2012 NFL Playoffs: Ranking Each Wild Card's Chances at the Super Bowl
Wild Card Weekend is less than a couple days away and features some of the most intriguing matchups of this year's playoffs. This weekend is usually telling for the remainder of the bracket as well.
Many teams that have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl this year, especially in the AFC, so no one team will have an easy road towards the big game.
The four teams that should never be taken lightly in any year are No. 5 and 6—judging by the success of the Packers, Steelers and Cardinals in recent seasons.
With that, here are the four Wild Card teams this year that the other eight teams should be watching carefully.
4. Atlanta Falcons
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The Atlanta Falcons locked in as the No. 5 seed in the NFC, after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and with the Detroit Lions losing to the Packers in Week 17.
They are going to rely on a heavy dose of Michael Turner throughout the playoffs. Roddy White and Julio Jones will test teams deep.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, they head into the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday to face the NFC East champions, the New York Giants.
The Giants should be worried about the big play through the air—which Matt Ryan and his receivers excel at—considering their weaknesses in defending the pass. That will open up the field for Turner to work.
The X-factor for Atlanta, however, is their offensive line. They've only allowed 26 sacks, but Ryan has been hit 84 times, which is more reflective of his ability to avoid pressure with his feet.
They'll have their hands full with the Giants ability to rush the passer—especially with a healthy Osi Umenyiora.
The Falcons have the offense to win, but the defense needs to show that they can slow opposing offenses that they'll face in the later rounds. That's not to mention Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks this weekend.
If the Falcons can keep Ryan on his feet, they'll have a shot. Getting out of New Jersey with a win won't be easy.
3. Detroit Lions
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I surely will catch some flak for this, but after taking everything into account, the Detroit Lions are going to have a tough road to the Super Bowl this year.
Their offense is obviously their strength. Matt Stafford is capable of putting up Brady and Brees-like numbers with a once-in-a-lifetime type of weapon in Calvin Johnson, but that's a double-edged sword.
Without Jahvid Best healthy, the Lions offense has little in the form of balance. They ride Stafford as he throws almost 50 times a game, or more.
Many argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially since the league is trending towards a pass-happy, Dodge-shootout style of football. With both No. 1 seeds the bottom two in passing defense, clearly the league favors offense.
The Lions had to beat Green Bay without most of their starters, including Aaron Rodgers, to lock in as the 5th seed and set a date with the New York Giants. Then Matt Flynn lit them up like Rodgers never even sat and beat them, 45 to 41.
Now, they get to face Drew Brees and the red-hot Saints offense in a WIld Card matchup. This may be Detroit's first appearance since 1999, but it looks like they're going to have to wait until next year to have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
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The most surprising team award goes to the Cincinnati Bengals this year—and the playoffs are only beginning.
With their seventh-ranked defense, the Bengals won enough close games to finish 9-7 and secure a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.
Nobody expected Andy Dalton to start 15 of 16 games this season. Nobody really expected him to have as much success as he has. The Bengals other stud rookie is a large part of that success as well.
A.J. Green has the skill set to emulate some of the greatest wide receivers in the NFL's history and he proved it with a stellar rookie season. Over 1,000 yards on only 65 receptions shows just how explosive of a playmaker he really is.
He lost part of the season because of injury and that kept him from posting even better stats, but he'll be ready to perform in the postseason.
The Bengals have drawn, arguably, the easiest road to Indianapolis. They play on the road all the way through. They have the advantage of playing the Houston Texans, a team that is struggling without a stable QB.
The defense should be concerned primarily with the Texans explosive ground game, but they are good enough to keep their scoring chances low.
If they beat Houston, their real challenge will be against the New England Patriots. If Bill Belichick's team has shown anything since losing the Super Bowl in 2007, it's that they can't seem to get out of their own way in the playoffs—losing three straight.
It was hard to not put this team at No. 1 but when it all comes down to it, experience is hard to beat in the playoffs.
Prediction: Divisional Round Loss
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
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Not many outside of Pittsburgh want to see this, but out of all four Wild Card teams, the Steelers seem to be the most dangerous.
Nobody in Steel City seems too concerned about whether Big Ben will be hobbled or not. It's not so much him or the offense that really puts the Steelers at No. 1 on this list. The Steelers' defense, regardless of age, is still one of the best and best coached.
Plus, it's hard to bet against them when it comes to the playoffs. Last season (much like this year), many considered the Ravens the better team in the AFC North.
The only difference this year? If the Ravens and Steelers see each other, it's the Ravens who have home-field advantage.
Whether you agree or not, the Steelers are a team that nobody really wants to face in the playoffs. That's where they seem to perform better, whether they thrive on the pressure or whatever it is.
They start off with a game in Mile High Stadium against a Broncos team that backed their way into the No. 4 seed with help from the Oakland Raiders losing to the Chargers.
The Tebow-mania has hit a wall. Now that teams have the blueprint on how to stifle his abilities, he will probably go the way of the Wildcat, a bit part in a larger offensive game plan.
Although the Steelers are battling injuries, Troy Polamalu is healthy and the rest of his defensive teammates are ready to prove they aren't down and out.
They've beaten the Patriots once. Although they were swept, they are ready to play the Ravens again, regardless of the field they step onto.
Prediction: AFC Championship Loss