With Super Bowl XLVII now less than a month away, New Orleans is nearly completed with its preparations to host the AFC and NFC conference champions in the league’s annual championship game.
The only question that remains is, which teams will represent the respective conferences?
The AFC still has its reigning champion, the New England Patriots—who also have a history of reaching the Super Bowl in years the game is played New Orleans. The Patriots have played in three of the past four New Orleans-hosted Super Bowls.
Last year’s NFC and NFL Champions, the New York Giants, were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 17. A new NFC champion will be crowned in 2012-13.
Every remaining team has an impressive resume. Here is the case for each team making it to New Orleans to compete in the 2013 Super Bowl.
Since Ray Lewis entered the NFL in 1996 with the Baltimore Ravens, the franchise has been built upon and known for one thing: defense.
Lewis brings the hammer with his intensity and physical play. Ed Reed joined a few years later to make for one of the best defensive duos in NFL history.
Unfortunately for Baltimore that duo has seen better days. Lewis recently announced his retirement from football. And speculation has floated for a few years that Reed would cut his career short sooner than most.
Even before the 2012 season Reed said he could retire.
All of that is meant to say that the Ravens are not the Ravens most of us know and remember from the past decade and a half.
It is a team fueled first by offense—the group scored 398 points this season, which was a franchise record (it still placed them at just 10th in the league rankings).
The defense gave up its fourth-most points in franchise history with 344 (21.5 points per game).
It is a team in transition. It is a team that is old on the defensive side of the ball. It is a team that does not match up very well with the strength of the Denver offense that it plays this weekend.
It is a team with short odds at making it to New Orleans.
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 8/1
The Denver Broncos ended the postseason tied with Atlanta for the league's best record at 13-3. As a result, Denver earned a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs.
Denver has probably the second-best home field advantage of any team in the NFL—Seattle’s crowd at Century Link Field is the best.
The mile-high elevation, frigid outdoor temperatures and raucous crowd make Denver a difficult place to play, no matter the importance of the game.
Add to the equation Peyton Manning, who is playing as well as at any time in his entire career, Demaryius Thomas, the most physically imposing and explosive athlete Manning has ever had at his disposal, and the dynamic duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil looking to figuratively kill the opposing quarterback, and you have the recipe of a legitimate championship contender.
Chances Broncos Make it to New Orleans: 2/1
The Houston Texans ran out to a fast start—11-1 in the first 12 games, only to finish 1-3 and end at 12-4. That fall cost them a first-round bye in the AFC.
Still, the Texans deserve to be playing in the second weekend of the playoffs for the second consecutive year after never even making it to the wild card round in their first nine seasons as a franchise.
The team was eighth in the league in scoring offense at exactly 26 points per game. Defensively, they were ninth at 20.7 per game. Houston had a plus-12 turnover differential in 2012, which ranked them seventh in the league.
Those three statistics must continue to play out for Houston to find their way to New Orleans—a city that is just 350 miles away and a five-hour drive, with not much traffic.
It means Matt Schaub must player error-free. Arian Foster must continue his torrid stretch of playoff football—he’s averaged 141.7 yards per game in three playoff games. Andre Johnson must make a few big plays.
And team MVP J.J. Watt must continue to lead a defense that has learned to play without its other primary leader, inside linebacker Brian Cushing. If Watt can pressure Tom Brady and either Peyton Manning or Joe Flacco enough to make them hurry throws, the rest of the defense is good enough to shut down any of the remaining AFC offenses.
If the defense does that, it can reach New Orleans this year.
Super Bowl Chances: 4/1
Bill Belichick is the best coach of this generation. Tom Brady is by most accounts the best quarterback of that same generation (though Manning supporters, and a few Brees boomers would attest).
Together, the two have reached five Super Bowls—winning the first two before having the past two stolen from them by the New York Giants. Last time the Super Bowl was held in New Orleans, Tom Brady was just beginning his ascension up the top of the mountain of great quarterbacks.
His final drive against the Rams to set up a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired capped the most exciting Super Bowl ever played in the Big Easy. And it made Brady an instant legend.
He has since proved worthy of the title. Belichick, too.
This current Patriots team resembles almost nothing that the original Belichick-Brady Patriots embodied. That unit was built on gritty veterans who overcame a talent deficiency with an almost altruistic one-for-another attitude.
This Pats team is by no means a group of bad guys, but it does have superstars lined up all across the field. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez make for the most dynamic tight end duo in NFL history. Wes Welker works the slot like a magician.
Vince Wilfork eats people. Jerod Mayo flies around the field like a bat out of hell.
Still there is an aura of us-against-the-world that flows from Belichick and his Patriots squad. It should not throw any opponent off their game. But it may be enough to help Brady and Belichick return to the sight of their original honeymoon.
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 3/1
Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan. That is the hierarchical structure in Atlanta. It is a group of strong, hard-working men—each who seem to be quite classy.
But classy doesn’t win always win playoff games. The saying "nice guys finish last" is somewhat true.
