- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Predicting Super Bowl contestants during a season like this is like walking into a minefield of potential mistakes. Games are too close. Quarterbacks in the fourth quarter are too good. And injuries are having a bigger impact on rosters than ever before.
A cursory look at last season's NFC playoff bracket will shed light on the problem. In a wild-card victory over Washington, the Seahawks lost their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to an ACL injury. After Seattle took a 28-27 lead in the final minute of its second-round game, the absence of Clemons especially hurt, as Matt Ryan drove the Falcons 41 yards in three plays over 28 seconds to set up the winning field goal.
In the NFC title game, John Abraham, the Falcons' best sack artist, finally succumbed to an ankle injury that had been bothering him for weeks. Colin Kaepernick put the 49ers ahead, but Ryan got his late-game magic going again. He drove to the 49ers' 10-yard line before separating his left shoulder and then missed tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone. In the Super Bowl, the 49ers fell behind big before rallying within a score of the Ravens after the infamous blackout.
Try having the confidence to make a Super Bowl pick knowing the reality of the NFL nowadays. A look at the struggles of Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota and Washington -- all playoff teams last season -- shows the difficulty of long-term forecasting. Heck, Atlanta was my NFC Super Bowl pick going into the season. Now, the Falcons might be drafting in the top 10 despite having Ryan at quarterback.
The number of missed games due to injury and suspension has been increasing throughout the league, but depth is thin because of the salary cap. Replacements on the street are ghosts. The Falcons were without five injured starters in Week 3 and watched their Super Bowl hopes take a tumble. Julio Jones' season-ending injury two weeks later sealed the deal.
I'm going with the Seahawks and Broncos because I believe they have the best chances to clinch home-field advantage leading up to the big game, and playing in those two stadiums may wind up being the clincher for tickets to MetLife Stadium. Now let's examine the case for each squad along with the teams that may trip them up.
Why Seattle will make it to the Super Bowl
The Seahawks have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule in the league -- their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .421 -- which should allow them to coast to one of the top seeds. Trying to beat the Seahawks in two playoff games at CenturyLink Field will be extremely difficult. The New Orleans Saints found that out a couple of years ago. The 12th Man made so much noise when Marshawn Lynch broke a long touchdown run that it registered as a minor earthquake on the Richter scale. The noise in that stadium causes false starts and mistakes for opposing offenses and gives Seattle's wave of rushers an edge.
On the field, the Seahawks have a proven formula for success. The Seahawks win by playing great defense, running the ball well and letting Russell Wilson improvise when necessary to make game-winning plays in the fourth quarter. Wilson wins with his mind and his legs.
Like most teams, though, the Seahawks have their vulnerabilities. They've looked beatable in recent weeks. They needed a goal-line stand to beat the Rams in the final seconds in Week 8, and the winless Buccaneers jumped out to a 21-0 lead at CenturyLink before Wilson scrambled around to pull out an overtime victory Sunday.
In recent weeks, the offensive line has been a major problem. Russell Okung is on short-term IR and right tackle Breno Giacomini has been out for weeks with a knee injury. Both should be back for the stretch run, and you can add WR Percy Harvin to that list as well.
One big difference in Seattle's play this season has been its ability to pull out wins on the road, remedying a longtime issue the team has had. In an effort to combat his team's poor play when traveling to the East Coast, Pete Carroll scheduled training camp practices for 10 a.m. PT. The results have been favorable as Seattle has claimed early-start wins at Carolina and Houston. Heading into their final three road games, the Seahawks are 4-1 on the road. If the Seahawks can finish 5-3 or 6-2 on the road, they have a great chance to be at 13 or 14 wins because of their ability to dominate at home.
There are two other factors that give me confidence in Seattle. First, Wilson, despite his age, has the ability to take control of games in the fourth quarter even when his team is trailing. He and Andrew Luck are two of the best young comeback quarterbacks to enter the NFL in decades, with Luck notching 11 come-from-behind wins in his first season and a half -- two more than Wilson's nine.
General manager John Schneider addressed a second problem by adding more pass-rushing options in the offseason. Too often last year, Wilson would grab a fourth-quarter lead just to see the defense squander it away. Schneider and Carroll rectified the issue by adding Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to the defensive line and moving speedy first-round pick Bruce Irvin to outside linebacker.
The race in the NFC is for home-field advantage, and the Seahawks have the most horses to win it.
Why Denver will make it to the Super Bowl
I know Baltimore beat the Broncos in overtime en route to last season's Super Bowl, but the Broncos don't figure to give up a 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute this time around. Plus, Peyton Manning is having one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in NFL history.
For those questioning Manning, who has a history of one-and-dones in the playoffs, John Elway and John Fox set him up well for the Super Bowl marathon. Manning's ability to throw the long pass is gone, and age is tugging at his mobility. That's OK, because the Broncos are loaded at wide receiver.
Yards after the catch often dictate what happens in the Broncos' games. During the first five weeks of the season, the Broncos averaged 185.6 yards after receptions and 46 points a game. In the next two, the numbers dropped to an average of 115.5 yards with the scoring output dipping to 34.5 points.
The YAC was back against the Redskins in Week 8. The Broncos exploded for 254 yards after the catch, and they put up 45 points.
