Eight teams have already punched their tickets to the NFL Playoffs. They are:
- Denver Broncos
- New England Patriots
- Seattle Seahawks
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Indianapolis Colts
- Carolina Panthers
- San Francisco 49ers
- Kansas City Chiefs
Of these eight teams, which are the best? Which teams stand the best chance of making the trip to the Meadowlands?
We'll rank the eight teams that have already clinched, focusing on the success of their regular season and their viability as a Super Bowl contender.
Do they have a defense that can make big stops? Do they have an offense that can convert third-and-longs? All will be considered. Read on to find out.
1. Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning is not human.
It's the only explanation. Even his biggest rival, Tom Brady, is heaping on praise, saying in a radio interview on WEEI in Boston (via Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com):
It's an incredible feat. To throw 50 like we did in 2007 was incredible. [Dan] Marino threw 48, then Peyton threw 49, and I was lucky enough to be on the team to throw 50. And 51 is unbelievable through 15 games, they've been throwing at an incredible pace, and what they've done offensively and certainly in the passing game has been incredible.
We all know what this offense can do.
I worry more about the defense, a unit that gives up 258.6 yards per game in the air, which is ranked 28th in the league. They've only allowed less than 20 points in two games this season.
Can they stop Tom Brady on third-and-short? They had enough trouble trying to stop Philip Rivers.
They've proven they can win in a shootout. But now they have to do it without Von Miller:
Call me a bit skeptical of their defense, but it's hard to doubt Peyton Manning.
2. New England Patriots
Call me a contrarian, but I think Tom Brady should win the MVP.
Yes, I know, Peyton Manning has been historically good.
But it must be nice throwing to Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Demariyus Thomas.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, has had only 11 games of Danny Amendola and only seven games of Rob Gronkowski.
Despite that, he's thrown for 4,221 yards and 24 touchdowns. His leading receiver is Julian Edelman, with 991 yards.
Brady seems to realize just how good of a season it's been for the Pats, telling Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com:
Every year is special, but we've really earned it this year. The NFL has a lot of stiff competition. Winning 11 games is very hard. We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have, too, but our mental toughness has really gotten us through this. ... We've shown that we can hang together all year.
So while I may be the only one floating the idea of a Brady MVP, given just how good he's been, with what he has had to work with, it's not that far-fetched.
3. Seattle Seahawks
We know what the Seahawks are. They play devastatingly good defense, ranking 1st in passing yards allowed and 13th in rushing yards allowed.
Marshawn Lynch is a terrific running back who has rushed for 1,160 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Russell Wilson possesses a moxie beyond his years.
What's most concerning, however, is the fact that they have lost two of their last three, including at home to the Arizona Cardinals.
Still, it's hard to find too many flaws with a team that has dominated most opponents.
Should the 'Hawks lock up home field advantage, it's hard to see a team coming into Seattle and winning. The Seahawks have lost just once at home.
But do you think that Russell Wilson can beat Peyton Manning in a duel? What about Tom Brady?
There's a reason I have the Seahawks ranked behind those two teams.
4. Carolina Panthers
I'm on the Panthers bandwagon.
That's right. I said it. Deal with it.
The Panthers are second in rush defense, giving up just 87.7 yards per game. They are seventh in pass defense, giving up just 213.2 yards per game. They are 11th in rushing offense, rushing for 126.1 yards per game on the ground.
They have beaten the New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins. Their only bad loss was in Week 2 to the Buffalo Bills.
The players are all in. Safety Mike Mitchell told David Newton of ESPN, "We're for real, man. We're not here to play around. We're here to win it all."
Left tackle Jordan Gross echoed that sentiment, also telling Newton, "The thing we've proven to ourselves and everybody else is you never stop believing. Our team is legitimately good. I don't think we've lucked our way into this."
With a win this week against Atlanta, the Panthers will clinch a first-round bye and the second seed. This from a team that started 1-3.
They have it all. A top-notch defense. A bruising running game. A quarterback who can make all the throws.
