A Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds? Not likely.
Congratulations to the 12 teams that have qualified for the NFL playoffs.
But just like in Highlander, there can only be one left standing. In this era, no team is perfect. Each has some sort of fatal flaw, whether it be something tangible or a bad perception they must overcome on their path to the Super Bowl.
Tangible flaws often derail a team in the postseason; some fail to cover up that weakness, while others just continue to crumble under the pressure, fueling the perception they “can’t win the big one.”
Let’s take a look at that potentially fatal flaw for each team playing this postseason.
Marvin Lewis is 0-3 in the playoffs.
Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals were 9-7, but they went 0-7 against playoff teams (0-3 on the road). That is the worst record in NFL history for a playoff team. The Bengals lost 31-10 in Houston in the Wild Card Game, dropping them to 0-8 against such teams.
They will return to that same site in the opening game of the playoffs this Saturday. It's basically déjà vu, and though the Texans are reeling, they beat the Bengals twice last year.
So, are the Bengals really any better of a team this season compared to last?
In 2011, it was a 6-2 start followed by a 3-5 finish. This year the Bengals started 3-5, but finished strong at 7-1, only losing to Dallas on a last-second field goal.
As for their games against quality (playoff) opponents, the 2012 Bengals were 2-2, which tells us they faced an easier schedule compared to last year. They came back to beat the Ravens in Week 17, but it was basically a preseason game with the backups playing the decisive fourth quarter.
The only other win came in Week 3 against Washington (38-31), but that was long before anyone expected much out of the Redskins. The Bengals were blown out in Week 1 in Baltimore (44-13) and gave Denver a fight at home, but still lost 31-23.
Statistically, the defense has made baby steps from last year, while the offense took a bigger step forward.
But that’s not very indicative of the team’s recent play, as the defense has allowed a league-best 12.8 points per game in the last eight games, while in December, Andy Dalton had more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four) and a 71.3 passer rating.
Are the Bengals really better off than last year? We will judge them on the upcoming Houston litmus test, but it's most likely that this team is still not ready to beat a New England or Denver on the road, which will be the next step should they advance this week.
There was a small window of time (2000-2002 seasons) where a few teams won Super Bowls by playing great defense and not putting a lot of responsibility or expectations on their quarterbacks.
But that was a decade ago, and the Minnesota Vikings do not have the defense that the 2000 Baltimore Ravens did, nor is Christian Ponder as good as Tom Brady in 2001 or Brad Johnson in 2002.
The Vikings are also not as good as the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers or 2010 Green Bay Packers, who pulled off the difficult task of being the sixth seed and winning three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl.
Minnesota has won four straight and impressively defeated Houston and Green Bay just to reach this point, but the Vikings are still not a Super Bowl-caliber team, and teams are not winning championships with a quarterback like Ponder anymore.
You can count on Adrian Peterson to get his, but as we have seen all season, Ponder’s play is still going to largely determine the outcome of the game. Peterson played great in Green Bay this season, but Ponder’s two picks doomed them. In Week 17, Ponder threw for three touchdowns and no turnovers, and the Vikings won 37-34.
It will take an effort like that again to beat Green Bay, which can be tough outdoors in the elements. The Vikings are 0-5 in games played outdoors this year, and it should be brutally cold in Green Bay.
Ponder is 5-8 on the road and 3-9 against playoff teams in his brief career, but these are the kinds of games that can expose him as not being a quarterback capable of carrying a team. While the “you have to run the football” mantra still exists this time of year, the fact is, you have to get production out of your quarterback as well.
The only good news is that an upset this week would send the Vikings to Atlanta and the cozy confines of the Georgia Dome next week, which would be the preferred matchup. But it’s hard to see Ponder outscoring Aaron Rodgers twice in one week.
The Indianapolis Colts have been the best story in the NFL this year.
After having the worst record (2-14) in the league last year, they retooled the roster, drafted Andrew Luck, brought in Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians and have rallied behind their rookie gunslinger and cancer-stricken coach for an improbable 11-5 season.
