A common misconception around the NFL is that each season, the best team wins the Super Bowl. That's simply not true. Last season, we saw the 15-1 Green Bay Packers get blown out at home by the New York Giants in the divisional round. The Giants had only won nine regular games and possessed the league's worst rushing attack. However, New York got hot at the right time and made a run to the Super Bowl.
The NFL playoffs are perhaps the most unpredictable, tension-filled athletic competitions in all of professional sports. The one-and-done format provides a forum for lower seeds to fight their way into Super Bowl contention against the elite teams in the league. The playoffs are, in effect, a reset button.
Teams that win championships do not necessarily have to be the best squad in the league. They simply have to be the best team in the stadium for three Sundays in January and the first Sunday in February.
At the conclusion of Week 17, it's no longer relevant how many regular season wins a team has or how many Pro Bowlers are on the roster. All it takes is one bad matchup for a top-seeded team to have its season derailed. Health, along with quarterback play and pass rushing ability are the three biggest factors in determining a team's Super Bowl chances.
As the 2012 playoff picture begins to take shape, let's take a look at four teams that may get sent home earlier than expected.
The New England Patriots are the defending AFC Champions. The Pats always seem to know how to win come playoff time. However, it may not be prudent to expect Tom Brady and co. to make a deep postseason run in 2012.
The Patriots have several obvious flaws on their roster, mainly on defense.
The Pats are currently ranked 27th in the league in total defense, allowing more than 390 yards per game. Digging a little deeper, New England is ranked 29th in pass defense, giving up nearly 290 yards through the air in each game. Barring some spontaneous improvement to those numbers, the Pats are going to have trouble beating three good teams in consecutive weeks come the postseason.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski is also going to inhibit the Patriots' ability to have success in the playoffs. With Gronk out of the lineup for at least the next four weeks, the Pats are going to reconfigure their offense around the likes of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez. If Gronk returns for the playoffs, New England will have to again find a way to integrate Gronkowski into their offense.
Obviously, getting Gronkowski back is not going to be a bad thing come playoff time. Even just as a run blocker, Gronk is an invaluable asset to the team. However, the Pats' offense is not going to be working at full strength in the playoffs. It's extremely rare that a player can miss 4-6 weeks and come back without missing a beat.
The Patriots are not going to win three consecutive shootouts in the postseason. Unless the defense finds a way to rush the passer more effectively and disrupt the timing between quarterbacks and receivers, the Patriots could wind up as an early loser in January.
The Chicago Bears are currently 8-3 and sit atop the NFC North. Injuries aside, the Bears are sitting pretty heading into Week 13 at home against the Seattle Seahawks.
Although the Green Bay Packers are chasing the Bears for the divisional title, it's safe to say we are going to see Chicago in the postseason.
However, we may not see them for very long in the postseason. Chicago lost both their right and left guards last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings. Lance Louis has already been placed on the season-ending injured reserve and Chris Spencer has torn cartilage in his knee.
The Bears are going to start Edwin Williams and Gabe Carmini on the interior offensive line this weekend. Carmini was already benched this season for his play at left tackle and Williams is painfully inexperienced.
Even with their first-team offensive line, the Bears were ranked 30th in the NFL in total sacks allowed, with 35. Jay Cutler has already missed a game with a concussion in 2012 and Matt Forte is currently battling ankle issues.
The Bears are a banged up team that is going to have a tough time producing points against playoff-caliber defenses if the offensive line can't protect the quarterback. If the Bears were completely healthy, they would have a legitimate chance to make a Super Bowl run this season.
However, they are not going to be able to win four consecutive games against elite competition with a patchwork offensive line. Not only will it take a tremendous effort from Jay Cutler to orchestrate consistent drives down the field, but he's going to have issues just staying healthy if he is getting hit every time he drops back.
Chicago is in a precarious situation. Their defense is capable of keeping them in any game they play. However, it takes a complete football team to advance deep into the postseason. That's a tall order for a team with potentially the league's worst offensive line.
The Baltimore Ravens are a team, and even an organization built upon defense. For the better part of the last decade, the Ravens have consistently finished the season as one of the top five defenses in the league. After losing Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis in Week 6, the Ravens have not missed a beat (save for a Week 7 blowout loss to the Texans).
However, the film is going to catch up with this team on the defensive side of the ball. With a slower Terrell Suggs and no Lewis or Webb in the playoffs, the Ravens are going to have trouble stopping offenses from scoring.
Statistically, the Ravens' defense has been solid since the loss of Lewis and Webb. The team has given up just 20.2 points per game, which is just .3 points over their average for the season. However it's important to consider whom Baltimore has played since Week 6.
They were blown out by the Texans in Week 7. They then defeated the Cleveland Browns (3-8), Oakland Raiders (3-8), Pittsburgh Steelers (without Ben Roethlisberger) and the San Diego Chargers (4-7). Not one of those can be considered a quality win. The Ravens will more than likely play the Steelers this weekend without Roethlisberger again, which should allow for another easy victory.
However, the competition in the playoffs is going to be much stiffer than what Baltimore has played so far with their shorthanded defense. We will find out a lot more about this team over the last four games of 2012. The Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals are all playing well as of late and should test the Ravens.
However, don't be surprised to see this team falter early in the postseason. The Ravens are built upon a solid running game and stellar defensive play. Without two of their four best defensive players in the field, it's going to be hard for them to stay competitive.
If the season ended today, the Indianapolis Colts would be the fifth-seed in the AFC. That's a remarkable improvement considering this team finished 2-14 in 2011.
Just the fact that the Colts are in the playoff hunt this season is a testament to Andrew Luck and the stability he has provided this franchise. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Colts should hold onto their playoff spot.
The Colts have a very winnable game this weekend against a Detroit Lions team with nothing left to play for. The team will round out its 2012 regular season campaign with matchups against the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and the Texans again. Although two games against Houston appears daunting, consider that Gary Kubiak will likely rest his starters for the playoffs in Week 17.
If the Colts take two of three from the Lions, Titans and Chiefs and then beat the Texans in Week 17, they will have 10 wins. That should be enough to earn them a wild card berth. However, don't expect Indianapolis' magic carpet ride to extend too far into January.
Luck has provided the Colts with a potent passing offense and an ability to put points on the scoreboard. However, the Colts have given up an average of 24 points per game this season, which is the highest among teams that currently hold a playoff spot. The defense has not progressed at the same pace as the offense, and it's going to show come the postseason.
Look for the Colts to be eliminated in the first-round of the 2012 playoffs.