NFL Playoff Picture: Buying or Selling Each Team as Legit Title Contender

Mike Hoag@MikeHoagJrCorrespondent IIDecember 18, 2012

NFL Playoff Picture: Buying or Selling Each Team as Legit Title Contender

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    Which NFL playoff-bound teams are contenders, and which are pretenders? The final weeks of the 2012 season are upon us, and both the AFC and NFC playoff pictures are nearly locked.

    But which of these teams has what it takes to win in high-pressure situations with the best the NFL has to offer on the opposite sideline?

    The playoffs are unpredictable. It's one-and-done. Records are thrown out the window, and all that matters is what your team does in that highly magnified moment.

    We're going to take a look at the NFL's AFC and NFC playoff standings and then break down which teams have what it takes to make a Super Bowl run.

AFC Playoff Picture

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    The AFC's playoff picture is pretty much set, although anything can happen down the stretch with the wild-card spots. Three divisions are already locked up, but the AFC North is still up for grabs during the final two weeks of the season.

    If the Baltimore Ravens win either in Week 16 or 17, they will secure the division and head to the postseason. Either way, they will once again be playing playoff football in January.

    The Cincinnati Bengals face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16, a game that will go a long way in determining the Wild Card winners.

    Here's a look at the AFC's playoff picture heading into the final two weeks of the season.

     No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-2) Clinched AFC South
     No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (11-3) Clinched AFC West
     No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (10-4) Clinched AFC East
     No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (9-5) Lead AFC North; Clinched Playoff Berth
     No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
     No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
     Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
     Miami Dolphins (6-8)

6. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

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    The Cincinnati Bengals control their own postseason destiny. They have remaining matchups against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 16) and AFC North division-leading Baltimore Ravens (Week 17).

    If the Bengals can continue their winning ways, they will reach the postseason despite hitting a midseason rough spot in which they lost four consecutive games.

    Despite the excitement about making it back to the postseason, the Bengals aren't ready to make a run to the Super Bowl just quite yet.

    The playoffs, and the Super Bowl more so, are typically defined by teams that do something better than anyone else. Cincinnati does a lot of things well, but it doesn't dominate in any one area of the game.

    Tough defense, a solid running game and a decent quarterback will get the Bengals to the playoffs, but it won't be enough to contend with the likes of seasoned veterans Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

    Of all of the "pretenders," the sixth-seeded Bengals are the most promising, though.

    Verdict: Pretender

5. Indianapolis Colts (9-5)

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    The playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts are way ahead of schedule when it comes to the rebuilding project of the team in the post-Peyton Manning era.

    A win over Kansas City in Week 16 will propel the team to the playoffs after a 2-14 record one season ago. It's amazing the difference one offseason can make for a franchise.

    For as good of a feel-good story the Colts have been, they have also struggled with inconsistency throughout the season, especially early on.

    Recent losses to both New England and Houston have exposed the team's weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball.

    Yes, the Colts are much improved and have won a lot of football games this season. No, they are not legitimate contenders to win the AFC and compete in the Super Bowl.

    Verdict: Pretender

4. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)

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    The Baltimore Ravens have lost three games in a row, including two home games. They had not lost at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 prior to those two blemishes.

    But the problems with the Ravens go much further than winning or losing home games. Offensive struggles led to the dismissal of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, but those struggles have persisted.

    Baltimore hoped to be transitioning to a much higher-powered offense this season due to the apparent decline of its once-dominant defense.

    Those hopes haven't come to fruition, and the Ravens are falling off at the wrong time. With remaining games vs. the New York Giants and at Cincinnati, the Ravens could lose the AFC North that they looked to have locked up just three weeks ago.

    They will still make the playoffs either way but are not likely to make much of an impact once the postseason kicks off.

    Verdict: Pretender

3. New England Patriots (10-4)

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    Is there a quarterback you trust more than Tom Brady in the playoffs? The New England Patriots' future Hall of Fame QB has been nothing short of spectacular in his 13th NFL season.

    A Super Bowl run for the Patriots almost seems to be a given at this point.

    The team's 42-14 drubbing of the Houston Texans in Week 14 seems to support that opinion. The Pats also handily blew out the contending Indianapolis Colts in Week 11.

