Now that most of the playoff field has been set, it makes sense to start taking a look at the teams with the best opportunity to bring home the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans in February.
While it seems that the NFC is a vastly better conference than the AFC, there are two teams in the "junior circuit" who have legit shots at winning the Super Bowl. In my opinion, those two teams are the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons have yet another team to worry about when it comes to winning the NFC. Those up-and-coming Seattle Seahawks have been world beaters as of late and look legit heading into Week 17 of the regular season.
Today's article is going to look at the Vegas odds as they relate to winning the Super Bowl. These odds come from a respected Vegas oddsmakers site called Betvega.
The Minnesota Vikings are now in a situation where they control their own destiny. A win against the Green Bay Packers puts them in the playoffs.
This was only possible after Minnesota traveled to Reliant Stadium and laid a hammer down on the previously 12-2 Houston Texans. Couple that impressive victory with losses by the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys and you have a dream scenario for Minnesota.
Is this team a threat to win the NFC? No.
While getting into the postseason means you are one of 12 teams with an opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, Minnesota should just be pleased to get into the playoffs after winning three games in 2011.
Of course, this entire slide could be meaningless if Minnesota loses and doesn't get any help from other teams in contention for the final playoff spot.
It has been an amazing ride for the Indianapolis Colts and first-year quarterback Andrew Luck. This team won a total of two games last season, failing to compete in nearly every game. After adding a wide array of youngsters on offense and a new coaching staff, Indianapolis has won 10 games and guaranteed itself a trip to the postseason.
In reality, this is one of the best stories in the recent history of the NFL. New head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer in early October and has not been able to rejoin the club since. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians did an amazing job in his stead. Pagano is set to return to the club on Christmas Eve, which is an amazing story on its own.
This doesn't mean that Indianapolis is anywhere near ready to compete with the elite clubs. It has too many holes along the offensive line and in all facets of the defense to be considered Super Bowl contenders.
After the Kansas City Chiefs tallied 352 rushing yards Sunday against Indianapolis, it has now yielded over 500 yards on the ground in the last two games. That's not going to get it done.
Expect Luck and company to gain the necessary postseason experience this year and be ready to make the jump towards contention in 2013.
Unless Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears offense improves down the stretch, this team is going absolutely nowhere. They can't rely on playing a team as bad as the Arizona Cardinals on a consistent basis.
Equally as important, Chicago doesn't control its own destiny. Wins by the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings next week will mean that it misses the postseason for a second consecutive year.
There are too many good teams in the NFC for Chicago to be considered serious contenders. Even if they squeeze in as the No. 6 seed, don't expect the Bears to go past the first round, when they would be playing either the Green Bay Packers or San Francisco 49ers.
It just isn't going to happen.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been anything but consistent this season. It took a horrendous performance by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers for Cincinnati to clinch a postseason berth in Week 16.
The Bengals have, however, won six of their last seven games, and they seem ready to take their game to the next level after being "happy" to get into the postseason in 2011. The Bengals now go up against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 in what is nothing more than a practice game for the club.
That being said, Andy Dalton and company can make a statement heading into the playoffs. They will, most likely, have to travel to take on the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots in the first round. Getting a win against Baltimore could do wonders for their confidence heading into January.
I just want to see Andy Dalton perform better on a consistent basis before I can declare Cincinnati true contenders in the AFC. When the second-year quarterback is on top of his game, the Bengals are incredibly hard to beat.
It's relatively simple here. The Dallas Cowboys are in the same position they were in heading into Week 17 last season. They must travel to face a division foe on the road and win in order to capture the division title. This time, that team is the incredibly hot Washington Redskins.
After a disheartening loss to the New Orleans in overtime on Sunday, a lot of the focus was on the Cowboys' inability to close out the game in overtime against a mediocre opponent at home. In reality, that game didn't mean a whole lot in terms of the division race. Win or lose, Dallas would still have had to go into Washington and win next week.
Due to losing the tiebreaker against both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, the Cowboys must win next week in order to make it.
If the Cowboys are able to squeeze in at 9-7, they would either take on the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks in the first round. That's not really an ideal scenario for this average football team.
