The Perfect Recipe for a Super Bowl Run
What does it take to reach the mountaintop? How do you build a champion?
These questions aren't easy, and there isn't any blueprint that describes how to get from 0-16 to Lombardi. If there were, the games wouldn't need to be played.
Instead, there is lots of drama, lots of "luck" and lots of unquantifiable moments in an NFL season that all add up to picking out ring designs.
However, it is possible to identify some of the structure that most champions have. With a rough design, we can see which teams fit that profile in 2012.
So, with apologies to those who saw the headline and wanted my recipe for the perfect gameday bean dip, here is the perfect recipe for a Super Bowl run.
This is the ingredient everybody already knows is in the recipe, but that wasn't always the case.
Back in 2003, Brad Johnson led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a win over the Oakland Raiders. Two years earlier, Trent Dilfer got his Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens. Both teams won their trophies on the backs of amazing defenses and solid running games.
The list of Super Bowl-losing quarterbacks is less elite and includes names like Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck and Rex Grossman. So, while it's possible to get to the big game without a big-time quarterback in today's NFL, you're not winning that game without one.
But what does elite mean?
While everyone has a different definition, here's one that encompasses those winners above and other quarterbacks people generally agree upon as elite: An elite quarterback is able to single-handedly make his teammates better. He will take players that were average and make them look like Pro Bowlers. He is extremely difficult to shut down and doesn't need great players around him to consistently win games.
There you go.
Teams in the playoff hunt with elite quarterbacks: Broncos, Steelers, Patriots, Packers, Giants
The jury is still out: Texans, Falcons, Colts, Bears, Seahawks, Redskins, Cowboys
Positive Turnover Ratio
Having a phenomenal defense is no longer a prerequisite to winning a Super Bowl. Just look at the defending champs.
As much as we talk about the New York Giants and their blueprint to bring down Tom Brady, their defense was statistically pedestrian in the 2011 regular season.
While we can talk about them "heating up at the right time or "wanting it more," it's more quantifiable to look at something they excelled at all season long—maintaing a positive turnover ratio.
As the Giants defense gave up yardage and points, they were also creating extra possessions for their offense with 31 takeaways in the regular season (fourth in the NFL).
The offense was careful with the ball as well, with 24 giveaways (10th). Overall, their plus-seven ratio was sixth in the league, and that bore out in the Super Bowl as well, as the Giants picked off Tom Brady and managed to hold onto the ball themselves.
Teams in the playoff hunt with a positive turnover ratio: Patriots (plus-24), Giants (plus-16), Texans (plus-14), Bears (plus-13), Ravens (plus-12), Redskins (plus-12), Seahawks (plus-eight), Packers (plus-seven), Falcons (plus-six), 49ers (plus-six)
Multiple Quality Receiving Targets
Perhaps the argument could be made that this is a "chicken or the egg" situation with elite quarterbacks. Great quarterbacks make average receivers look great, right? So are teams really acquiring better secondary targets, or are those targets just made better by the presence of a great quarterback?
If you go back, just look at the receiver tandems or receiving-savvy tight ends that these teams brought to the table: Giants (Nicks/Cruz), Packers (Jennings/Nelson/Driver), Saints (Colston/Henderson/Shockey), Steelers (Holmes, Ward, Miller).
The list goes on.
As a team plays throughout the season, more and more tape is collected by the defensive coordinators that will eventually need to shut them down in the playoffs.
The more weapons that need to be shut down, the harder that job is.
Teams in the playoff hunt with multiple quality receiving targets: Broncos (Thomas, Decker), Falcons (White, Jones), Patriots (Welker, Gronkowski), Packers (Jennings, Nelson, Cobb), Giants (Nicks, Cruz, Bennett)
Positive Playoff Experience
If you're trying to go deep into the playoffs, it's always helpful if you've been there before.
While the NFL has as much parity as ever before, once the playoffs start, its always the same group of teams that have staying power. Recently, the Steelers, Giants, Patriots and Colts have shown that winning the Super Bowl or at least playing in the game is a pretty good predictor of getting there again.
Players learn how to get through the grind of the playoffs, and coaches learn how to deal with all of the extra stress that comes with the win-or-go-home mentality.
It isn't a golden ticket to the big game, but positive playoff experience coupled with the other items on this list is a winning recipe for a Super Bowl run.
Teams in the playoff hunt with positive playoff experience: Texans, Broncos, 49ers, Steelers, Patriots, Ravens, Packers, Giants.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.