NFL Nation: NFC Super Bowl nominees 2012

Can the Giants make the Super Bowl?

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
1:00
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» NFC: Giants | 49ers | Packers | Falcons » AFC: Patriots | Broncos | Ravens | Texans


Asking whether the New York Giants can reach the Super Bowl is like asking whether your kid can clean up his room in time for company. You've seen him do it, and it doesn't seem like that long ago, but the way the room looks right now makes it hard to believe.

The Giants bring all the résumé you want from your Super Bowl contender. Top quarterback with big-game experience? Check. Eli Manning has two Super Bowl MVP awards, including the most recent, and there's no doubting his big-game chops. Experienced coach who knows how to motivate his team down the stretch and navigate the postseason? Check. Tom Coughlin may have locked up a spot in the Hall of Fame last season when he led the Giants on the second surprise Super Bowl run of his career.

The Giants are built to win in the modern NFL, with a high-octane passing offense and a fearsome pass rush off of which the rest of the defense works. The issue they're having right now is that Manning and his receivers aren't clicking, and a few of those pass-rushers aren't getting to the passer.

Whatever. We've seen it before. This time last year, Osi Umenyiora was hurt and everyone was asking what was wrong with Justin Tuck. They showed up in time to save the season. This year, they'll hit Thanksgiving with a lead in a weak-looking division and a nice, comfortable cushion to allow them to fix their problems.

And all the Giants have to do is make the field. Once they get in, they'll be the team no one wants to play -- the team that went to Green Bay and San Francisco last season and won postseason games by playing more physically than they had all year and by refusing to turn the ball over. The reason the Giants can make the Super Bowl is that the way they're playing now says nothing about the way they can and probably will play in January. Barring a major collapse that keeps them out of the playoffs (something that would require the Cowboys to play much better the rest of the way than they have so far), the Giants should make the NFC playoff field. And once they do that, they're more than capable of flipping a switch and playing their best football at the right time.

Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul are all superstars in their prime, the kind of guys who can wreck playoff games in anyone's building. They may have the worst current record among the league's first-place teams, but they're as big a threat to make the Super Bowl as any team out there.

Can the Packers make the Super Bowl?

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
1:00
PM ET
» NFC: Giants | 49ers | Packers | Falcons » AFC: Patriots | Broncos | Ravens | Texans

The assignment for each NFL blogger was to argue the chances of one divisional team to reach the Super Bowl. That put me in a bit of a predicament, considering the NFC North has two of the top championship contenders in the entire league.

The Chicago Bears are 7-2, have the NFL's best defense and were ranked No. 3 overall in the ESPN.com's most recent Power Rankings. The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, are 6-3 and ranked No. 6 in those same rankings. The Packers have a young defense that can be expected to continue its improvement. They also figure to get an infusion of injured players back on the field for the stretch run, a list that includes defensive back Charles Woodson, receiver Greg Jennings and linebacker Clay Matthews.

Historically, one of the most reliable measures of championship contention is passer rating/QBR differential -- the difference between a team's offensive passer rating (or QBR) and the passer rating/QBR allowed by its defense. The Bears rank fifth in the NFL at 25.4, while the Packers rank sixth at 19.9. Those figures are close enough that all we can conclude is both teams are well-heeled for a championship run based on historical trends.

In the end, this decision could come down to a value choice. The Bears have a relatively high differential because their pass defense has allowed the second-lowest QBR in the league. They've intercepted 19 passes, allowed only eight touchdown passes and have 26 sacks. Overall, the Bears defense has also scored six touchdowns and is averaging 3.3 takeaways per game.

The Packers' differential, of course, is based mostly on quarterback Aaron Rodgers' QBR of 72.3. (Rodgers has thrown 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions, completing 67 percent of his passes.)

So what's more important to a championship team? Elite-level quarterback play or an elite-level defense? Some will tell you there is nothing more important than a quarterback in the playoffs, just as a hot point guard can dominate the postseason in basketball. Others contend that elite defense trumps high-flying offenses in January football.

That leaves us facing an exceptionally difficult choice. For me, it comes down to projecting which asset is most likely to continue functioning at its current levels.

In that context, I'm choosing Rodgers. We're pretty comfortable with what he can do. It is not difficult to envision him maintaining his current pace.

Is it reasonable to expect the Bears to continue scoring and forcing turnovers at its current historic rate? To me, that's less likely than expecting Rodgers to finish the season as well as he is playing now. That's why I'm choosing the Packers, in case the headline didn't register.

