- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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When rating the 12 playoff teams this year, there is a huge gap between No. 1 and the rest of the group. The Colts are that much better than everyone else, and, in my opinion, it's not even close. As strong as the Patriots have been in earning their three Super Bowls in the last four years, this appears to be the Colts' year.
Thus, the mission here is to rank the teams' chances of reaching the Super Bowl. These aren't power rankings. These are my rankings of the teams' chances. The Seahawks have a great chance, because they are at home. Home-field advantage is huge during the playoffs. Coming off one of the best home regular seasons in 20 years, that shouldn't change this year. But there will some road teams that win. I have the Bengals rated ahead of the Steelers, but I think the Steelers have a chance to pull off the upset. The Steelers are better than a No. 6 seed. They could be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. But the Steelers lost their running personality in the middle of the season and stumbled, losing three straight games.
The Redskins are an interesting team. The NFC is different than the AFC. There isn't much of a talent gap between No. 1 and No. 6. The Redskins could pull off the upset at Tampa Bay. Look at their record against NFC playoff teams home and away.
The Patriots are dangerous, but I don't think they will make the Super Bowl. They've lost too many games against good teams.
Here is how I rank the 12 teams in terms of their chances of getting to Super Bowl XL in Detroit:
1. Indianapolis Colts: Sunday's goal line stand by the Colts' defense was huge in what was an emotional win for Tony Dungy, who returned to the team Thursday after missing a week because of the death of his son, James. What was important is that it gave the team a victory heading into the playoffs, instead of a three-game losing streak. It also was important because the Colts defense stepped up.
At 14-2, the Colts are the team to beat for the Super Bowl, and good luck trying to beat them. They have an offense that has maximized its efficiency. In normal games, they average 10 offensive possessions and usually can come up with four touchdown drives and a field goal or two. That's expected. Peyton Manning has been running this offense for about five years, and in the playoffs, he will be even more dangerous. For one, he'll be at home in the RCA Dome for two games. In the Super Bowl, if the Colts advance, they again will be in a dome. Manning likes controlled action. He has played with a lead most of the season. He's a hard worker and will spend the next two weeks working on the timing of his routes.
The biggest jump this year for the Colts was on defense. They allowed only 15.4 points a game this year, and Sunday's win over the Cardinals was a great closing game. Playing without three starters on the defensive line and two playmakers in the back seven -- linebacker Cato June and safety Bob Sanders -- the defense played well. They stopped the Cardinals in the red zone all day. The key during the playoffs is playing with the lead, something the Colts have done all year. This is one of the strongest Super Bowl contenders in years. It's going to be hard to knock them out.
2. Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks may not be the second-best team in football, but they have the next-best chance of taking home the title. Clinching home-field advantage means they are at Qwest Field, where they are unbeaten and have a boisterous crowd that can cause a lot of false starts by opposing offensive linemen. Think about it for a second. Who is good enough in the NFC to come into Seattle and beat the Seahawks? The Bears have the defense to slow down Seattle's 28.2 points-per-game offense, but if the Seahawks can stay away from turnovers and the short fields that go with them, their defense can stop the Bears in the red zone and limit them to field goals. The Panthers have an inconsistent running attack. The Bucs won't have the offensive line to overpower the Seahawks. The Giants already have lost in Seattle, despite outplaying the Seahawks, and now, they've lost almost their entire linebacking corps.
The key for the Seahawks is the combination of Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander. Even though Alexander led the NFL with 1,880 yards and an NFL record 28 touchdowns, the Seahawks, under Mike Holmgren, use the pass to set up the run. It's more important for them to move the ball through the air. Where the home-field advantage really makes them good is in the red zone. Alexander scores touchdowns on roughly 40 percent of his red-zone carries. If the Seahawks can hold opponents to field goals because of their good red-zone defense, they should be able to pull out close victories. Sure, the Seahawks are a beatable team, but good luck beating them in Seattle.
3. Denver Broncos: They have been under the radar all season, but the Broncos are good. They've survived a brutal schedule. Of the teams that played 10 or more games against winning teams, the Broncos had the best record at 7-3. They have been battle-tested. They gained their confidence winning their first five games against winning teams at home. Like a golfer who grooved his swing, Mike Shanahan found the sweet spot with his offense. He tries to limit Jake Plummer to 26 or fewer passes per game, which minimizes his chances of turning the ball over. The one-two punch on the ground of Mike Anderson (1,014 yards) and Tatum Bell (921 yards) is pretty effective, particularly at home.
