Are we looking at the next Super Bowl winner when Sunday's NFL Wild Card Round games kick off?
As parity has increased throughout the league, it's becoming easier and easier for those in the opening round of the playoffs to go all the way. The "any given Sunday" axiom has never held more true.
Perhaps one of the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers will make it all the way to MetLife Stadium and be the world champions. A case could be made that every team alive in the postseason has a chance of winning the Super Bowl.
But some are better positioned than others. While every team could win, the reality is that you can discount at least a couple of teams because of glaring problems.
Using the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down method, here are the Super Bowl chances for the four teams in action on Sunday.
Cincinnati Bengals: Thumbs in the Middle
The variance for this team is so extreme.
In each of the last two seasons, the Bengals have been bounced in the Wild Card Round. Andy Dalton looked particularly bad, throwing four interceptions and zero touchdowns. Jermaine Gresham dropped key passes, and AJ Green was largely anonymous.
If that's not bad enough, Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, which is the longest drought of any NFL franchise.
However, this is a team equally capable of winning the Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens were heading into last year's postseason.
The defense has withstood injuries to Leon Hall and Geno Atkins, yet it remains one of the best in the league.
Giovani Bernard is also the X-factor that this offense has been crying out for over the last few years.
You can see the Bengals getting to MetLife Stadium, but it's not a prediction you can make with much confidence. As a result, their stock is firmly in the middle.
Green Bay Packers: Thumbs Down
Head coach Mike McCarthy noted the obvious difference, per Genaro C. Adams of the Associated Press (via Madison.com). "He runs our offense at a very, very high level," McCarthy said. "When he's on the field we're different."
The problem is that Rodgers can't play defense. Green Bay's defense is shaky at best and terrible at worst. Having an elite defensive unit isn't as important as it once was, but you still need to make enough stops, and you wonder on whom the Packers can call to do that, especially with Clay Matthews out.
Green Bay could get a home win over the 49ers, but anything more than that is a stretch.
San Diego Chargers: Thumbs Down
Take what was said about the Packers and double it for the San Diego Chargers. Football Outsiders ranks San Diego dead last in defensive DVOA. There's no way a team with this bad of a defense can win the Super Bowl, no matter how good the offense is.
And the Chargers offense has been pretty good.
Philip Rivers is in the midst of a career year. He's thrown for more yards (4,478) than he ever has in a single season on his highest-ever completion percentage (69.5). His 32 touchdowns are the second-most in a season for Rivers as well.
Ryan Mathews has also put it together this season and displayed the consistency his game had been lacking coming into 2013.
All of that offensive talent is wasted, though, with the porous nature of San Diego's defense, and it's a problem that will curtail the Chargers' playoff hopes.
San Francisco 49ers: Thumbs Up
I'll admit that I had some reservations about the 49ers for much of this season. I wondered if Colin Kaepernick could lead San Francisco to the promised land if he wasn't the dual-threat monster he was in 2012.
Then the Niners beat the Seattle Seahawks 19-17 in Week 14. It was an ugly, physical game, and San Francisco was the uglier, more physical team and looked like a team capable of winning the Super Bowl.
The defense remains tough, and the offense, especially Kaepernick. has been much better since Michael Crabtree's return.
Whether or not the 49ers can go into CenturyLink Field remains an issue, but you could say that about any other NFC team.
On personnel and experience, San Francisco has what it takes to go all the way.
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