No team finished better in the clutch, as the Colts were 7-2 in games with a game-winning drive opportunity. Luck tied the regular-season record with seven game-winning drives, and the Colts were 9-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points, which is the second-best record ever (minimum eight games).
But all the close wins and four bad road losses (Bears, Jets, Patriots, Texans) produced a scoring differential of minus-30 points. That is the ninth-worst scoring differential ever for a playoff team (16-game seasons) and easily the worst for a team with at least 11 wins. Previously, the 2004 Atlanta Falcons (11-5) held the worst with a plus-three differential.
The Colts allowed 387 points, which is the highest total ever for a team with at least 11 wins in NFL history. Their expected record based on points scored and allowed is just 7.2-8.8, so the Colts are definitely this year’s biggest overachiever.
In other words, the Colts are nowhere near as good as their record suggests.
The good news is that the Baltimore Ravens are about the best first-round matchup the Colts could have dreamed of. Do not be surprised to see another late-game upset win this weekend.
But going back to New England or to Denver to face Peyton Manning? Either one would be a terrible matchup for this team, as they are just not ready to go on the road for such a win. The Colts were 7-1 at home this season, and that is where they beat their three quality opponents (Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston).
If the Colts get past this weekend, they probably get annihilated the following week, but it has still been an incredible season and more than any fan could have dreamed of.
Seattle is another team finishing on a hot 7-1 run in the second half of the season, only allowing more than 20 points one time (24 to Miami in its lone loss).
But after an undefeated season at home, the Seahawks will likely have to win three straight on the road to reach the Super Bowl. This just does not happen often in NFL history, and certainly not with a rookie quarterback.
Not a surprise, but home-field advantage does mean more in the postseason, with the home team winning 67.6 percent of the time. In the regular season it is usually about 57-58 percent.
Seattle’s home-field advantage was so strong; beyond the 8-0 record, they outscored opponents by 148 points (best in the league).
But on the road, Seattle was just 3-5 with a scoring differential of 19. That includes losses to non-playoff teams like Arizona, St. Louis, Detroit and Miami. It adds up to a strange season in which Seattle went 5-1 against teams with a winning record and only 6-4 against teams without a winning record.
Did Seattle ever cure its road woes? Three of its last four games were at home, and the 50-17 win over Buffalo was played in Toronto, so it was more of a neutral game.
Before that, the Seahawks had the impressive comeback win in Chicago, which floundered in the second half of the season. The week before was the loss in Miami, and before that you are going way back to losses in San Francisco and Detroit before the training wheels really came off on Russell Wilson and the offense.
Seattle enters the playoffs as a bit of an enigma. While it has a lot of impressive stats, so many of them have been built up at home, which has been known for years as being a real advantageous place to play. Even the 7-9 team that made the playoffs in 2010 knocked off New Orleans at home before falling behind 28-0 to the Bears in Chicago.
On the road, against quality opponents, Seattle is going to have to prove its worth. Chances are it falters before the championship round, but watch out for this team next year if it can win the division and get a bye. This will be a great experience for the Seahawks.
John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens have had a familiar identity since he took the job in 2008. Ray Lewis led the stout defense, Ray Rice was the best player on offense, and Joe Flacco started every game.
That identity changed this season when the Ravens tried to feature Flacco in the passing game and the defense suffered multiple injuries to its best players.
In the end, Flacco put up his usual stats, though advanced metrics like QBR did not like his season. Meanwhile, the defense struggled, missing Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis (among others) for significant portions of the season.
For the first time since their first two seasons in the league (1996-97), the Ravens' offense ranked higher in points and yards than their defense.
The team has an identity crisis, as you never know what to expect from them. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell. Rice finished with 257 carries, though apparently some fans think it should be closer to 357.
Believe it or not, the offense only had 16 giveaways all season. The defense had 25 takeaways, but none in the last three games.
It is so hard to pick the Ravens in the playoffs when you just do not know what to expect from them. They beat New England with an impressive 31-30 comeback in Week 3 but lost 43-13 in Houston and 34-17 at home to Denver. They even lost at home to a Pittsburgh team with Charlie Batch and dropped a game in Washington to a pair of rookie quarterbacks.