Yes, they are a legitimate contender to win it all.
5. San Francisco 49ers
It seems like the San Francisco 49ers are back on track.
They rank in the top five in rushing yards, rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed. They have won five straight.
They have the game's best big-game running back in Frank Gore, who has rushed for 1,114 yards this season. They have the game's most reliable receiver in Anquan Boldin, who has recorded 1,030 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two of the game's best linebackers.
The only question is Collin Kaepernick.
The team averages just 179.1 yards per game in the air, and Kaepernick has thrown for just 2,887 yards. Can he convert on third-and-long with heavy pressure? Can he throw a jump ball accurately with Richard Sherman draped over Michael Crabtree?
I'm not sure. Kaepernick hasn't exactly lit the world on fire this year. He's not the sensation he was last year.
But like last year, they have the formula for a winning team: great defense, great run game and a quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over.
Yes, the Niners are quite dangerous.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have flown under the radar this year, but they are 10-5 with wins over New England, Green Bay and Indianapolis.
Andy Dalton has had a very good year, throwing for 4,015 yards and 31 touchdowns. A.J. Green is the best receiver not named Calvin Johnson, and has recorded 1,365 yards.
Giovani Bernard is an exciting big-play threat, who averages 4.3 yards per carry.
And the defense is quite stingy, ranking sixth in pass yards allowed and sixth in rush yards allowed. Vontaze Burfict leads the league in tackles.
Chris Burke of SI.com thinks they could be a Super Bowl contender:
Am I crazy or do the Bengals look like a legitimate threat to win the Super Bowl all of a sudden? They stunk up the joint at Pittsburgh in Week 15, but they're 4-1 in their last five, and Andy Dalton has 10 touchdowns to one INT in December.
No, he's not crazy.
They have all the ingredients. If they learn from their playoff mistakes from the last few years, they could make a run. Don't take the Bengals too lightly.
7. Indianapolis Colts
What a weird season it's been for the Indianapolis Colts.
They have beaten such contenders as the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos and Chiefs.
Yet they have lost to the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins.
So what gives?
Coach Chuck Pagano offered an explanation and potential solution, telling Michael Marot of the Associated Press:
Everybody we play is good, you know that. Every team that you play is good, they've all got great players and so forth, so the margin for error is minute. But that doesn't mean that we're going to go out there and play cautious and those types of things. I think we've just got to get back to playing football and playing better fundamentals and techniques and doing the things that we did early in the season.
But will getting back to fundamentals really help this team?
Yes, Andrew Luck has been fantastic, but is he going to put his hand in the dirt and help a run defense that gives up 130.7 yards per game, which is 22nd in the league.
Jerrell Freeman and Antoine Bethea have been rocks on defense with 118 and 110 tackles, respectively. But the next leading tackler has just 81 stops. If you want to find a reason for the inconsistency, it lies in the defense.
Having a quarterback like Andrew Luck does help. He's thrown for 3,540 yards, 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Luck is good enough to win a game in a shootout.
But do you really expect the Colts to stop the Broncos again? Do you really believe in the ability of the defense to stop Marshawn Lynch on third-and-short?
The answer, quite frankly, is no.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
After starting the season 9-0, the Chiefs have suddenly lost four of their last six, their last two victories coming against such lowly teams as the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders.
So was the 9-0 start a mirage? Cornerback Dunta Robinson didn't mince words, telling reporters (via Arrowhead Pride):
OK, you dominate Oakland, yeah, you dominate the Redskins, but what are you going to do when we face other powerhouses? We're a much better team than what we showed today and we have to play like it.
The Chiefs best win this season is probably against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3, although that was back when Michael Vick was the starter.
The Chiefs have beaten just two teams with a .500 or better record. That's right. Two teams.
So we have to take this team with a huge heaping of salt. They have not beaten anybody really good. They lost twice to Denver and lost convincingly to Indianapolis.
Do you really trust this team to suddenly find a way to beat good teams in the playoffs? How can you?