There are close to 20 teams competing for playoff spots. Let’s get to the eight teams that actually have a shot at a Super Bowl title. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
New York Giants – Would the real New York Giants please stand up? Are the Giants Super Bowl contenders or Super Bowl has-beens? Do they win big games or crumble in them? The answer to both questions is, well, both. The Giants ARE Super Bowl contenders AND Super Bowl has-beens. The Giants DO win big games and crumble in them as well. New York manhandled both the 49ers and Packers, but also were flat-out crushed by the Falcons. When the Giants needed big wins against the Cowboys and Redskins in consecutive weeks, they got it done. When they needed to hold off the Steelers or put the Redskins to bed for good, the Giants essentially gave away victories. Eli Manning has been unstoppable at times throughout the season and downright Mark Sanchez-esque at others. The running game comes and goes. The defense can’t win games anymore. Even the vaunted Giant pass rush has been very, very quiet throughout most of the year. Am I prepared to write off the Giants just yet? No. If they find a way into the postseason, you can be sure no team will want the Giants walking into their stadium at any point throughout the playoffs, especially the Packers and 49ers.
Seattle Seahawks – Similar to the Giants, the Seahawks are an opponent you’d rather just avoid. Though they lack New York’s pedigree, Seattle has a vicious defense and an unwavering quarterback that comes through in the clutch – both trademarks of the 2007 and 2011 champion Giants. Seattle’s biggest obstacle in the postseason will be playing on the road. Although winning the NFC West is still mathematically possible, it’s highly unlikely. The Seahawks haven’t mastered the road just yet. On the other hand, winning on the road in the playoffs requires four things; 1. Great defense. 2. Punishing ground game. 3. Excellent special teams. 4. Turnover free quarterback play. Check, check, check, and check. (Wilson has thrown just one interception in his last six games.)
Atlanta Falcons – My opinion about the Atlanta Falcons hasn’t changed since Week 1. I still believe they’re overrated and lack the gusto to succeed in the postseason. However, my opinions about the other NFC contenders have changed drastically throughout the season making the Falcons a more likely candidate to win the conference and advance to the Super Bowl. More importantly, I’ve liked the way the Falcons have handled themselves this season. They’ve been mostly quiet in response to the NFL world writing them off all season long. Matt Ryan especially has done little to fight back against the common perception that he can’t win big games. Remember how Flacco handled such criticism? He publicly stated he was every bit as good as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Co. Oops. Ryan has kept quiet, gone about his business, and excelled in several crucial moments throughout the season. Do I think this means the Falcons are ready to win in the playoffs and take home the NFC crown? No. But the deficiencies of the rest of the conference make Atlanta’s success more likely.
Denver Broncos – A year ago the Denver Broncos fought and clawed their way into the postseason due in large part to an awful division and the miraculous heroics of a quarterback that struggled to throw the football. In less than a full season the Broncos transformed themselves into outright division champs, a probable 1st round bye, and legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Let’s call it the Peyton Manning effect. Remember back in the spring when I begged the Eagles to trade Michael Vick for pennies on the dollar just to free up enough space to bring in Manning? Manning can turn any mediocre offense into an unstoppable unit. The 2011 Broncos struggled to move the football and get 1st downs, let alone score. With one quarterback switch the Broncos are now one of the NFL’s leading offenses. Even the rest of the team has elevated its play under Manning’s quiet leadership. Given Manning’s playoff history (he struggles more often than not) and Denver’s defense’s early season play against Houston and New England, I’m not convinced the Broncos can win the AFC. Though, with Peyton Manning anything is possible. After all, he reinvented and improved an entire franchise in just nine months.
San Francisco 49ers – I still need convincing about the 49ers. Yes, Colin Kaepernick was great Sunday night in New England, but that Patriots defense has been torched several times this year by lesser quarterbacks. Kaepernick was less than spectacular against the Rams and Dolphins in the two weeks prior to the New England game, and I expect another uninspiring performance against the Seahawks in Week 16. San Francisco’s defense is absolutely good enough to overcome a shaky Kaepernick but not against an aerial attack in the Georgia Dome or against a Super Bowl MVP like Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau. (Yes, I believe the 49ers will fumble the 2nd seed this week to Green Bay.)
Houston Texans – Both the 49ers and Texans got their first real taste of playoff football last season and appear poised to make the leap and compete for a Super Bowl title. I’m more of a Texans believer because I think their strengths expose the rest of the AFC’s weaknesses. Denver and New England don’t field imposing defenses. New England especially struggles against teams that can pound you with the ground game. Arian Foster is the most dangerous weapon in the AFC playoffs. He nearly eliminated the Baltimore Ravens a year ago by himself despite playing along side a rookie quarterback. Here’s where I worry about the Texans; Matt Schaub. The Texans have fallen a little too in love with Schaub for my liking (see their defeat to the Patriots a few weeks ago). Schaub is a solid quarterback. You can win a Super Bowl with Schaub under center but you CANNOT win a Super Bowl BECAUSE OF Matt Schaub. As I stated last week, Houston’s recent offensive struggles were due to relying too much on Shaub and getting away from the running game. When the Texans took over and started dominating the Colts in Week 15 it was because they got back to Arian Foster. Foster rushed for over 100 yards in the final 20 minutes alone.
Green Bay Packers – I know what you’re thinking; “The Packers lost to both the Giants and 49ers in pretty convincing fashion. What makes you think they can win the NFC?” My answer: They’re the toughest team in the NFC. Find me one team that has endured the injuries and controversy the Packers have. You can’t. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Bryan Bulaga, Nick Perry, Desmond Bishop, Cedric Benson; they’ve all missed significant time. And yet, despite those injuries, despite Jermichael Finley constantly running his mouth, despite the NFL stealing a victory from the Packers, Green Bay has managed a 10-4 record, another NFC North title, a possible 1st round bye, and another shot at the Vince Lombardi trophy. Do you know why? Aaron Rodgers. That’s why. His stats are down but his play has been outstanding. Rodgers has carried the Packers to where they are now. Even without his top two receivers and no semblance of a running game, Rodgers had propelled the Packers to win eight of their last nine. He’s the best quarterback in the game. Teams that overcome as much as the Packers have this season don’t crumble in the playoffs just because they’re on the road or facing a defense as good as the 49ers. The Packers will be NFC champs.
New England Patriots – Another year, another Super Bowl run for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Will 2012 be the first year the Patriots seal the deal since the 2004 season? I guess that depends on whether or not Eli Manning can rally the Giants to qualify for the postseason. But seriously, I think it’s obvious the Patriots are the best team in the AFC. They’ve beaten the Broncos and Texans handedly, the Ravens are hardly the team they were when they squeaked by the Patriots in Week 2, and the rest of the AFC playoff field is a step or two behind. As I mentioned earlier, the Texans can dethrone the Patriots behind Arian Foster and a punishing ground game, but I don’t trust the Texans coaching staff to do so, nor do I believe Houston’s secondary is up to the challenge of beating Tom Brady. Either way, the Patriots will be back in the AFC title game. What happens at that point should be thrilling.