Can the Falcons make the Super Bowl?

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
1:00
PM ET
» NFC: Giants | 49ers | Packers | Falcons » AFC: Patriots | Broncos | Ravens | Texans

After a loss to New Orleans on Sunday, a lot of people started to write off Atlanta as “the same old Falcons."

You know, the team that can’t win the big one. The team that hasn’t won a single playoff game since the arrivals of coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008.

I’m not jumping on that bandwagon because, despite what happened Sunday, I think this is a different Atlanta team. I think the Falcons are going to the Super Bowl.

That belief doesn’t stem simply from the fact that I have to pick one NFC South team to reach the Super Bowl for this post. I honestly believe the Falcons will reach the Super Bowl, and I think what happened against the Saints will help get them there.

The close loss to their biggest rival might be just what the Falcons needed to start moving toward their full potential. That’s something they hadn’t done in their first eight games. They came into New Orleans undefeated, but too many of those victories were close calls against inferior teams.

The Falcons might be the most talented team in football, but they’ve put together only a couple of complete games this season. For a bit, that had me wondering whether they really were the same old Falcons. I was starting to wonder whether Smith was the second coming of Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay just over a decade ago -- too nice of a guy to be able to win the big ones.

But I like the way Smith reacted to the loss in New Orleans. On Monday, the Falcons released highly paid but underachieving defensive end Ray Edwards. They did the same sort of thing the week before when they released starting fullback Lousaka Polite.

Edwards and Polite simply weren’t getting the job done. In the past, Smith might have turned a blind eye. But this isn’t last year.

Much has been made about how new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan have brought a new attitude on both sides of the ball. There’s some truth to that.

But the biggest change of all is Smith. In a league where nice guys finish last, or at least lose in the playoffs, Smith is taking a tougher approach.

That’s sending a clear message to the Falcons that the status quo isn’t good enough. Smith knows it and the players know it, and that’s why the Falcons will reach the Super Bowl.

Can the 49ers make the Super Bowl?

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
1:00
PM ET
» NFC: Giants | 49ers | Packers | Falcons » AFC: Patriots | Broncos | Ravens | Texans

We're singling out one team from each division for Super Bowl consideration with seven weeks remaining in the 2012 regular season.

The San Francisco 49ers have for some time been the only NFC West team worth our consideration on that subject. Recent events suggest the Seattle Seahawks are gaining on them. The 49ers haven't looked quite as good lately, while the Seahawks have, by all appearances, an ascending young quarterback and bright prospects.

I'm expecting both teams to reach the postseason, but the 49ers remain the team to beat in this division. We all saw how close they came to the Super Bowl last season. They might own the best offensive line in the NFL. They've added weapons to address the third-down issues that factored heavily into their troubles against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. For stretches, they have played like the best team in the NFL.

We know how good the 49ers can be. I'll be watching to see how they fare in a few areas before anointing them for a championship run:
  • QB health: Alex Smith started 18 games last season, counting playoffs. His line is playing very well, but Smith still has taken more sacks (68) than any quarterback since the start of last season. I wondered before the season whether he would hold up as well, given Smith's injury history and the difficulty quarterbacks have staying healthy in general. The concussion Smith suffered against St. Louis in Week 10 renews those questions. Smith suffered the concussion on a fourth-and-1 sneak. The 49ers might not have been in that situation if Smith hadn't taken a 7-yard sack on the same set of downs. His protection was poor on that sack.
  • Defensive staying power: Defense remains a strength of the 49ers, but fatigue is a potential concern. The 49ers entered the season with the NFL's oldest starting defensive line. They have gone through this season relying on 10 of their 11 defensive starters to play 90-plus percent of the snaps. That is a league-high figure. Might the defensive core wear down as the playoffs approach? Three of the 49ers' past four opponents have produced a 100-yard rusher against a defense that almost never permitted them previously. Opposing quarterbacks have fared better overall against the 49ers this season. That's apparent in the chart, which shows San Francisco dropping from fourth last season to 15th this season in Total QBR allowed.
  • Freeing up Davis: Tight end Vernon Davis had 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns in two playoff games last season. He has largely disappeared as a receiving target in recent weeks. Offensive diversification could explain some of the change. Davis remains the most dynamic offensive weapon on the team, however. Re-establishing him as a threat would only help the 49ers' championship chances.

Those are a few things to consider longer term. We'll also find out what the other NFC West teams have to say about the matter. The 49ers still have divisional road games against Seattle and St. Louis, plus trips to New Orleans and New England.

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