Super Bowl Formula: Legitimate hope
Promising QBs provide opportunity, but can't be expected to do it by themselves
A rookie quarterback has never taken his team to the Super Bowl, but that shouldn't discourage Robert Griffin III.
Dan Marino, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger all took their teams to the Super Bowl in their second seasons, and Kurt Warner -- after tours in NFL Europe and the Arena League -- was a first-year NFL starter when the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.
THE SUPER BOWL FORMULA
ESPN.com identifies the 10 qualities a team needs to reach the Super Bowl ... and why your favorite team probably still has a chance to reach the big game.
• Ten criteria to reach the Super Bowl
The numbers suggest there are scenarios in which a good, but not-yet-elite, quarterback could take his team to the ultimate game. Griffin, who has been operating in the shelter of a limited Redskins passing offense that looks a lot like the one he ran at Baylor, is among the league leaders with a 66.8 completion percentage. The rookie season record is Roethlisberger's 66.4 in 2004.
Can Christian Ponder, in his second year out of Florida State, guide the Minnesota Vikings to New Orleans? How about fourth-year veteran Matthew Stafford of the Lions or Baltimore's fifth-year Joe Flacco? Drew Brees, the Super Bowl XLIV MVP, and his Saints already live there, but they've been challenged by the sanctions stemming from Bountygate.
All of the teams in this on-the-bubble group have flaws, but they have some shining parts as well. If your favorite team is listed below, do not despair.
History says it's early. Remember, three of the past seven Super Bowl champions were wild cards. There's still time to find momentum.
Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
After a 43-13 loss to the Texans in Week 7, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he was concerned about "everything."
Baltimore won five of its first six games, but the defense is not what we're used to seeing. Linebacker Ray Lewis and, perhaps more important, cornerback Lardarius Webb are gone for the season. Linebacker Terrell Suggs still isn't at full strength after an Achilles injury. Sacks and quarterback pressures are down. Still, don't forget this team lost last season's AFC title game to the Patriots by a mere field goal.
Minnesota Vikings (5-3)
Before you start snickering, understand that the Minnesota defense is capable of carrying Ponder. The Vikings' 23 sacks is tied for the second-highest total in the league, and their 10 takeaways is a decent figure.
Dallas Cowboys (3-4)
OK, this might be a stretch, but Dallas has already split with the defending Super Bowl champions. Yes, last year the Redskins won both games against the Giants -- and won only three other games all season long.
As frightening as Romo can be with the ball in his hands, he makes a lot of positive plays out of nothing. His gross passing numbers are respectable, but those nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions have contributed to the Cowboys' minus-11 turnover differential, the league's second-worst number.
Like the Steelers and Broncos, Dallas has a good share of the key variables that can lead to a team getting hot down the stretch.
Arizona Cardinals (4-4)
The Cards, blessed with a terrific defense, won their first four games -- their best start since 1974, when the franchise was in St. Louis. Since then? Well, the league seems to have caught up with them.
Defense is their calling card. Arizona is in stingy allowing points (17.8 per game -- fourth fewest in the league) and likes to harass passers (26 sacks -- tied with Packers for first in the league). The offense, even with potential Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, has struggled. Quarterback John Skelton, playing for injured Kevin Kolb, is going to need way more help than he's currently getting. The offensive line has allowed a league-high 39 sacks, 11 more than the No. 2 team, Green Bay. Amazing, but the NFL record of 104, by Philadelphia in 1986, looks out of reach.
Washington Redskins (3-5)
Griffin is only the second player ever with 1,600 passing yards and 400 rushing yards in his team's first seven games. Michael Vick was the first in 2011. Those numbers won't disqualify you from the tournament.
But the No. 29-ranked defense has to get better. The Redskins allow 28.4 points per game and have recorded only 14 sacks. On the bright side, they've taken the ball away 16 times.
Detroit Lions (3-4)
They're not all that far removed from the team that went 10-6 and made the playoffs a year ago.
Stafford, who threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns a year ago, has been sloppy with the ball. Mega wide receiver Calvin Johnson has decent numbers (41 catches, 638 yards) but only one touchdown. The defense is solid, tied for No. 2 in red zone defense, having allowed only five touchdowns in 15 opportunities.
Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
The Seahawks are playing a rookie quarterback who has been surprisingly effective. Russell Wilson (10 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was a huge factor in beating the Packers and Patriots.
Defense is the ticket here, though. Seattle allows only 16.8 points per game and has racked up 21 sacks. The red zone defense is one of the best in the league.
San Diego Chargers (3-4)
Rivers has shown flashes of greatness, but then there are games like the one he played in Week 6 against Denver. Rivers imploded in the second half with five turnovers, and the Chargers blew a 24-point lead. He's going to have to clean up his game if the Chargers (a respectable 2-2 on the road) are to advance to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)
Over the past decade, the Eagles have been one of the NFL's best teams, but this current roster isn't among their best.
Vick, dazzling at times during his career, has been mostly self-defeating this season. Philadelphia's turnover differential of minus-9 is the league's fourth worst. The defense, for what it's worth, is solid in the red zone.
New Orleans Saints (2-5)
The Saints will be hosting Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but the chances of being the NFC representative are waning every day.
The one guy who could will it to happen is Brees. He's playing ridiculously well under the circumstances (missing head coach and offensive wizard Sean Payton), throwing 20 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.
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