In addition to a strong offense, the Broncos might have the most underrated defense in the playoffs. They only give up 16.1 points a game. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer mixes zone blitzes with straight rushes by a talented group of defensive linemen. Champ Bailey is the game's best cornerback, and he has helped a young group of rookies, led by Darrent Williams, through a lot of tough games and big victories. Their problem could be a potential matchup with the Colts in the RCA Dome in the AFC Championship game. The Colts blew them out in the past two years in the dome, and Peyton Manning will have a big advantage against the Broncos' young secondary.
4. Chicago Bears: Defensively, the Bears are the Monsters of the Midway, and they have a home playoff game, which puts them behind only the Seahawks in the NFC race for the Super Bowl. This is a better Bears team than the one that went 13-3 in 2001 under Dick Jauron and lost its playoff opener in the divisional round. This defense has so much speed, it matches up against just about every offense in the NFC. It has the speed to stop the Bucs' West Coast offense. It has the run-stopping ability to make the Panthers one-dimensional, forcing Jake Delhomme into passing situations and mistakes. The Bears have beaten the Panthers in Chicago and the Bucs in Tampa. Plus, they are more dangerous with Rex Grossman at quarterback. He has a quick release and, unlike Kyle Orton, he gets the ball to Muhsin Muhammad downfield.
But the Bears' weakness is clearly their offense, and that could cost them a chance to go to the Super Bowl. In the NFC, you need to have an offense that can score 20 points in playoff games. The Bears' defense is good enough to win a home game in a low-scoring affair, but it may be tough for them to do it in Seattle. Now, if the Seahawks lose their first playoff game, the Bears could have the upper hand in representing the NFC in Detroit.
5. New England Patriots: Don't underestimate Bill Belichick. The Patriots survived a tough schedule. They survived six season-ending injuries to key members of their secondary. Corey Dillon has been fighting injuries all season. But they get a decent first-round matchup against Jacksonville, a good defensive team that has uncertainty at quarterback. Byron Leftwich hasn't played since breaking his ankle Nov. 27 and will be rusty. That's not good when you're going against a Belichick defense. The Patriots have cleaned up a lot of their problems against good running teams with the return of defensive end Richard Seymour. Plus, they should have linebacker Tedy Bruschi available in the playoffs.
Still, this doesn't have the look of a Super Bowl team, because it does have problems. But the Patriots should be in the AFC's Final Four, and you know Belichick will come up with a great game plan for the Colts. However, Indy should be able to exploit the Patriots' secondary, which has serious concerns heading into the playoffs. The Patriots are at their healthiest all season, but they'll have to win three games to get to the Super Bowl, and that will be tough.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are one of three NFC teams that usually play things pretty close to the vest offensively. But Jon Gruden is a great offensive mind and can be unpredictable at times. The Panthers, Redskins and Bucs usually keep six or seven blockers in to protect the quarterback, relying on one main receiver to carry the passing game. But despite his woes along the offensive line, Gruden has some talent to work with.
Joey Galloway has great deep speed and had a Pro Bowl year (83 catches, 1,287 yards, 10 touchdowns). Cadillac Williams was the league's best offensive rookie, rushing for 1,178 yards rushing and averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Gruden can move the chains.
The Bucs have an interesting matchup in the first round against the Redskins, whom they beat 36-35 in Tampa. Quarterback Chris Simms has gained a lot of confidence in the second half of the season, and he should keep getting better. He's not going to be as rattled by pressure packages as he was earlier in the season. The Bucs are a dangerous team.
7. Cincinnati Bengals: There will be years in the near future when the Bengals are much higher on this list. This isn't the year. Hey, it's a playoff game in Cincinnati. Enjoy it, just don't go overboard. Marvin Lewis has done things right with his offense. Quarterback Carson Palmer is great in the no-huddle. The combination of running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver Chad Johnson is hard to stop. The offensive line is underrated and very good.
