Play-offs set to provide a real treat
The flights are booked, the thermals are packed and the research notes are being furiously scribbled as you read this blog - it's play-off time in the NFL and I'm off to Philadelphia for the enthralling first round match between the hometown Eagles and the Green Bay Packers.
This is arguably the pick of the four play-off encounters taking place in the United States this weekend. Both teams are evenly matched with identical records of 10 wins and six losses, and they are packed with offensive weapons that will have points-lovers drooling.
At this stage of last year's NFL play-offs, myself and Greg Brady witnessed a 51-45 overtime shoot-out between the Packers and the Arizona Cardinals. We'll be together again on Sunday night and if we get half as good a game (which we easily will), listeners on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra will be in for a real treat.
Aaron Rodgers could be the difference between the Packers and Eagles. Photo: AP
Before I get on to the Packers and Eagles in some detail, it is worth reflecting on an amazing 2010 regular season. Much has been made of the excitement being provided by the wide-open Premier League this year but the NFL more than holds its own in terms of unpredictability and excitement.
The regular season produced an average of 44.1 points per game - the highest total in the NFL since 1965. Five teams - Kansas City, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Seattle - made the play-offs having not been involved in the post-season the previous year, and the Chiefs went from worst to first in their division, marking the eighth successive campaign that feat has been achieved in the NFL.
Add in the fact that more than half (50.8%) of all games were decided by one score or less and you can see why this season has left many fans breathless.
But there's no time to rest now. Twelve teams remain on the road to Super Bowl 45, which will take place in Dallas, Texas, on Sunday 6 February.
The regular season was very good, but the intensity will get cranked up another notch or two for the play-offs. There is something special about an NFL play-off game and, in my experience, the atmosphere far exceeds that at the Super Bowl.
I have been to three Super Bowls and this will be my third play-off game at the weekend. I would take the play-off game every time. For a start, each stadium is filled with real fans and not the corporate guests who make up a large percentage of so many major sporting finals around the world.
And with American sports not really having a tradition of travelling support, play-off games always offer a chance for 99.9% of the crowd to get behind one team and make a lot of noise. Add in the fact that players are fighting on every play to keep their season alive (lose and you don't play again until September) and you have quite an explosive and atmospheric sporting cocktail.
The play-offs, of course, are designed to find an eventual NFL champion but also to showcase the best teams in the league. But I don't think that is going to happen this year, at least not this weekend.
More experienced readers, bear with me. I feel an explanation of the play-off system is in order. Six teams from each conference - American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC) - go through to the play-offs. That half dozen is filled with the four division champions in each conference and then the two non-division-winning teams with the best records.
The top two in each conference - New England and Pittsburgh in the AFC and Atlanta and Chicago in the NFC - go straight into round two and will begin their Super Bowl run on January 15-16.
The rest play in the wild card round this weekend, including a Seattle Seahawks team that won just seven games this season - good enough to secure the worst division in American football, the NFC West.
That does not sit well with me. The Seahawks will host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday with a record of 7-9. But the 10-win New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be sitting at home wishing they played in the weak NFC West.
I want to see the 12 top teams in the NFL playing when the play-offs begin. I would love to see the top six in each conference selected on overall record. I would rather not see the likes of Seattle in the mix based purely on their coming top of a terrible division while Tampa and New York could only finish second or third in the NFC South and East respectively.
Of course, given the way this NFL season has panned out, I would only be mildly shocked if the distinctly ordinary Seahawks pulled off an upset this weekend. One thing is for certain - their fans are certain to create that play-off atmosphere I described earlier. There is not a noisier bunch of supporters in the league.
Eagles fans have a reputation for creating an intimidating atmosphere. Photo: Getty
There might be a more intimidating group, however, and I will be among them in Philadelphia on Sunday evening. Eagles fans are loud, proud and, occasionally, a little bit obnoxious. They are a bit like the Millwall of NFL fan groups - no one likes them and they don't care.
And a trip to the old Veterans Stadium was a bit like standing at the Cold Blow Lane End all those years ago. It was slightly intimidating, a bit rough around the edges but full of passionate support, spilled beer and the occasional punch-up.
It should be quite a showdown between that pair.
Rodgers forced Brett Favre into the first of many retirements in 2008 and has proven the Packers were right to go with the younger passer at that time. He has been outstanding in his three seasons as a starter and is the NFL's all-time leader with a quarterback rating of 98.4.
Rodgers can make every throw in the book. He has a strong arm and he is extremely accurate. But what I like about him the most is that he excels in pressure situations.
Let's look at three key areas of American football - third downs, against the blitz and in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line). Rodgers is the NFL leader in third down passing over the past two seasons, no quarterback was rated higher against the blitz in 2010 and his career red zone statistics read 55 touchdowns and just one interception.
Vick has become America's guilty pleasure.
After being sentenced to 21 months in a state prison for running a dog-fighting ring in August 2007, he has resurrected his career with the Eagles.
It is odd watching Vick play. When you know his back story, it's hard to put his past in a convenient "he's served his time" envelope. His past appears set to follow him like a sinister shadow for the remainder of his life. But then he literally makes you shout "Wow!" at the television screen and if there is a more exciting and uplifting player in the NFL today, that person must be very good at hiding.
With a flick of the wrist, Vick can send a tight spiral sailing 70 yards downfield, whereas most of his contemporaries would need to put their entire weight behind a heave to get it past the 60-yard mark.
And when he is under pressure, Vick turns into a jack-rabbit with springs in his shoes and sprinter's speed in his legs. He is truly breathtaking to watch. But perhaps most notable is the fact that Vick appears to be a more mature person on and off the field - and he has certainly grown into a more rounded and complete quarterback than he ever was before his incarceration.
It should be a fascinating showdown that could go either way. For now, I am leaning towards a win for Rodgers and the Packers, who boast the stronger of the two defences that are sure to be under a great deal of pressure.
And Rodgers could certainly do with some cheering up - he is a massive Liverpool fan, after all!
New Orleans Saints 31 Seattle Seahawks 13
New York Jets 24 Indianapolis Colts 31
Baltimore Ravens 20 Kansas City Chiefs 13
Green Bay Packers 34 Philadelphia Eagles 28
Play-off coverage begins at 1745 GMT on Sunday on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra with the Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs. It continues with the Packers and Eagles in the first of regular BBC Radio double-headers throughout the post-season. You can also catch play-off highlights on BBC2 at 0010 GMT on Monday 10 January.