Then there was the 33-14 win over the Giants in Week 16. If that Baltimore team shows up in the playoffs, the Ravens can beat anyone, though it is questionable how much of that was the inconsistent mess that was the 2012 Giants.
While Lewis is expected to return to the lineup, these are not your same old Ravens anymore. They do need to rely more on Flacco, as the defense is not one of the best in the league after all the injuries. Flacco handled it early in the season, but his career says he is 13-22 (.371) when the Ravens allow more than 17 points.
The Ravens can play a B-grade game and squeak by the Colts, but they have to bring their absolute best against New England or Denver. They never match up well with Peyton Manning, but the old Ravens have been successful against Tom Brady.
Key word is the “old” Ravens. This is a team in flux.
Watching the Washington Redskins clinch the NFC East on Sunday night, it was clear Robert Griffin III is not 100 percent after suffering a knee injury in Week 14.
Though he was still fast enough to rush for 63 yards and a touchdown, the offense started to look very predictable: read-option run, handoff to Alfred Morris or a screen pass. Griffin completed just nine passes for 100 yards on the night.
The Redskins have earned a reputation as an offense that’s “too hard” to prepare for in one week. That will simply not be true without an improvement in Griffin’s health and ability to use the entire playbook.
When the Redskins host Seattle, they will see an offense that has started to mimic their own success this season with fellow rookie Russell Wilson, who is very much healthy and has been the better quarterback as of late.
Wilson also brings a superior defense with him, and one that defends the pass with the best of them this season. Washington’s defense, though improved during the seven-game winning streak, is still below average at best, which is why the Redskins usually rely on a high-scoring offense to get the win.
While riding Morris may be the key to beating a team like Seattle, these are not Joe Gibbs’ Redskins with John Riggins running behind The Hogs. Griffin will have to be the dynamic quarterback he has been, not the more pedestrian player we have seen the last two weeks.
One rookie is guaranteed to walk out of Wild Card Weekend with a win, but this hyped duel may see one entering with a bit of a handicap.
It is still hard to believe the Houston Texans are playing this weekend, as they were on top of the AFC all year until the last day of the regular season.
Maybe we should have seen it coming though; when have we ever seen a Houston team win big games? The Houston Oilers were criticized for that in the Warren Moon era, though they at least had the courtesy to wait until the postseason to blow it.
It’s another AFC South title and double-digit-win season for Houston, but it has continued to struggle in big matchups. While Wade Phillips’ defensive turnaround has arguably been the key to this winning run, look at how the team fared against the best of the best.
Houston allowed 40 points to Drew Brees and the Saints last year. Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdowns in a 42-24 win this season. Tom Brady and the Patriots hung 42 points on Houston in another prime-time game.
Granted, the Texans at least held Peyton Manning to 25 points in a win, albeit in Week 3, so it’s not like they have never won a big game. They also beat the Bengals, this week’s opponent, in this same spot by a 31-10 final in the Wild Card Round last year.
But does anyone see Houston coming through in New England, likely followed by a return to Denver for the AFC Championship?
Not a chance, if history tells us anything. With an opportunity to avoid all of that and get the No. 1 seed, Matt Schaub lost the biggest game of his career in Indianapolis, where the Texans are 0-11 all-time. He threw two poor interceptions to Vontae Davis.
He will get a shot at the next-biggest game of his career this Saturday.
This latest defeat came after an embarrassing 23-6 loss to Minnesota at home. Houston has lost three of its last four and does not look ready for a deep run at all. Four losses by at least two touchdowns are not what you expect from a 12-4 team.
Schaub is the unknown part of that 2004 draft class, because he has never started a playoff game after being injured for the team’s 2011 run. Now, with all eyes on him, he has to prove himself on the postseason stage.
In his career, Schaub is 10-23 (.303) against playoff teams as a starter. That record shrinks to 3-19 (.136) in clutch situations against winning teams, which are usually impossible to avoid in a Super Bowl run.
Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt have not let the team down this year, but the Texans may be lacking enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to take that next step into the elite category.
Their quarterback is definitely not elite, though Schaub can change some of the perception with a good playoff run. It would be a minor miracle if he did resurrect this team, because right now it does not look ready to move on past Cincinnati again.
