The easiest path to the Super Bowl has always been through a division championship. That fact is indisputable. There have been 46 Super Bowls and 92 Super Bowl teams and through all that time only 10 wild-cards have ever played for a championship.
And only six have run the wild-card gauntlet to be crowned Super Bowl champions.
Maybe that’s gotten easier over time. In the last seven seasons, three teams – the 2005 Steelers, the 2007 Giants, the 2010 Packers – have won the title as wild-card teams. And in the last 15 years – including the 1997 Broncos, the 1999 Titans and 2000 Ravens – seven wild-card teams have gotten to the Super Bowl and six have won it all.
So there is, if nothing else, a decent chance for the four wild-card teams of 2012. Maybe the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks aren’t the favorite to win a title. But they can’t be counted out. So here, in order of their chances for making a run all the way to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, is a look at this postseason’s wild-card teams.
1. Seattle Seahawks If the Seahawks (11-5) had won one more game and finished as the 2 seed, people would be picking them to go the Super Bowl. Never mind their rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), just look at what they’ve done the last five weeks. They’ve gone 5-0, averaged 38.6 points and given up an average of just 12 points.
And for all the attention Wilson gets, this team has a championship defense. They’ve given up 20 or more points just five times this season. They’ve given up more than 24 points once. Once.
Yes, they are buoyed by an 8-0 home record, which won’t help them in the playoffs. Their 3-5 road record is something to watch. But they play defense as well as anyone, have the third-best rushing attack in the NFL (161.2 yards per game), and a quarterback who has a hot hand.
What else do you need to make a run?
2. Cincinnati Bengals Of the four wild-card teams, the best—and most trustworthy—quarterback resides in Cincinnati, where Andy Dalton has become a force for the Bengals (10-6) and he has an incredibly dangerous target in receiver A.J. Green (97 catches, 1,350 yards, 11 touchdowns). Dalton has just five interceptions in his last eight games.
And what’s happened in those games? Quietly, the Bengals have gone 7-1, with only a one-point loss to Dallas tarnishing their record. They’re not an overpowering offense and they’re more likely to win a slugfest. But they get a break going to the fading Houston Texans first, where Dalton could give them a chance to survive.
3. Indianapolis Colts It’s kind of hard to figure the Colts (11-5) this season. They have a low-rated defense, a low-rated running game and they’ve given up 30 more points than they’ve scored this season. That’s not usually a formula that results in 11 wins, especially with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
But Andrew Luck has proven to be no ordinary rookie (4,374 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, despite being sacked 41 times), and the Colts have clearly been inspired by the heart-warming story of coach Chuck Pagano and his interim replacement, Bruce Arians. They play as hard as anyone, Luck has a magic touch, and they’ve got seven come-from-behind wins.
They head to Baltimore first, and that’s not exactly the hard landing spot it’s been in recent seasons. Their biggest problem is the top-heavy nature of the AFC. Luck is good, but beating Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the second round of the playoffs isn’t easy for anyone – especially a rookie.
4. Minnesota Vikings The way Adrian Peterson has run the ball this season (2,097 yards), it’s hard to rule the Vikings (10-6) out of anything – especially after they ended the season with four straight wins, including back-to-back wins over Houston and Green Bay.
The problem is the quarterback. Christian Ponder is a game-manager and the Vikings’ passing offense is ranked 31st in the NFL. Worse, their top receiver (Percy Harvin) is on injured reserve. They don’t have a dominant defense either, so all their hopes rest on one player. And as good as Peterson is, you can’t win a Super Bowl by being a completely one-dimensional team.
By RALPH VACCHIANO