It's a six-horse race for the Super Bowl

Posted Dec. 27, 2011 @ 12:23 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

With a week to go in the 2011 NFL season, the playoffs are all but set. I know, I know ... Oakland and Denver are still trying to sort out the AFC West, and the final game of the season will be a one-game, winner-take-all play-in for the NFC East title between the Giants and Cowboys. And yes, either the Bengals, Jets, Titans, Raiders — or maybe the Shippensburg University Raiders — will claim the AFC's final wild-card spot. Actually, I guess Shippensburg was finally eliminated last weekend.

But the point is that, unlike recent seasons in which Cinderella teams like the No. 6 seed Packers have made magical runs to the Super Bowl, this year none of those clubs is relevant.

Yep, I'm setting up a scenario here where I could very well end up having to eat my hat and a huge serving of crow in four or five weeks, but at the moment I'm feeling pretty fearless. It is clear to me that the line has never been better-defined than it is this year between the haves and the have-nots in the playoffs. Sure, there may be an upset or two during the wild-card weekend, but by the time we get to the divisional playoffs, I can tell you with some certainty that the home teams will dominate those games.

Regardless of whether or not Oakland or Denver or Dallas or the Giants end up division champs, none of them will be clear favorites in their wild-card weekend games, and the only reason the Giants or Cowboys might be able to win one would be if the stage is simply too big for the young Detroit Lions, who are likely to be the No. 5 seed in the NFC. The AFC West winner is going to get either the Steelers or Ravens, and in spite of the Ravens' struggles moving "Westward Ho" this year, the West champ will be one-and-done.

Can the Bengals, the Jets or any of the other AFC No. 6 seed hopefuls go into Houston and come out with a win? No, not this year. And the idea of either Atlanta or Detroit going into New Orleans and upsetting the Saints during the opening week of the playoffs just makes me smile.

The one wild-card team with a chance to do some serious damage, I believe, would be the Steelers, if they, in fact, end up the No. 5 seed in the AFC. As I've said, I believe the Ravens would win their opener as a wild card, but I just don't see them going into New England a week later and scaring the Patriots as inconsistent as the Ravens' offense has been.

As for the NFC's and AFC's respective No. 3 seeds, it does get slightly more interesting here. Can the Texans win a second playoff game if they advance out of the wild-card weekend? That is where I believe the stage would get frighteningly big for T.J. Yates, and the answer would be no. New Orleans and San Francisco, either of which could be the NFC's third seed, are teams that should scare anybody they might face in the playoffs, but it appears obvious to me they will meet — most likely in San Francisco — in the divisional playoff round, and the winner of that game will go to Lambeau Field for the NFC title game. I don't know if the Saints can win at Candlestick, but if they do, they are the club that poses the biggest hurdle for the Packers to clear in order to reach Indianapolis.

Ironically, in the AFC it is most likely the No. 2 seed, let's say the Ravens, that will get the easier draw in the divisional playoffs, with the Texans heading there and the Steelers most likely going to New England. I'll need a little more information and tape to watch before I'm ready to call Pats or Steelers in that matchup.

But here's what we know, or at least what I think we know. The contestants in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis will come from among the Packers, 49ers, Saints, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers. While my hat is off to Houston and Detroit for the huge leaps they've made this year, they're still a step removed from the NFL's crème de la crème, and the rest of this year's playoff contingent will be strictly wannabes.