Momentum in the NFL is vital for success in the postseason. We see it every year, where the best teams in the regular season don't necessarily win in January because they took their foot off the gas.
Last year, the New York Giants were on the brink of elimination with two games left to play. They snuck into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, and then wound up winning the Super Bowl for the second time in five years.
Since we know 10 of the 12 playoff teams, and have a strong idea who the other two will be, we wanted to rank the contenders based on who has the best chance to win the Lombardi Trophy.
To separate the best from the rest, we will be using all teams that are still mathematically alive and placing them into three different categories.
NFC: Washington, Minnesota, Chicago, Dallas, New York Giants
AFC: Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati
Washington, Dallas and New York don't have enough defense to compete with the best of the best in the NFC.
Minnesota and Chicago are so inconsistent on both sides of the ball that winning a game is going to be a monumental task, let alone winning four games in five weeks.
Baltimore would have been in the second tier if that three-game losing streak didn't expose so many holes in the defense, and if Joe Flacco actually knew how to put together a string of games like the one he had against New York in Week 16.
Cincinnati had to scratch and claw to beat a Pittsburgh team that has been destroyed by injuries, inconsistent play all over the field and was down to its fourth- and fifth-string cornerbacks. The Bengals are an improving team, but not quite a championship one.
Indianapolis is way ahead of schedule. Chuck Pagano's return to the sidelines is one of the best stories of the year, but it will not be enough to put them over the top against the best the NFL has to offer.
Flawed, But Potentially Elite Contenders
NFC: San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta
AFC: Houston, New England
The top two teams in the NFC West have off-the-charts potential. We have seen just how good the Seahawks can be over the last three weeks. They are firing on all cylinders in all three phases of the game, which is exactly what you want to see from a team heading into the postseason.
But the Achilles heel that has kept the Seahawks from being truly elite this season is one that will have to be rectified if they want to make a deep playoff run: winning on the road. They are just 3-5 on the road, including losses at Miami, Detroit, Carolina and Arizona.
Despite beating New England on the road in Week 15, the 49ers have fallen apart the last two weeks, allowing 76 points in the last six quarters. Injuries to Justin Smith, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham have now left the state of this team in doubt after looking like one of the best teams in the NFC all year.
The Falcons have clinched the best record in the NFC for the second time in three years, but what is their defense going to do in a big spot? They allow over 365 yards to their opponents, though it is more of a bend-but-don't-break style, as they only allow 18.5 points per game.
Matt Ryan has all the weapons he needs on the outside, but their running game has been virtually non-existent all season. One-dimensional teams who give up a lot of yards on defense are usually easy to attack in the postseason. We saw it with this team two years ago, when the Packers destroyed them in the Georgia Dome.
Houston needs to start showing a pulse in games where it is playing for something.
The Texans had a chance to make a statement against Green Bay; they gave up 42 points and 427 yards.
They had a chance to assert their dominance over the rest of the AFC in New England on Monday Night Football; they gave up 42 points and 419 yards.
They had a chance to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC in Week 16; they scored just six points and gained 187 yards against Minnesota.
Who are the real Houston Texans?
The Patriots need to score a lot of points to win games, because they give up far too many yards through the air to win a game 17-14. They played sloppy against San Francisco for 38 minutes before storming back, only to see their special teams and secondary fail them after they tied the game.
One thing working in the Patriots' favor is their four losses have come by a combined 11 points. But those close games, specifically winning them, is what this team has not done well over the last five years.
The Best of the Best
NFC: Green Bay
Just think, if the replacement referees had gotten the call right in the Green Bay-Seattle game in Week 3, the Packers would be playing for the No. 1 seed and the Seahawks would be tied with Minnesota and Chicago for the final two spots in the postseason.
In an unusual way, that game was a springboard for both teams. Since that loss, the Packers have gone 10-2, Aaron Rodgers has thrown 32 touchdowns and just six interceptions and the defense has allowed 20 points or less in nine straight games.
Their offensive line has been problematic all season, but you would never know it with the way Rodgers has been rolling. Like the Falcons, they don't have a running game, but they have been much more consistent on defense and Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, so they don't need to hand the ball off that much to win games.
Right now, the Packers are the best team in the NFC. They should enter the postseason as the favorite to win the conference championship and play for their second Super Bowl in three years.
Moving to the AFC, the Broncos' greatness has been quiet because we are so consumed by other stories at the moment. We can talk about the Broncos winning 10-straight games, but that is boring.
They will get all the attention they need in the postseason, though, because this team is a lot more than just Peyton Manning. Specifically, the defense has been incredible and continues to get better. They have athleticism to attack up front, with great cover corners to prevent opponents from throwing the ball.
One criticism that I do have is the teams the Broncos have beaten during this winning streak. Sure, wins over Cincinnati and Baltimore look better today than they did just two days ago, but those are hardly elite teams, and no one else is over .500 at the moment.
Still, that is a minor gripe for a team that has such a dynamic, explosive offense and fierce, ferocious, attacking defense.
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
|No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (13-2) Clinched NFC South & Home-Field Advantage|
|No. 2 Seed Green Bay Packers (11-4) Clinched NFC North|
|No. 3 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (9-6) Lead NFC East|
|WILD CARD LEADERS|
|No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (9-6)|
|IN THE HUNT|
|Chicago Bears (9-6)|
|Dallas Cowboys (8-7)|
|New York Giants (8-7)|
AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
|No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-3) Clinched AFC South|
|No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (12-3) Clinched AFC West|
|No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (11-4) Clinched AFC East|
| No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (10-5) Clinched AFC North|
|WILD CARD LEADERS|
|No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth|
| No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (9-6); Clinched Playoff Berth|