With that in mind, Tony Romo appears to be playing some of the best football of his career. He has thrown 10 touchdowns compared to one interception and compiled a 112.0 quarterback rating in his last four games.
Dallas could be dangerous if it does indeed make it to the playoffs.
The only team that appears to be hotter than the Washington Redskins heading into Week 17 is the Seattle Seahawks.
Robert Griffin III returned to action and helped lead Washington to a road win against a feisty Philadelphia Eagles team on Sunday. While it wasn't pretty by any stretch of the imagination, Washington did just enough to come away with a victory.
It now has two paths to the postseason:
- Beat the Dallas Cowboys in D.C. next week and go in as the No. 4 seed and NFC East champions.
- Lose to Dallas and have both the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings go down in Week 17.
Anyway you put it, the Redskins are going to be an extremely dangerous team if they are able to make it to the second season. A home game against the likes of Minnesota or Chicago in the first round could easily enable Washington to move on and be one of the final eight teams standing.
It will be interesting.
The Baltimore Ravens really needed to step up and make a statement against the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday. Coming off three consecutive losses, that is exactly what Baltimore did by destroying the New York Giants, 33-14, at home.
The Ravens finally understood that their strength lies with the running game on offense and a hard-hitting attack on defense. Baltimore ran the ball 45 times for 224 yards in the impressive victory. This enabled Joe Flacco to pick his spots and have one of his best performances of the season.
Despite clinching the AFC North with the win, there are a lot of questions remaining for Baltimore. While they will host a first-round game, the Ravens will have to travel to take on the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos or Houston Texans in the second round.
Do you like their odds there? I sure don't.
Following the embarrassing 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Giants have now been outscored 67-14 in the last two games. Talk about choking at the least opportune time. New York now finds itself on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture.
The Giants now must not only defeat the Philadelphia Eagles next week, but they need a ton of help from other prospective playoff teams. New York needs the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings to all lose.
That being said, if the Giants do get in at 9-7, they will be a team to watch. After all, they did finish with that very same record and still win the Super Bowl last season.
Say what you want about the San Francisco 49ers not playing up to par in the game, but Seattle laid the hammer down and did not let up. It has now scored 150 points in its last three games after failing to match that total in its previous six games combined.
Talk about being hot at the right time.
Despite this electrifying victory, Seattle still needs the Arizona Cardinals to beat an angry San Francisco team in Candlestick next week in order to take the NFC West. Needless to say, the chances of that happening are remote.
This would put the Seahawks in somewhat of a precarious position. They would have to travel on the road in the first round of the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. History suggests that is a no-win situation. That being said, Russell Wilson isn't your average rookie, and this team isn't your run-of-the-mill wild-card opponent.
If you go by pure level of play over the last three weeks (really, you can't), Seattle could easily be considered favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
On that note, anyone want to see a 49ers-Seahawks rematch in the second season? That would be most epic.
So the Green Bay Packers destroyed a really bad Tennessee Titans team at Lambeau Field in December. Go figure.
Was it an impressive dismantling of an NFL team? Yes. Does it mean that the Packers are back to their 2011 form? Of course not. It was a win against the Titans, who have been playing some downright awful football as of late.
Green Bay, however, does control its own destiny as it relates to the No. 2 overall seed and a first-round bye in the postseason. If it defeats the Vikings in Minnesota next week, Green Bay will be in the same position it was in last season: sitting at home, watching the first round and figuring out which wild-card team it will play next.
How did that work out against the New York Giants last season?
If Aaron Rodgers continues to play at an All-Pro level, Green Bay is in as good shape as anyone in the dysfunctional NFC. That being said, I still have my worries that it will become too one-dimensional in January to capture the conference championship.
It is still important to note that Green Bay has won nine of its last 10 games heading into its all-important Week 17 matchup in Minneapolis.
How exactly are the Atlanta Falcons 13-2 at this point in the season? The answer is pretty simple: Matt Ryan and company have come up when it counted the most at the end of games. They haven't been terribly impressive throughout the course of the season, but they seem to play clutch when it counts the most.