    The Patriots defense may be lacking, but they still have plenty of offensive firepower to keep them in games. Plus, the defense may give up a plethora of yards, but it makes plays when it needs to.

    Call it "bend but don't break," or call it "opportunistic," but it can get the job done.

    New England always has a chance so long as Brady is behind center and the man in the hoodie is calling the shots.

    Verdict: Contender

2. Denver Broncos (11-3)

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    The Denver Broncos are almost a lock to earn a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs. The AFC West leaders finish the season against Cleveland (Week 16) and Kansas City (Week 17).

    Peyton Manning's resurgence is one of the best stories in football this season, and he could head into the postseason with an 11-game winning streak. That's if Denver can take care of business and overcome the Browns and Chiefs.

    Either way, the Broncos' turnaround has been remarkable. After dropping three of four games early in the season, Denver found itself on the ropes against the San Diego Chargers.

    Then its defense stepped up and brought the team back in the second half, forcing six turnovers and erasing the 24-point halftime deficit.

    Neither Manning nor that defense has looked back since.

    Be warned, the Broncos are coming.

    Verdict: Contender

1. Houston Texans (12-2)

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    The Houston Texans have lost just two games this season. However, that they were convincing losses against legitimate contenders makes those losses concerning.

    They have already clinched the AFC South Division and need just one more win to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their head-to-head win over the Denver Broncos made sure that they will likely have the luxury of playing at Reliant Stadium this postseason.

    As mentioned, though, they have been beaten badly by other elite squads this year.

    Both the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots exposed the Texans, and the Packers did it in front of the Houston fans. What makes you think a rematch against either of these teams would be anything different?

    New England and Green Bay weren't the only teams to expose the Texans this season either. Jacksonville and Detroit both prodded at the team's weak secondary in consecutive overtime contests in Week 11 and Week 12.

    The Texans might make it to the AFC championship game, but their Super Bowl aspirations will likely end there because of their one-dimensional offense and inability to shut down top-flight passing games.

    Verdict: Pretender

NFC Playoff Picture

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    Two divisions in the NFC are settled, but the NFC West and NFC East are up for grabs in the final two weeks of the 2012 NFL season.

    Here's a current breakdown of what we're looking at around the conference.

     No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (12-2) Clinched NFC South
     No. 2 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth
     No. 3 Seed Green Bay Packers (10-4) Clinched NFC North
     No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (8-6) Lead NFC East
     No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
     No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (8-6)
     Chicago Bears (8-6)
     Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
     New York Giants (8-6)
     St. Louis Rams (6-7-1)
     New Orleans Saints (6-8)

6. Minnesota Vikings (8-6)

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    There is not a team in the league that truly personifies "one-dimensional" as much as the Minnesota Vikings. The team is dead last in passing yards per game (168.1) and fourth in total rushing per game (160.2).

    Christian Ponder has no reliable targets outside of tight end Kyle Rudolph and hasn't been able to do very much positive in the passing game as a result.

    Percy Harvin, the team's biggest playmaker with exception to Adrian Peterson, is out for the season.

    Tough defense and running the football are key ingredients to making a playoff run. However, the Vikings aren't tough enough overall to ride just those positives deep enough to be a threat.

    It's not even guaranteed the Vikes make the postseason right now. As a bubble team, they have drawn the worst remaining schedule imaginable.

    They finish with the Houston Texans (Week 16) and then the Green Bay Packers (Week 17).

    Verdict: Pretender

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-5)

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    The Seattle Seahawks became the first team to score 50 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1950, according to STATS LLC (via ESPN).

    But scoring points hasn't been the key to the emergence of the Seahawks in 2012. When someone says "defense wins championships," he or she is referring to the type of dominant unit operating in Seattle.

    The ability to shut down some of the best passing attacks in the NFL led to the Seahawks' reputation as an imposing defensive powerhouse. Early wins over Dallas, Green Bay and New England made people take this team seriously.

    As of late, they have added offensive explosiveness to the mix.

    Winning on the road is the biggest question mark for the Seahawks, who are unbeaten (6-0) at CenturyLink Field this season. They will finish their season with two home games against San Francisco and St. Louis.

    The only thing stopping the Seahawks is youth and inexperience, but that hasn't seemed to have mattered this season. Russell Wilson, a third-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft, has shocked the league with some great performances.

