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Friday, December 14, 2012
Updated: December 15, 9:41 PM ET
Endangered, but also dangerous

By Greg Garber

Sure, the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans have had terrific seasons, but if you're looking for the teams that will matriculate to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, cast your eyes a little further down those standings.

Recent history tells us the team scuffling and scraping for a playoff berth in mid-December is often the smoking-hot team you don't want to play in January.

"One of the problems you have with teams that have these great records is they get out of their rhythm," said former running back Jerome Bettis, whose 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers parlayed a No. 6 seed into the Vince Lombardi Trophy. "When you get a team that's been in playoff mode for five weeks, they become battle-tested, they're hardened, they've gone through adversity.

"As the top seed, you haven't."

The last team to finish with the best regular-season record and win the Super Bowl? The 2003 New England Patriots. Since then? Anarchy.

In 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the best regular-season record (15-1), but lost to the Patriots in the AFC title game. Those unlikely 2005 Steelers were a wild card but started a trend; wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl three times in seven years. Like the NHL (when they're actually playing games), the clever teams have learned to bide their time through most of the regular season, then finish in a burst

"We gave the blueprint," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, "and a lot of teams picked up what we put out there."

Three teams with the league's best regular-season record in that time -- the 2006 Chargers (14-2), 2008 Titans (13-3) and 2010 Patriots (14-2) -- lost their first playoff game, at home, after a week off. That pattern looms ominously for the Falcons and Texans.

From 1990 to 2004, the top seed in each conference was 25-5 in its first playoff game that followed a bye. Since then, the top seed has gone 6-8 in the first playoff game; only once in that span have both No. 1 seeds advanced to the conference championship.

The 2007 Patriots were 16-0, and you know what happened to them. The same Giants franchise that stunned New England in Arizona did it again last year after winning its last two regular-season games to (barely) take the NFC East title at 9-7.

"At 7-7 we kind of said, `OK, we're not going to make any more excuses, we're not going to care what happened in the past,' " said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. "I think that every guy on that team was all-in and willing to go that extra mile to help our team win.

"That created momentum because we all trusted each other. We were all of one accord."

Added Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, "The teams that struggle understand what it takes, how hard they had to fight through the losses all season."

Which begs the question: With three games left to play in the regular season, who are those squirrelly teams playing with momentum?

For purposes of this discussion, we'll bypass the four teams that clinched playoff berths in Week 13 and the three hottest teams in good position to join them -- the 9-3-1 San Francisco 49ers and the 9-4 Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts.

Washington Redskins (7-6): A three-game losing streak dropped the Redskins to an untenable 3-6, but they've won four straight games since and are officially the hottest team in the league yet to clinch a postseason berth.

Robert Griffin
Washington is officially the league's hottest team, but will Robert Griffin III be too hobbled to lead them to the playoffs?

But … that huge asterisk hanging over Washington is the sprained right knee of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, suffered in a 31-28 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. When all 330 pounds of Haloti Ngata crashed into Griffin, it looked like a season-ender. The Redskins sounded hopeful that RG III will play again soon, but he is not expected to start Sunday.

If Griffin doesn't play Sunday, backup Kirk Cousins will be handing off the ball early and often to rookie running back Alfred Morris and throwing to Pierre Garcon. The Redskins are 6-1 when Garcon is active and 1-5 when he is not. Given the weak remaining schedule (the easiest of these featured teams, at 16-23, .410), those combinations could be enough to scrounge a wild card -- even win the NFC East, if the Giants falter.

The key game is likely to be the regular-season finale against Dallas.

Remaining schedule: at 5-8 Browns, at 4-10 Eagles, 7-6 Cowboys

Seattle Seahawks (8-5): Hey, Matt Flynn, the prized free agent with a three-year, $26 million contract, finally got to play for Seattle. It was mop-up duty in the Seahawks' epic 58-0 victory over the Cardinals.

Starting quarterback Russell Wilson, the third-round draft choice, has led the Seahawks to wins in four of their past five games. While Flynn has thrown all of nine passes, Wilson is 208-for-330 and 2,492 yards. More impressive is his 20-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio so far, one of the best rookie marks ever. Wilson also has run 69 times for 310 yards.

The defense forced eight turnovers against Arizona, and Marshawn Lynch ran for three touchdowns. The rushing total was 284 yards -- 214 of them coming before the Cardinals laid a hand on the ball carrier.

If Seattle can get by the Bills on Sunday, their last two games, against NFC West foes, are both at home, where the Seahawks are 6-0. Atlanta is the league's only other perfect team at home. Overall, the combined record for opponents is 20-17-2 (.541), the toughest of these four playoff hopefuls.

Remaining schedule: at 5-8 Bills, 9-3-1 49ers, 6-6-1 Rams

Dallas Cowboys (7-6): Lost in the rubble of that terrible tragedy in Dallas: After their last-second 20-19 victory over the Bengals, the Cowboys have won four of five games.

And although two of those victories came against the lowly Philadelphia Eagles, this was the first one in the streak to come against a team with a winning record.

The Cowboys won on Dan Bailey's 40-yard field goal as time ran out, but it was again the chronically dramatic combination of quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant that put Dallas in position to win. Bryant, who didn't catch his first pass until midway through the third quarter, reeled in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Romo with 6:35 left in the game. All of Bryant's nine touchdowns this season have come in the second half, five of them on plays of 30 or more yards.

None of the Cowboys' remaining opponents -- a collective 19-20 (.487) -- looks unbeatable, though Bryant's injured hand could make life more complicated for the Cowboys.

Remaining schedule: 7-6 Steelers, 5-8 Saints, at 7-6 Redskins

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6): If not for dropping three extremely catchable potential interceptions against Dallas, the Bengals probably would be riding a six-game winning streak. Still, five out of six isn't bad.

The loss to the Cowboys was a brutal one for the Bengals, who could have had themselves in position to win the AFC North. They redeemed themselves (slightly) with a 34-13 over the woeful Eagles on Thursday night.

As it is, they'll probably have to beat both division rivals in the final two regular-season games to snag a wildcard berth.

Remaining schedule: at 7-6 Steelers, 9-4 Ravens