As the playoffs draw closer, the list of legitimate Super Bowl contenders diminishes on a weekly basis.
At the beginning of training camp, each team and fanbase was filled with optimism because parity is king in the NFL.
Now that 15 weeks are in the books, over a dozen teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. Seven teams have clinched postseasons berths, but a couple of those teams appear destined to be bounced out of the playoffs early on.
At this point in the season, we could safely assume that we have seen what the majority of teams are made of. That being said, the last two Super Bowl champions were No. 6 seeds upon entering the playoffs.
The truth is, the team that gets hot in the playoffs tends to wind up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Based upon current form, the following teams are the favorites to be world champions.
The Broncos have legitimate candidates for both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, as Manning and Von Miller have had special seasons.
With difference-makers on both sides of the ball, the Broncos have a chance to beat any team on any given day.
Denver has a pass rush that can disrupt any passing attack, as Miller and DE Elvis Dumervil have accumulated 25 sacks between them.
At this point, the Broncos can be penciled in to one of the AFC's top three seeds. Denver is a game ahead of the Patriots for the second seed, which would give the Broncos a week off prior to the Divisional Round.
John Fox and Manning each have appeared in the Super Bowl, so both of them know what it takes to get there.
The Broncos are the hottest team in the league and have one of the league's all-time great's behind center, so pick against them at your own peril.
The San Francisco 49ers are coming off one of the most impressive victories of the season, as they traveled across the country and knocked off the New England Patriots on national television in Week 15.
With Colin Kaepernick under center rather than Alex Smith, the 49ers are more dangerous on offense. Kaepernick is more comfortable throwing the deep ball and is also a better runner, but Smith is a better game manager and has far more NFL experience.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh clearly believes that Kaepernick gives them the best chance to win a Super Bowl, and I believe him.
In his two seasons with the 49ers, Harbaugh has compiled a 23-6-1 record and was within grasp of a Super Bowl berth. The younger Harbaugh brother knows how to get the most out of his team, and he has the defense to back up the bold moves that he has made during his tenure in San Francisco.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are as dominant as two inside linebackers can be, as the duo has amassed 238 tackles this season. That total is easily the highest total from two teammates, as Willis and Bowman are involved in what seems to be every tackle.
The 49ers may be the most complete team in football, and Matt Miller currently has them ranked first in his power rankings.
The New England Patriots will go as far as their explosive offense takes them, as they are ranked third in passing yards and eighth in rushing.
Tom Brady is in the midst of a special season, as he has thrown for 30 touchdowns versus six interceptions. Stevan Ridley has been the most productive Patriots running back since Corey Dillon in 2004, as he has compiled 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
As long as Brady is under center and Bill Belichick is on the sidelines, the Patriots will have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
This season the Pats have already beaten the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans—the two teams that are currently ranked above them in the AFC standings.
Even if the Patriots fail to secure one of the AFC's top two seeds, they would likely enter the postseason as the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. That's just the reality of the situation, as the Patriots have one of the best quarterback-coach combinations in NFL history.
Nobody wants to face off against New England with everything on the line, as Brady and the Patriots offense is capable of going off at anytime.
The Houston Texans are currently in first place in the AFC, which is a spot that they have held for the majority of the season.
The Texans have lost only two games in 2012, although each of those losses came in blowout fashion against other elite teams.
The Texans have premier talent at the skill positions, as Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are amongst the best in the league at what they do.
Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is in the midst of one of the greatest defensive seasons in NFL history, as he has compiled 19.5 sacks and 15 pass deflections.
If Houston can stay healthy over the last two weeks of the regular season, they will likely host either the Baltimore Ravens or Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round, with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
With a favorable potential matchup in their first playoff game and the talent that they have on both sides of the ball, the Texans have a real chance to make the best playoff run in franchise history.
The Atlanta Falcons may have been the most criticized 11-2 team in NFL history before they shutout the New York Giants 34-0 in Week 15.
Because of that dominant performance, the Falcons have finally started to receive some credit for their spectacular regular season, as they clinched the NFC South weeks ago.
The Falcons are on the cusp of clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, although that guarantees them nothing.
No matter how the rest of the regular season plays out, pundits will not believe in them until Matt Ryan leads the Falcons to a playoff victory.
With Roddy White and Julio Jones as his wideouts, Ryan has had a superb season, posting a quarterback rating of 97.5.
The only elite team that the Falcons have beaten this season is the Denver Broncos, but that victory was all the way back in Week 2.
The Falcons still have a lot to accomplish, but they have the talent and home-field prowess to achieve all of their goals.