    It hasn't just been a one- or two-occasion thing, either. Wilson has posted the best QBR in the NFL since Week 8 (87.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

    Other than struggles on the road, which may curtail a Super Bowl run, there is little not to like about the Seahawks.

    They boast a stifling defense, punishing rushing game and a rookie quarterback soaring higher and higher each week.

    Verdict: Contender

4. Washington Redskins (8-6)

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    No Robert Griffin III? No problem, say the Washington Redskins. With the team's season virtually on the line, the Redskins went into Cleveland and convincingly beat the much-improved Browns to take control of the NFC East division.

    Wins over Philadelphia and Dallas would give the team its first division title in over a decade.

    Don't just thank rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. As witnessed in Week 15, this team is well coached and solid in most aspects of the game.

    Sixth-round running back Alfred Morris has been the real surprise for Washington, and its ability to turn a deep pick into one of the top backs in the league has done nothing but help take pressure off its dynamic rookie QB.

    Defense could become a problem deep into the NFC's playoff bracket. Teams like Atlanta, Green Bay and even San Francisco have exhibited an ability to go down the field and capitalize on weaker secondaries.

    With a good ability to shut down opposing running backs, Washington can make teams one-dimensional and force them to pass more than they would like to. That tough mentality creates a lot of man-to-man coverage situations for opposing passers.

    Those are the types of situations that QBs like Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers love. Getting those types of matchups allows them to take their shots down the field and capitalize with big plays.

    Shut down their run, but they're going to fire back. It becomes a scoring duel.

    Can Griffin and the Redskins keep up with the veteran offenses of the NFC?

    As long as their shifty QB stays healthy, they can, and that makes them contenders.

    Verdict: Contender

3. Green Bay Packers (10-4)

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    Other than Aaron Rodgers' six-touchdown performance against the Houston Texans, the Green Bay Packers have been kept relatively quiet this season.

    Sustained offensive dominance is a hard thing to master. That's become apparently clear this season for the Pack. A middling defense and a diminishing offense make the Packers a risky bet to go deep in the playoffs this season.

    Running the football was also a key to the team's Super Bowl win. That's an element of Green Bay's game that has escaped them at times this year.

    It's hard to count out the Packers, but the overwhelming disappointment of their Week 12 loss to the New York Giants can't be ignored. Against a physical defense, how much can Rodgers do on his own?

    He had enough to beat the Chicago Bears in Week 15, but how about a rematch with the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks in the postseason?

    Rodgers has been on the run a lot this season, having been sacked a league-most 45 times. With teams keying on him, it's only going to get tougher to put up enough points to contend in the playoffs.

    Verdict: Pretender

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1)

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    The late-season switch to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback has revitalized the San Francisco 49ers offense. Now, the team is much more than a defensive power with a good ground game.

    Kaepernick adds a new dimension to a team that has been stagnant offensively for too long. That switch could potentially end up with putting the 49ers into the Super Bowl.

    While that is a possibility, the inexperience of their young quarterback may hurt them in the postseason. Having to go through the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta with the season on the line could prove to be too big of a moment for the young QB.

    Defensively, the 49ers are as good as anyone at stopping both the run and pass.

    With the addition of Kaepernick, there truly isn't a more well-rounded team than San Francisco in the NFC. Week 16's test of going to Seattle and winning at CenturyLink would affirm a lot of the positive things said about the Niners.

    They are a well-rounded team with the ability to play tough against anyone in the league. 

    Verdict: Contender

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-2)

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    Say what you want about the Atlanta Falcons and their inability to get over the hump in the postseason. The 2012 Falcons are not your father's Falcons.

    While defense may not be a huge strong point for Atlanta, it makes up for it with its ability to keep teams out of the end zone. The team is fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, giving up just 18.5 points per contest.

    A team that limits points and can score in an instant with one of the best passing games in the NFL is certainly a threat to go all the way this season.

    Matt Ryan's 300 passing yards per game is fifth in the entire NFL, not just the NFC. Julio Jones and Roddy White are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the entire league as well.

    Atlanta is also unbeaten at home and will get to ride that winning streak all the way to the Super Bowl. That's likely where it is headed.

    Verdict: Contender