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Super Bowl contenders: Who makes the cut?

Falcons

The NFL prides itself on being an equal opportunity league. The turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next is traditionally at least 40 percent. It was a 50/50 split in 2011.

Since the Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-04, five of the last seven champions have played in the Wild Card round. Three of them (’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’10 Packers) ran the road gauntlet as Wild Card teams, and a fourth – the ’08 Cardinals – came within a minute of doing the same.

While gaudy, prolific regular seasons can captivate the masses, the trend of the league over the last seven years has illustrated time and again that it’s not how you get there, but the momentum you carry into January. Because of that, it’s difficult to gain a good handle on the true Super Bowl contenders until December at the earliest.

Then again, if we wait until then, there won’t be much to talk about around the Thanksgiving table, will there? Here’s a pre-Turkey Day stab at categorizing the contenders:

The pretenders – Baltimore, Seattle
The Ravens look like they blew their best chance at a second Super Bowl last season. Since Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff teamed up to flush the AFC title down the toilet in New England last January, Baltimore has been careening toward mediocrity – despite a house-of-cards 7-2 record through nine games. The Ravens’ defense is banged up and unable to stop anyone, allowing over 390 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco, who by his own admission was poised to enter the ranks of the elite, is barely a Top 15 quarterback and only seems to play well against the Patriots. Yet the Ravens appear charmed, drawing Pittsburgh twice in the next three weeks with Ben Roethlisberger’s status in question. Baltimore looks headed for a second straight AFC North crown and a home game in the first round. One it will likely lose.

If the Seahawks had managed to upset the 49ers for sixty minutes instead of forty a few Thursday nights ago, they would be occupying a far more significant tier of these rankings. Seattle has the league’s No. 4 overall defense, as well as the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch always gains steam as the season progresses and is the type of unrelenting, downhill runner that can make life miserable for opposing defenses in the playoffs (hello: New Orleans, 2010). In addition, the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders have Seattle ranked third in the NFL by their total DVOA metric. However, because of that loss on Oct. 18 (and San Francisco’s subsequent tie), the Hawks trail the Niners by two games in the loss column in the NFC West, meaning they are all but assured to be on the road in the playoffs should they get there. And Seattle can’t win on the road. Russell Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in five games away from CenturyLink Field, four of which the Seahawks have lost.

The faux-tenders – Atlanta, Houston
Has an 8-1 team ever looked as ordinary as the Falcons? They should have lost to Carolina in Week 4, were outplayed by an awful Raiders team in Week 6, did everything they could to blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Broncos in Week 2 on Monday night and couldn’t score with three chances from the 1-yard line and the game on the line last Sunday against the Saints. The argument for the Falcons is they are seasoned after consecutive one-and-dones in the playoffs. From this view, the Atlanta defense is pretty much the same unit that was tuned up by the Packers and Giants, and Mike Smith is pretty much the same coach that has tightened up in each of those blowouts.

On paper (and the field, for that matter), the Texans shouldn’t be lumped with the Falcons. Houston boasts the No. 2 overall defense and No. 3 scoring defense in the league, along with the presumptive defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. They can stop the run and feature one of the game’s best safety/corner tandems. So why are the Texans relegated to this status? For one, despite the growing up they did in the playoffs last year, they did so without their starting quarterback. As well-constructed of a team as Houston is, this is still a quarterback-driven league, particularly when it’s all on the line, and I’m not convinced Matt Schaub is ready to stare down the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world with a championship on the line. And sorry, but Super Bowl contenders don’t get their clocks cleaned at home in a nationally-televised game like Houston did by Green Bay in Week 6.

The caveats – Pittsburgh, Chicago
The jury is still out on the Steelers and Bears because of their ailing quarterbacks. If Jay Cutler experiences lingering post-concussion effects, it could be deja vu for the 7-2 Bears, who were 7-3 at the two-thirds marker last year and had the makeup of a legitimate contender before Cutler was felled. Likewise for the Steelers, who simply have no chance without a 100-percent Roethlisberger.

The uncategorizables – Giants
So the Giants won six of their first eight, highlighted by a 26-3 stampeding of San Francisco that is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers’ six touchdown passes in the aforementioned Sunday night smackdown for the season’s most impressive victory. They’ve since dropped two straight games, Eli Manning has looked terrible and the schedule is murderous down the stretch. Hmmm, where have we seen this before …

The lurkers – New England, San Francisco
As usual, the Patriots are tough to quantify. They once again feature the league’s highest-powered offense, ranking No. 1 in total yards per game (430.3) and points per game (33.2) with room to spare in each category. Seventh in passing, fifth in rushing. In terms of total DVOA, New England is second overall, and its three losses have been by a combined four points. Yet in two of their last three games, the Patriots have been forced to pull rabbits out of their hats against the Jets and Bills. Back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco in Weeks 14-15 will be interesting, but will probably tell us more about the Texans and Niners than the Pats.

Indeed, if San Francisco is able to fly cross-country and knock off New England in primetime on Dec. 16, the road to New Orleans could realistically be going through the City by the Bay. That said, Tom Brady rarely loses at home, in December or to NFC teams in the regular season. Tough to see all three happening at once. That’s not to say the Niners aren’t serious contenders. Quite the contrary, as this team is built to beat any NFC heavy-hitter minus the Giants, who just flat-out have San Francisco’s number.

The favorites – Green Bay, Denver
If the 49ers are built to beat Green Bay (they are) and the Giants pose legitimate matchup problems for Green Bay (they do), how can the Packers be the favorite to come out of the NFC? First, the defense, which has quietly regained its 2010 form: solid against the run (98.3 yards per game, tied for 10th in the NFL) and able to bring consistent pressure (28 sacks, tied for second). Then there’s Rodgers, who far too many questioned after four lackluster performances (by his standards) dating back to the playoff loss to the Giants last year. Rodgers didn’t look great to begin the season, and Green Bay lost two of its first three games (well, according to the replacement refs). Since The Seattle Job, the Packers are 5-1 and Rodgers has been in message-mode.

During their four-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored 35, 34, 31 and 36 points. Peyton Manning has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP, the defense leads the league with 33 sacks and is ranked sixth overall. And just in case you were wondering, the Broncos are No. 1 in total DVOA. They haven’t lost since Week 5 in New England, and a cursory glance at their schedule indicates there’s a good chance they won’t lose again until a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And by the looks of it, that one may very well be in the Mile High City.

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