron Leftwich, who is coming back from a broken ankle and will be playing his first playoff game.
The Jaguars are playing the "no respect" theme to the hilt, as they should.
"I like it that way. When we beat New England, that says it all," says Jimmy Smith, one of four Jaguars left from Jacksonville's last playoff team in 1999.
A team that goes 12-4 in the NFL is pretty good, soft schedule notwithstanding. And the Jaguars played the top-seeded Colts as well as anyone, especially in Indianapolis.
But Leftwich broke his left ankle Nov. 27 and hasn't played since, although he suited up last week as the third quarterback in the regular-season finale against Tennessee. David Garrard, his backup, was 4-1 in his place.
Carolina (plus 21â2) at New York Giants (Sunday)
The experience factor at quarterback favors Jake Delhomme over Eli Manning.
But it's usually windy in January at Giants Stadium, so this could be a running game, and Tiki Barber gets the edge there.
The injury factor may be more important.
Both middle linebackers, Dan Morgan of the Panthers and Antonio Pierce of the Giants, are hurt. Pierce is out, and Morgan might be.
Pittsburgh (minus 3) at Cincinnati (Sunday)
This is where experience really becomes a factor.
The Steelers won, 27-13, at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season, then lost, 38-31, to the Bengals at home during a three-game losing streak when Roethlisberger was banged up.
But Pittsburgh won its last four to get into the playoffs, and now Big Ben has a year of playoff experience.
The Bengals are talented. But they're also young and inexperienced.
Washington (plus 21â2) at Tampa Bay (today)
The Redskins have won five straight and got their "bad" game out of the way - they were pretty awful for most of the regular-season finale in Philly.
The Bucs, who won the Super Bowl three seasons ago, still have many of the defensive stars from that team. But the 'Skins have the experience at quarterback: Mark Brunell over the other lefty, Chris Simms, another playoff rookie.