The title is more of a double entendre than entirely positive. While the Green Bay Packers still look like as good of a bet as any team in the NFC this year, they continue to struggle at closing games in the fourth quarter.
Sure, the defense (Week 17 aside) looks pretty strong, and you expect Aaron Rodgers to produce more offense than any other quarterback in the NFC playoffs, but can you count on this team to grind out a win in a close game?
Rodgers is 4-2 in the playoffs with huge numbers, but Green Bay always led late in the four wins, all of which came during their run to Super Bowl XLV. In the two losses, he had to lead a game-winning drive, and the Packers lost.
That has been the common theme in the Mike McCarthy era.
While Rodgers had a career-high three game-winning drives in 2012, there were four games in the same situation Green Bay lost, including the Week 17 finale in Minnesota that would have given them a first-round bye.
For his career, Rodgers is 5-22 (.185) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and 9-24 (.273) overall at winning games from a tie or one-score deficit in the fourth quarter or overtime. He is 0-18 at comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.
It continues to be one of the worst records in league history, and it's surely the worst for any elite quarterback. You are not going to see the Detroit Lions in the playoffs; these are tougher opponents, and all four of Green Bay’s close losses this year were to playoff teams.
Adding to the woes this year is the unreliability of kicker Mason Crosby. Should he have to make a critical kick in the playoffs, we might have another Mike Vanderjagt situation.
It’s not like the defense is not susceptible to meltdowns either. Golden Tate says hello, and it was last year in the playoffs when Hakeem Nicks caught a Hail Mary before halftime.
That’s the other thing: The Packers are just 2-4 at home in the playoffs since 2002; McCarthy is 1-2. Lambeau Field is no longer a lock with the bad weather late in the season. That was good for Vince Lombardi, but not when the Packers are now one of the pass-happiest teams in NFL history.
If you could promise me the Packers would jump out to a double-digit lead in every playoff game, I would pick them for the Super Bowl. But they have not been that kind of dominant team this year, and they continue to be too unreliable at closing the deal in crunch time.
The winning formula for Green Bay is simple: get the early lead and hang on for dear life by any means necessary. It worked in 2010, but that has not proved to be a repeatable strategy for any other Super Bowl champion.
It feels weird to even mention the New England dynasty, when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the only remaining parts of the three teams that won Super Bowls.
The 2004 season was quite some time ago, and that team was vastly different than the Patriots' recent offense-heavy approach. But some people still view the Patriots as that Super Bowl kind of team, even though they have not closed the deal.
Since the 2005 season, all six of the Patriots’ playoff losses have come against teams they played in the regular season.
They were swept by the 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts and 2011 Giants. Despite beating the 2007 Giants and 2009 Ravens in the regular season, they lost to them in the playoffs. New England split with the 2010 Jets, but just over a month after a dominant 45-3 win, it stunningly lost 28-21 in the AFC divisional playoffs.
Belichick used to be praised for his ability to outcoach the opponent in a rematch, but lately it has been the other way around. The opponent is the one making the right adjustments, and looking at the list above, winning or losing the first time really made no difference in the rematch.
The Patriots once again lit up the scoreboard in 2012, scoring the third-most points (557) in NFL history. But high-scoring teams almost always choke in the postseason, and the Patriots may not be an exception, given their minimal scoring output in the 2007, 2010 and 2011 playoff losses.
With Rob Gronkowski back, this offense does scare you, and they have improved defensively. They came up with 41 takeaways, once again showing they can make you pay with big plays.
There are not many holes here, just questions of whether or not this team is good enough to beat three playoff opponents in a row. It could be three rematches in a row as well, should the NFC West reach the Super Bowl.
Like Denver, the Patriots have taken advantage of Houston’s slide to claim a first-round bye. They usually get to the Super Bowl when they have that, but it’s likely they will have to go to Denver and win the AFC Championship.
The only team in the AFC that really looks capable of beating them is Denver, and they already have the head-to-head win this season and match up very well with the Broncos. It will likely take a team like Denver or San Francisco in the Super Bowl (another rematch) to knock off the Patriots this year.
