Heading into Week 16, there is still a cavalcade of playoff scenarios yet to be decided. The entire NFC East is up in the air, as is the wild-card chase and seeding in both conferences.
Nevertheless, the one chasm that's becoming clearer by the week is between mere playoff contenders and teams that will contend for the Lombardi Trophy in February. Though 2012 has been ripe with parity, early-season contenders have begun falling by the wayside as the true top-tier squads have shone down the stretch.
Still, as we see every season, there are also sleepers that seemingly come out of nowhere to make a deep playoff run. With that in mind, let's take break down a team at each level. Here is a look at a contender, pretender and sleeper as we head into Week 16 action.
Contender: New England Patriots
Call me crazy, but I feel like we learned just as much about the Patriots' resiliency as we did about the 49ers' team-wide brilliance on Sunday night. Down 31-3 with a little over 10 minutes left in the third quarter, New England went on to complete one of the most impressive comebacks I've ever seen.
Surgically picking apart arguably the NFL's best defense, Tom Brady brought the Patriots roaring back with four utterly brilliant offensive series. Driving right down the field on every possession, New England had evened the score by midway through the fourth quarter before its effort ultimately fell short.
While a win is a win, a loss is a loss and all that good stuff, the Patriots had to walk out of that game feeling good. They gained 520 total yards compared to 383 for San Francisco, a difference that would usually indicate a victory.
What's more, the 49ers recovered seven of the game's eight fumbles. That's the absolute definition of fumble luck. I'm not saying the 49ers were lucky to win the game. They dominated the first two-and-a -half quarters of the game and got the job done when it mattered.
Still, to take anything away from New England after Sunday night would be a massive disservice. The Patriots are still elite and the favorites in the AFC, barring a catastrophic injury in the season's final two weeks.
Pretender: Baltimore Ravens
Three straight losses have exposed the Ravens as a flawed team, but they have still outperformed their expectations this season. Using the Pythagorean Theorem, Baltimore has one more victory than expected heading into Week 16.
While that's obviously not a big number for the Ravens, it's the difference between being tied for the AFC North lead and having a playoff berth already locked up and a stranglehold on the division.
On the non-mathematical side of things, Baltimore has massive problems on both sides of the ball. Coming into Sunday's game against the Giants, the Ravens rank 22nd against the pass and 26th in run defense. They do measure as a top-half team in points allowed, but as they found out against the Broncos last week, the bend-but-don't-break strategy eventually fails.
The offense isn't inspiring much faith, either. Middling both statistically and metrically, the Ravens have slowly devolved from a team that looked pretty explosive in the first quarter of the season.
Play-calling has pretty much been a disaster. The team fired Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell, a man who thought it was a good idea to give Ray Rice exactly zero touches on third down last week.
Anything can happen in the playoffs, but I'm writing Baltimore off and I'm not afraid to use the pen at this point.
Sleeper: Seattle Seahawks
Obviously, it's incredibly easy to have the Seahawks as a sleeper team after combining to beat the Cardinals and Bills 108-17 over the past two weeks.
There's also a good reason why many had them as a sleeper way before the two-week drubbing spree: They're top-shelf in every facet of the game. Using standard counting stats, Seattle looks more like a defense-heavy team than it actually is. The Seahawks rank smack-dab in the middle of the league in total offense, third in total defense and are in the back half in return yardage as well.
Advanced metrics tell a far different story. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, Seattle has the fourth-ranked offense, sixth-best defense and fourth in special teams. The Seahawks and Broncos are the only team to rank inside the top 10 in all three categories, and Seattle is the only team inside the top six in each facet.
While your belief in advanced metrics may vary, they are something no human being alive can be: objective. The DVOA rankings take into account level of competition and other factors, including weather, that the counting stats simply cannot.
The only problem is that Seattle may not get a home game. Heading into Week 16, the Seahawks are 6-0 at home and just 3-5 away from CenturyLink Field. They've proved with wins against the Bears and Bills that they can win on the road, but questions still remain about whether they will.
Nevertheless, there is no wild-card team more dangerous than Seattle at the moment.
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