In 2012, the Falcons finished first in the NFC South and the entire NFC. 13-3 earned them the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the right to play every game short of the Super Bowl in their own dome.
That isn’t quite as advantageous as it seems, though. The team was 7-1 at the dome, but its’ margin of victory in those games was lower than in its road contests. If you take out the 34-0 stomping of the Giants in Week 15—which you must because it is a statistical outlier—the team won its home games by an average of 5.7 points per game.
Of those victories, the largest margin was a 10-point difference over the Saints in a game where Drew Brees uncharacteristically made six mistakes—five bonehead interceptions and one brutal clock mismanagement.
Of the other victories, none were impressive—a six-point victory over Denver came in Week 2 before Peyton Manning was fully back and threw three first-quarter interceptions, a two-point victory over Carolina where the Panthers gave the game away, and three extremely narrow escapes against Oakland, Dallas and Arizona—none of whom made the playoffs.
In other words, things must change quickly for the Falcons at home, or they will face another offseason of questions about whether they can win the “big one.”
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 5/1
The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl two seasons ago with essentially the same cast of characters as the team currently possesses. Mike McCarthy and his players have matured since then as a result of being one of the most stable franchises in sports.
Yet Aaron Rodgers has been criticized at times this season by McCarthy and others for a variety of different reasons. Many claim that Rodgers is leaving plays on the field, and could be more aggressive.
All one must do to dispute that is to harken back to the first half of the Monday night game at Seattle to see how little time Rodgers had to throw the ball. Deep routes could not realistically be called, or Rodgers would have been killed.
The pass protection has improved but the rushing game was unable to find a back who could reach the relatively mediocre 500-yard plateau. As an entire team, Green Bay ran for 1,702 yards—better than 100 yards per game.
It has used a back-by-committee approach. As the season progressed Mr. Do-everything Randall Cobb was used in the backfield, which gave Green Bay a new offensive wrinkle that confounded defenses and eased the burden on Aaron Rodgers. The result was the fifth-highest scoring offense in the league at 27.1 points per game.
Defensively, the unit had its struggles but ended the season 11th in scoring defense at 21 points per game. With the return of Charles Woodson at safety, the rush defense improved mightily last week against the Adrian Petersons (Vikings).
If this team can put it all together for two weeks, it can easily win the NFC.
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 3/1
Jim Harbaugh brought a toughness to San Francisco that the NFL hasn’t seen in years. He has almost single-handedly slowed the league's movement towards a touch football seven-on-seven league to a game that still admires toughness, running the football and physical defense.
Because the NFL is a copycat league, others have tried to emulate his success. But the ultimate test will come in this year’s playoffs. If Harbaugh and his second-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, can buck recent trends, the NFL may just move back to a more balanced game.
Inserting the second-year Nevada alum has not come without controversy and second-guessing. But it was the decision that had to be made. Though Harbaugh is devastatingly stubborn, he recognized he needed someone to stretch the defense.
With deadly accuracy, Kaepernick is the most talented thrower of the football in the league—save maybe one, that being Robert Griffin III (those are the two most accurate deep throwers to come into the NFL in the past seven years).
The result is a more balanced offense in San Francisco which will still ground-and-pound opponents to death. But when the defense is least expecting it, Kaepernick will roll out and throw a bomb down the field.
It’s almost impossible to stop. It’s not fair.
The defense is pretty good, too. It’s a unit that makes up almost half of the NFC Pro Bowl roster, it seems. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman anchor it all. But without Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, the unit might not be as good.
The former’s health and effectiveness is a key to this teams’ playoff success. If he’s healthy, this team can easily make it to New Orleans. If not, it will be a much more difficult task.
Then there is Dashon Goldson on the back end to clean up any mistakes made up front. It is as complete a unit as the NFL has seen since the 2000 Ravens’ defense.
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 3/1
In year three, Pete Carroll has made the Seattle Seahawks legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Led by a dynamic defense—which makes life miserable for opposing offenses with the best secondary in football (Kam Chancellor is the weak link, if there is one)—the Seahawks are hot and playing the best football of anyone other than Denver.
Marshawn Lynch makes life easy for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Lynch is impossible to tackle in the open field. “Beast Mode” is no longer just a fancy moniker, but the essence of everything Lynch brings to the football field.
Wilson benefits from him, but is not simply riding the coattails of the veteran back. The former baseball player has brought a new dimension to Seattle’s offense. After starting the year slowly, Wilson has become as exciting and dynamic a two-way threat as Washington’s Robert Griffin III.
The result was a record-setting December for the Seahawks’ offense, in which it scored 40-plus points in three straight games and finished the month averaging 42.5 points per game.
The past two games have seen a slight regression back to the mean for the Seattle offense. No matter, the unit remains explosive and a worry for any defensive coordinator unlucky enough to be given the task to stop them.
If that group can just score 24 a game, Seattle will win the NFC.
The only factor that works against Seattle is its age. Because of it, they are not the NFC favorite. Still, they are a team that must be taken very seriously.
Chances of Making Super Bowl: 4/1