It would be the biggest failure in NFL history for the 2007-2012 Patriots to not win a Super Bowl. While the window is not going to close with a loss, there are only a handful of chances left for Brady and Belichick.
Looks like my perfect storm of regression prediction for the 2012 San Francisco 49ers not winning more than 10 games was off by one game, or 1.5 if you factor in the despicable tie.
The reasoning really did not fail, though. Point being: Are the 49ers in better shape to win a Super Bowl this season than they were last season?
Based on their 16 games to this point, it is hard to say they are. They definitely are a different team, though.
The 49ers went from plus-24 in turnover differential to plus-nine. The offense kept the turnovers (16) down again, but the defense was not as good (25 takeaways). Without as much turnover mastery, the 49ers did manage to lead the league in net starting field position (6.25) once again.
Last season the 49ers were 6-3 at clutch-win opportunities. Alex Smith had six comebacks and six game-winning drives. This year, the 49ers were 1-1-1 at such games. They had zero comeback wins—the comeback that led to a tie, a loss in St. Louis, and Colin Kaepernick’s game-winning drive in New England after the 49ers blew a 28-point lead.
The lack of close games speaks to the odd season the 49ers had. Last year, the team was so consistent. They led in the fourth quarter in 17 of their 18 games and had a tie in the one they did not (at Baltimore on Thanksgiving).
This year, the 49ers had at least the three worst performances of the Jim Harbaugh era. There was the poor 24-13 loss in Minnesota that surprised many people. Even worse was the 26-3 loss at home to the Giants, with whom the 49ers played two tough games last year.
In the Kaepernick half of the season, the Rams took a 14-0 lead early before the 49ers rallied in that tie, which proved crucial in the NFC West standings. But the team also lost an overtime game to the Rams and played a horrible game in Seattle in prime time.
So you really cannot say the 49ers showed up as well as last year, especially on a week-to-week basis.
Their results have much more variation this season, and while they may have played tougher opponents, they still clearly had more bad performances.
One could argue it was a tale of two seasons with Smith and Kaepernick, but the 49ers were 6-2 with Smith, then 5-2-1 in the games Kaepernick had to finish. Both attempted 218 passes, and Smith was a bit more efficient, while Kaepernick was more explosive.
That added explosiveness and mobility is why people feel Kaepernick makes the team better than Smith does. However, if they get tossed around like they were by New England (for a half) and Seattle, it will be a quick exit from the postseason.
The playoffs are ultimately where this team will be measured after coming up one score short of the Super Bowl last season. It would be fitting for Kaepernick to be measured on leading a win over Green Bay in the second round, as the season began with Smith playing well at Lambeau in a 30-22 victory in Week 1. That practically secured this bye advantage over the Packers.
A rematch of a game people expected to see in the NFC Championship last year would be nice this year in the NFC Divisional. But that might be a game last year’s 49ers would have been better equipped to win than this year’s team.
With seemingly every unbiased person picking Denver (13-3) to win the Super Bowl, there are a lot of reasons to be afraid of them.
Favorites almost never win, and top seeds have been choking it up (especially in the AFC) for years. Having a long winning streak heading into the playoffs has been much more of a death sentence than a benefit to winning a championship.
But the Broncos were the most consistent team in the league, having won their last 11 games by at least seven points, which makes them just the third team ever to do so (1942 Bears, 2005 Colts). Yeah, those two failed to win a playoff game as well.
Some may say the Broncos have managed this consistent season by playing a weak schedule. Primarily, the AFC West was terrible, and that was six easy wins for the Broncos. The Chiefs (2-14), Raiders (4-12) and Chargers (7-9) combined for as many wins as Denver’s 13 this season.
Early on, when Denver was 2-3, it lost to top playoff teams like Atlanta, Houston and New England, and it trailed by at least 20 points in each game before rallying late.
Denver had to come back in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburgh, San Diego and Cincinnati. The Steelers were closer to full strength in Week 1, the Chargers were 3-2 and up 24-0 before Denver crushed their season, and the Bengals (10-6) are in the playoffs.
Yes, the Broncos destroyed Baltimore, but it’s not like the Ravens have been playing that well as of late.
