Another NFL regular season came to a close Monday night when Baltimore whipped the laughable Vikings. It seems only fitting to look back and try to make sense of an improbable 2001 season. And the playoffs haven’t even started yet.

The first thing that jumps out at any fan of the National Football League is its predictability. I mean, who didn’t think that the Chicago Bears would be sitting pretty with a first-round bye in the NFC. With that powerhouse offense consisting of Jim Miller at quarterback, rookie Anthony Thomas at running back, and Marty Booker at the No. 1 wide-out spot, it would have been a disgrace for Da Bears to not qualify for the postseason. Then, of course, there is the perennial favorites, the San Francisco 49ers. After their stellar 1999-2000 season, everyone saw their 12-4 performance coming.

If you’re looking for a surprise team from the NFC, look no further than the St. Louis Rams. This is the same team that couldn’t even win a playoff game, and now they’re the number one team in the entire NFL with a 14-2 record. Even Nostradomus didn’t see that one coming.

The AFC provided just about as many shockers as its counterpart conference. With Pittsburgh walking away with the top seed and first-round bye, everything was just as the experts had predicted: Kordell Stewart as a frontrunner for MVP? Ho-hum. Nothing new there. And what about the New England Patriots winning the AFC East? The only unexpected development for the Pats was that it took them a few games to finally put it together and start their winning way. What about the fact that New England did it all with Tom Brady, and not Drew Bledsoe, at QB? Just as I predicted.

OK, so maybe things didn’t turn out quite as I, or anyone else, planned. In fact, this season included so many surprises that my two Super Bowl picks, the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, didn’t even make the playoffs. But does that hurt the credibility of my forthcoming playoff picks? I think not.

In round one of the AFC, look for the Raiders to rebound in their rematch with the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets. A healthy Sebastian Janikowski means victory for Oakland. In the other wild-card match up, Baltimore will prove to be too much for an over-manned and over-achieving Miami squad.

The NFC provides a couple of intriguing first round games. The number four versus number five contest features two 12-4 teams, the Niners and Packers, easily making the marquee match-up of the wild card weekend. And although the two teams come in on even footing record-wise, the frozen tundra gives the Pack a real home-field advantage, which should lead to a Green Bay win. The three versus six game has Philadelphia hosting Tampa Bay in Veterans Stadium, where it figures to be mighty cold. And as has been widely reported, the Bucs have never won a game played in sub-40 degree temperatures in the history of their franchise. Well, that all changes this weekend. Expect Tampa to finally break through to top the Eagles.

But what about the Big One? Well, the easy choice is the Rams. They have dominated all season long, and with home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and with the Super Bowl being played in a dome, that figures to continue all the way to the title.

Final Score: Rams 34, Steelers 10