This definitely bodes well for the playoffs.
It is still nearly impossible to go away from history here. Matt Ryan is 0-3 in his career in the playoffs and has seen his quarterback rating drop from 90.2 in the regular year to the low 70s in the playoffs. That will not get it done if Atlanta wants a return trip to New Orleans in February.
You also have to realize that the 2010 Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFL during the regular season at 13-3, only to get killed by the Green Bay Packers at home in the divisional playoffs.
While this is a completely different team, recent history does mean something in the NFL.
At the very least, we all know that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through the Georgia Dome, and Atlanta has to feel good about that.
The Houston Texans have to be the least impressive 12-3 team in the recent history of the National Football League. Playing for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC, Houston laid a complete egg against the Minnesota Vikings at home on Sunday. It was blown out of its own stadium by a team that clearly doesn't possess the same level of talent.
Could it be that Houston is relying too much on Arian Foster for its success this season? Will that come back to haunt them in the postseason? The answer to both questions is a resounding "yes."
In short, if Foster is shut down in the playoffs, the Texans have little shot at winning more than one game. They're not in a position to rely on Matt Schaub and a shaky pass defense and win against elite competition.
Their three losses have come by an average of 20 points, which indicates a lack of consistency from one of the best teams in the AFC. In order for the Texans to prove they belong among the big boys (Denver Broncos and New England Patriots), they are going to have to rely on someone outside of Foster to get it done.
Do you see that happening?
Right now, the Denver Broncos have to be the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning is playing out of this world in 2012 and continues to get better as he starts to feel at home in Denver.
After defeating the lowly Cleveland Browns 34-12 on Sunday, the Broncos have won 10 consecutive games by an average of nearly two touchdowns per outing. For his part, Manning has thrown 23 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions during the win streak.
It is important to keep in mind that this winning streak has come against some of the worst teams the NFL has to offer. The Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers (twice), Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland have combined for 17 wins this season.
This leads to an important question: Is Denver battle-tested heading into the playoffs? After all, their three losses have come against three of the best teams in the NFL in the form of the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
A win next week against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs will give Denver a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The New England Patriots have not been impressive over the course of the last two weeks. First, they fell down 31-3 to the San Francisco 49ers at home before making a valiant comeback attempt only to fall 10 points short. Then they fell behind 13-3 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16 before eking out a seven-point win.
This isn't how Tom Brady and company wanted to enter the postseason. They have a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball if they want to return to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season. The passing game doesn't seem to be on target, while their pass defense continues to be mediocre at best.
It will sure help when Rob Gronkowski is able to return from injury, which could be as early as next week against the Miami Dolphins.
With that in mind, no AFC team wants to go up against New England. It is clearly one of the two most talented teams in the conference and has a quarterback that has been to the Super Bowl five times in just over a decade.
At this point, I believe it is between Denver and New England in the AFC. If so, Brady does indeed stand a chance to make it to a record sixth Super Bowl.
I wouldn't bet against him.
Ouch, that was a disastrous performance right there. The San Francisco 49ers, coming off an impressive victory over the New England Patriots in Week 15, were absolutely destroyed by the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday Night Football.
Not one aspect of the team played well. They couldn't get anything going on the ground, turned the ball over two times and had a field-goal block returned for a touchdown. They were manhandled at the line of scrimmage and outcoached in every possible way.
Good thing San Francisco had already clinched a playoff sport prior to getting embarrassed by Russell Wilson and Co. It was the 49ers' worst margin of defeat (42-13) since Week 5 of the 2009 season against the Atlanta Falcons.
Humiliation aside, San Francisco still controls its own destiny in the NFC West and could still grab the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. It needs to beat the Arizona Cardinals in order to grab the division title and can acquire the second seed if the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers next week.
Inconsistency continues to be a major issue for one of the most talented teams in the NFL. It has failed to show up every third game this season, which isn't a great sign heading into the playoffs.
If the 49ers play their best football, there is no team in the NFL that can defeat them. This leads me to believe that the only way they don't make it to New Orleans in February is by playing the same type of football that we saw last night. If that happens, the 49ers won't last long.