The cream of the crop has risen to the top, and the playoff seeds have been decided. But the numeral next to a team’s name doesn’t necessarily signify its chances of appearing the Super Bowl. Ask the 2011-12 New York Giants. Or the 2007-08 New York Giants.
With the being said, here’s our updated ranking of the dozen teams left standing after the NFL’s 2012 regular season:
1. Denver Broncos (AFC1)
Why they’ll win: Denver has won its last 11 games, boasts the conference’s second-ranked offense and defense, and has Peyton Manning running the show.
Why they won’t: Denver won 13 games, but only two came against playoff teams (Baltimore and Cincinnati). Plus, Manning’s postseason resume isn’t exactly spotless.
2. Atlanta Falcons (NFC1)
Why they’ll win: The Falcons are the NFC’s top seed for a second straight year and one has to assume that the team will be motivated to avenge last year’s divisional loss at home to the Giants. Roddy White, Julio Jones and the ageless Tony Gonzalez give Matt Ryan plenty of weapons in a potent passing game.
Why they won’t: The pressure is on. Ryan will either take the next step toward becoming one of the league’s elite or in he’ll join Tony Romo and Philip Rivers in the class of quarterbacks who post gaudy regular season numbers but can’t get it done when the bar is raised.
3. San Francisco 49ers (NFC2)
Why they’ll win: The defense has the potential of being historically dominant, thanks to Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. The elevation of Colin Kaepernick adds an explosiveness to the offense that the 49ers haven’t had at the position since Jeff Garcia.
Why they won’t: Kaepernick has started all of seven games, giving him less experience than the trio of rookie quarterbacks in the postseason. It’s imperative that Justin Smith plays through the pain of a torn triceps as the defense has been much less impressive in his two-week absence.
4. Green Bay Packers (NFC3)
Why they’ll win: Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb and Charles Woodson are all getting healthy at the right time. Any team with Aaron Rodgers under center is always a threat.
Why they won’t: Can they stop Adrian Peterson in the first round? The results from this year’s games suggest otherwise (409 rushing yards, two touchdowns), although the teams split the series. If the Pack can get past their division rivals, will they have enough in the tank to butt heads with a very physical, rested 49ers team?
5. New England Patriots (AFC2)
Why they’ll win: Brady and Belichik, not to mention a defense that’s much improved since adding Aqib Talib. The Pats beat Denver, Houston and Indianapolis during the regular season.
Why they won’t: Although the defense has been better, the Patriots still finished 25th in yards allowed. If a team can find a way to get to Brady consistently, everything changes.
6. Baltimore Ravens (AFC4)
Why they’ll win: It took a couple games but the Ravens appear to be committed to getting the ball to Ray Rice under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Joe Flacco is capable of stringing together 3-4 high-quality games and it’s always tough to count out the defense.
Why they won’t: Baltimore hasn’t been great on either side of the ball. The Ravens are ranked in the middle of the pack on both sides of the ball (16th offense, 17th defense) and need Ray Lewis healthy, if only for his leadership.
7. Houston Texans (AFC3)
Why they’ll win: Arian Foster was the league’s top touchdown maker, Andre Johnson capped another outstanding season with a brilliant final month and J.J. Watt may be the NFL’s most feared pass rusher.
Why they won’t: Houston lost its last two games to surrender home field advantage (and a first round bye) and set up a potential second round trip to Foxborough. Momentum is not on the Texans’ side.
8. Seattle Seahawks (NFC5)
Why they’ll win: Seattle is playing with a ton of confidence for a young team, the result of five consecutive wins to close the season. The Seahawks also know that anything is possible once the tournament begins, thanks to their wildcard win over heavily favored New Orleans a couple seasons ago.
Why they won’t: Seattle dominant at home but just 3-5 on the road. Barring an NFC Championship meeting with Minnesota, Russell Wilson and company have played their last game this season at Century Link Field.
9. Indianapolis Colts (AFC5)
Why they’ll win: Karma is on the Colts’ side, as is super-rookie Andrew Luck. Indy has an impressive mix of veterans and young players.
Why they won’t: As incredible as Luck has been, surviving a likely playoff gauntlet of Baltimore, Denver and New England – all away from home – is very unlikely.
10. Washington Redskins (NFC4)
Why they’ll win: Washington has won seven in a row and owns the league’s fourth-ranked scoring offense, tops in rushing.
Why they won’t: The Redskins finished 28th in defense, the lowest ranking for the teams left in the playoffs. Can rookies RG3 and Alfred Morris lead Washington to the promised land?
11. Minnesota Vikings (NFC6)
Why they’ll win: Minnesota has won four consecutive games, none of which were gimmes. Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing – by 484 yards. He ran for 1,019 yards after contact. If any single player can will his team to a win, it’s AD.
Why they won’t: Christian Ponder’s play has been uneven at best. The defense has regressed from last season.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (AFC6)
Why they’ll win: A.J. Green and Geno Atkins are two of the league’s best players that nobody talks about. Cincy had to win three straight (and 7 of 8) to get into the playoffs, so they’re used to playoff pressure.
Why they won’t: The Bengals have lost four in a row to Houston, including last postseason when the Texans had T.J. Yates under center.
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