But the defense? Well, it needs another draft. The Bengals lost their final two games heading into the playoffs, and the defense looks like it is running out of gas. It's feast or famine with this defense. They had an incredible 31 interceptions, but they gave up 21 touchdown passes. Over the final seven weeks, the Bengals gave up almost 31 points a game. They give up 4.3 yards per rush and 11.6 yards per pass. It's hard to go to the Super Bowl when you have to try to win shootouts each week. Ask the Colts about last year. The Bengals are emerging as a younger version of the Colts, which should bode well for future years -- just not this year.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers: Sixth seeds usually don't go far, but this is a very good sixth seed, and the Steelers may have the best chance to pull an upset in the playoffs. They've already won in Cincinnati, and they battled hard in a 38-31 loss to the Bengals in Pittsburgh in which Ben Roethlisberger was just adjusting to throwing with a protector on his injured right thumb. The Bengals are vulnerable to teams with powerful running games. That's why it's important for Cincinnati to get out to a lead and put the Steelers into a passing mode.
Pittsburgh's defense also can create turnovers with Dick LeBeau's zone blitzes. If the Steelers can get past the Bengals, they would give the Colts a pretty good battle. Some of the nickel pass defenses used by LeBeau against the Colts in a Monday night loss in Week 12 caused Manning a lot of frustration. The Steelers may be one of the best sixth seeds in years.
9. New York Giants: The Giants are running out of gas, but even more importantly, they are running out of linebackers. They are patching things together with players signed off the street. When Nick Greisen was hurt against the Raiders on Saturday, New York was playing without any of the six linebackers who started the season on the roster. With a rookie cornerback starting (Corey Webster) and a new linebacking corps, plus the youth of Eli Manning, who continues to struggle with his accuracy on short passes, it's hard to see how the Giants can win more than one playoff game this year. They could squeak out a home win, but they aren't that good on the road.
The health of linebacker Antonio Pierce is vital. He has a high ankle sprain, but the Giants got a slight break by having an extra day to prepare. They play on Sunday against the Panthers. The Giants will have to rely on Tiki Barber, as they did during the stretch, to advance a game or two into the playoffs, but that probably won't be enough to get them to Detroit.
10. Carolina Panthers: Too bad they aren't playing the Atlanta Falcons in the postseason. DeShaun Foster's only two 100-yard games of the season were against the Falcons. For the Panthers to be a factor, they need a solid running game. It hasn't been there consistently, so it's hard to figure this team can string together three road wins to advance to the Super Bowl. John Fox has his most talented defense since he's been in Carolina, but it's not his best at stopping the run. That could a problem against Barber and the Giants.
11. Washington Redskins: The Redskins might have the biggest concerns coming off the short week. Cornerback Shawn Springs has a groin injury. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has a slightly torn biceps muscle. Linebacker Lemar Marshall is hurt. But the Redskins have Joe Gibbs, and he gives them a chance to win. If they do get a win in the first round over the Bucs, they could be a dangerous team in the second round. The Redskins play hard and are one of the hardest-hitting teams in the NFC.
Mark Brunell did surprisingly well for a quarterback playing with a medial collateral knee injury, and he's experienced in the playoffs. That could be an asset. Clinton Portis and Santana Moss are big-play threats and will be hard to stop. What makes the Redskins dangerous is their offensive line. Despite the loss of guard Randy Thomas for the season, the line blocks well and can dominate. The Redskins already have beaten the Bears, Seahawks and Giants, and they lost to the Bucs by just one point in November. If you're looking for an underdog, look at the Redskins. They were 5-6 at one point but now enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars: Maybe I'm not giving a 12-win team enough credit, but I have a hard time thinking the Jaguars can go into New England and win. Still, Jack Del Rio has done a great job with this team. They have a physical defense. They have two of the best defensive tackles in football -- John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.
But it's the offense that is suspect. Their wide receivers have faded in the second half of the season. The Jaguars are at their best when they ride Fred Taylor, but he has been banged up and inconsistent. Plus, Del Rio faces a big decision at quarterback. Does he start Leftwich, who has been out since Nov. 27, or does he stay with David Garrard. With Garrard, Jacksonville would have a hard time scoring 20 points in New England. If they can't get 20 against Tom Brady, the Jaguars will be one-and-out in the playoffs.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4dEric D. Williams
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