You can look at that and say, outside of Baltimore, every time the Broncos played a great team, they fell behind by 20 points and lost. Every time they played a marginally decent team, they had to rally in the fourth quarter for a win.
Framing it that way, that does not sound promising for a Super Bowl contender, but does it really matter?
Last year, the Patriots (0-2) and Giants (1-3) went through the regular season with one win over a playoff team, and that came from playing each other. They still finished with a rematch in the Super Bowl. Denver’s 2-3 record looks fine in comparison.
Those three Denver losses were early in the season, when Peyton Manning was still getting back on track and teaching everyone his style of offense. The Broncos also had terrible luck at fumble recoveries. Manning has since been on a historic run of great play, and this team has been playing better than the teams they lost to.
When you see Houston slumping, Atlanta losing at home to Tampa Bay and even the Patriots looking shaky in Jacksonville, Denver should be commended for consistently winning games in convincing fashion. No one else has been able to do that this season.
The Broncos are not perfect, but they have the fewest flaws of any team in the playoffs, and that is a good reason why they are the favorites right now.
Could they slip up when playing a step up in competition? Possibly, but it’s not like this team doesn’t have a quarterback with 19 playoff starts, or a roster full of players that went into the AFC Divisional Round last season, or a head coach that’s been to the Super Bowl.
Pointing to a playoff win?
The Atlanta Falcons share a lot in common with the AFC team that was supposed to be the No. 1 seed, and that is Houston. They do not scare anyone and have not piled up many big wins, as everyone knows the Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith/Matt Ryan. The franchise has not won a playoff game since the 2004 season.
Good news is, this year the Falcons are the No. 1 seed, though they had that in 2010 when the Packers came in and blew them out, 48-21. Still, it should help over some of the past failures, as Ryan does have that sterling 33-6 record at home.
Of course, the sixth loss came on Sunday to Tampa Bay in a bizarre game where the Falcons played out with their starters, lost to a team on a five-game losing streak and saw John Abraham and Dunta Robinson leave with injuries.
If the goal of that game was to gain momentum, then the Falcons failed miserably, as it just casts a darker cloud over their postseason chances.
Since playing at home is the big advantage of having the No. 1 seed, are there any concerns that Atlanta only outscored its opponents by 60 points this year (ranked No. 9 in the league) or that Ryan had 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 86.2 passer rating in the Georgia Dome?
It adds up to a team that simply does not scare anyone, which is what the top seed used to do. No one would be surprised if Minnesota or Seattle went in there and won in two weeks, and it would be almost expected if the Falcons go on to lose to a team like Green Bay or San Francisco.
Yes, a No. 1 seed may end up being the home underdog in a few weeks. That has not happened since the 2004 Patriots were three-point favorites in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship.
Poor Tony Gonzalez has been around since 1997 and is 0-5 in postseason games. This could be his last chance. He rounds out what is now a pass-heavy offense, and second-year receiver Julio Jones should be better than he was last year.
But it is going to fall on Ryan’s shoulders, and his 5.31 yards per attempt passing in the playoffs ranks 92nd out of 95 quarterbacks all-time. Scoring and hitting big plays has been a real problem for him in the postseason, and he may have to face a No. 1 defense with a great secondary like Seattle right out of the gate.
Some criticize the Falcons as a “fluke” for winning too many close games. Sure, that may give them a record better than their stats suggest, but they have done it enough years to prove it is not a fluke.
Ryan has the all-time best record at game-winning drive opportunities at 22-13 (.629). The problem is that none of his three playoff losses have been close enough late for him to have the opportunity to have a game-winning drive.
This has been Ryan’s best season—and the best defensive team he has had—and if the Falcons cannot win a playoff game now, then when will they?
Only Y.A. Tittle went 0-4 as a playoff starter in his career. Billy Kilmer (0-4), Warren Moon (0-4) and Dave Krieg (0-5) are the only other quarterbacks to ever lose at least four straight playoff starts.
How soon is now, Matty Ice? Falcons fans have been waiting too long, and all hope could be gone with another one-and-done. The Falcons must overcome their history and get a win.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.