In case of injury, the Broncos have enough options to survive and thrive. If Wes Welker is out a couple of weeks, Eric Decker can move into the slot. Thanks to his old basketball abilities, Julius Thomas is developing into a top tight end. But if something happens to him, Manning still has Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen to go to.
The one receiver the Broncos can't afford to lose, however, is Demaryius Thomas.
We all know Manning's passes deflate a little in colder weather. But as long as the receiving corps is healthy, Manning has the weapons to get back to the Super Bowl.
The road just got tougher for Denver after Fox underwent heart valve surgery, which will sideline him for a month while defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio takes over as the interim coach. That could be a problem because the defense has struggled and could use Del Rio's full attention.
Nevertheless, the Broncos have Manning, and he can make things right at the end of games.
Another reason for picking the Seahawks and Broncos is the way their rosters are built and how they can withstand injuries. The Seahawks started the season without their top three pass-rushers -- Clemons, Avril and Irvin -- but still have managed to boast the NFC's top record. The Broncos went through most of the first half of their season without Von Miller and Champ Bailey. Both teams lost their left and right tackles for good chunks of time, and they've operated with backup centers because of injury.
What about the rest of the field?
Injuries have negatively affected far too many offenses this year, diluting the field of challengers. Tom Brady went into the season without his five top pass-catchers from last year, and his numbers have paid the price. Even though the Patriots are 7-2, Brady has completed only 57 percent of his passes, and he lost two touchdowns a game of production until Rob Gronkowski got back on the field in Week 7.
The Falcons' season went into the tank partly because of Steven Jackson's hamstring injury, Roddy White's high ankle sprain and hamstring issues, and the loss of Jones for the season. Finally, Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense aren't the same without Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta as targets.
San Francisco gambled that it could get through the first half of the season minus Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Although the 49ers sit at 6-2, Kaepernick's passing numbers are down and Kyle Williams' benching proved they didn't have a No. 2 receiver to go with Boldin.
But what if the 49ers edge Seattle to win the NFC West? As they found out last season, the Seahawks will have a hard time winning three games on the road to advance to the Super Bowl.
And the Broncos? Well, Kansas City has a 1½-game lead in the AFC West, but it visits Denver on Nov. 17 in what could be an equalizing game. On paper, though, the rest of the schedule is difficult for both teams. The Broncos have the second-toughest closing schedule at .644, while the Chiefs' is third at .593.
Each team has five games remaining against divisional teams, and records in the AFC West are bloated because the division is 10-1 against the NFC East. The Broncos and Chiefs will probably go 4-2 or 5-1 in those contests. The division runner-up will probably be the No. 5 seed.
As for the Chiefs, they aren't as deep for offensive weapons. Dwayne Bowe played against the Browns on Sunday with a groin injury and managed one catch for a measly 7 yards. If he's out for an extended period, Alex Smith and the offense won't be as potent with Donnie Avery sliding into the No. 1 role. The Chiefs often struggle to score points, anyway.
They win because of Andy Reid's coaching; a great, aggressive defense; and Smith's ability to protect the football. The Nov. 17 clash will show us a lot about the Chiefs. Can they win a shootout with the Broncos? Or is the defense good enough to turn it into a low-scoring affair?
Along with the 49ers and Chiefs, here are the teams with the best chances at derailing Denver and Seattle:
Indianapolis: If I didn't go with Denver, I was thinking about the Colts. Already this season, Luck has led them past Denver, Seattle and San Francisco and overcame a three-score deficit in a win over Houston. But winning in Denver in the AFC Championship Game would be a significant hurdle in his path.
New England: Brady is usually good enough to get the Patriots a top-three seed, but I don't think they would have enough consistent pass-catchers in the playoffs. Plus, the defense is vulnerable.
New Orleans: The reunion of Sean Peyton and Drew Brees alone is good enough to get the Saints to the Super Bowl this season, but if they can't get the No. 1 seed, I don't think they can make it on the road.
Cincinnati: The Bengals are deep enough to survive the injury attrition happening this year, but as well as Andy Dalton has played recently, can he beat Brady or Manning on the road?
Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers' injury says it all. The Packers could still win the NFC North and get Rodgers back for the playoffs, but the losses with him out could drop them into a No. 3 seed or behind the Bears or Lions in the division.
Detroit: The Lions can win the NFC North and may even grab a playoff victory, but I don't know if they can win in San Francisco, Seattle or New Orleans in the next round.
Chicago: The win over Green Bay on Monday night puts the Bears in a great spot to make the playoffs. If he's healthy, they have the quarterback to win in Jay Cutler, but their defense is a liability and could cost them the chance to make the Super Bowl.
Carolina: The Panthers have quickly turned the corner and are now in the playoff hunt. I just think winning three road playoff games as a wild-card team is too much to ask.
New York Jets: Making the playoffs should save Rex Ryan's job as head coach, but there are too many question marks for the team to be considered a threat.
Dallas: The Cowboys will probably win the NFC East as an 8-8 or 9-7 team. That makes them a No. 4 seed with only one home game. It's hard to think they could get to the Super Bowl from that spot.
In the preseason, the Broncos visited the Seahawks, who dominated the first quarter, but Manning started moving the ball and scoring points in the second. Seeing a four-quarter version of that matchup would be a blast.