Ranking the NFL contenders

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The NFL postseason is here, and 12 teams still have championship dreams.

Let's try to rank the playoff teams in terms of their chances to eventually hoist the Lombardi Trophy in early February.

12. MINNESOTA VIKINGS: It was an impressive end to the regular season for the Vikings, who knocked off Houston and Green Bay in succession to earn a wild- card berth. They won a high-scoring duel Sunday over the Packers, who will be their first-round playoff opponent Saturday night.

The Vikings have what is virtually a one-man offense these days, but that one man - running back Adrian Peterson - is deserving of NFL Most Valuable Player honors. His presence gives the Vikings a puncher's chance in any playoff game, but Minnesota has to be ranked 12th on this list because Christian Ponder is the weakest starting quarterback in the postseason.

11. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Coming off a 2-14 season, the Colts had a better year than just about anyone could have expected. Andrew Luck was the real deal as a rookie quarterback, and the Colts won 11 games.

Make no mistake, though, the Colts are not the typical playoff team. They have a minus-30 point differential in their 16 regular-season games, despite their 11-5 record. They surrendered 35 points in a loss to the usually offensively challenged New York Jets, and they even lost an early season game to the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars.

Because their wild-card round opponent, Baltimore, has struggled toward the end of the regular season, the Colts have a chance to win this weekend. The playoff run would be sure to end the following week, though, because the Colts wouldn't be able to deal adequately with the high-powered offenses of New England or Denver.

10. CINCINNATI BENGALS: The Bengals hit a midseason lull and lost four consecutive games. They've been outstanding ever since, winning seven of their final eight, with the lone loss being a one-point setback to the Dallas Cowboys.

The biggest obstacle for the Bengals is that with their No. 6 seed, they'd probably need to win consecutive games at Houston, Denver and New England to get to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati is capable of winning any of those games, but can it win all three, all on the road?

9. BALTIMORE RAVENS: After a 9-2 start, the Ravens have dropped back to the pack a bit down the stretch. They lost three games in a row before bouncing back in Week 16 to hammer the reeling New York Giants.

Baltimore can be dangerous, if only because it has several key veterans who have played numerous big games. If the Ravens eliminate the upstart Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs, it would have to travel to either Denver or New England. That would be a tough spot.

8. HOUSTON TEXANS: Maybe Houston just got bored. The Texans opened the season 11-1 and seemed to be a lock to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed. They ultimately failed to do it, losing Sunday's regular-season finale to the Colts and settling for the conference's No. 3 seed.

Injuries have been a factor, but the Texans also seem to have reached their peak too early. The wild-card round against Cincinnati is going to be a tough game. Even if they win that one, their season would likely end the following week in Foxboro.

7. ATLANTA FALCONS: They have been the top team in the NFC all season, yet few people seem to be picking the Falcons to win the conference title. Why is there no love for Atlanta? It's because this core of players has gone 0-3 in the playoffs under coach Mike Smith.

Atlanta was consistent all regular season, but it played just two games against eventual playoff teams, winning both. In other words, the Falcons' schedule was relatively easy, so this team was not as battle-tested as most of the other top contenders.

Getting to the Super Bowl is going to require victories against the Redskins vs. Seahawks winner, then probably Green Bay or San Francisco. The Falcons are the No. 1 seed, but it's tough to view them as the favorite.

6. WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Notching seven wins in a row to close out the regular season is a great way to go into the postseason with momentum. That's what the Redskins did, rebounding from a 3-6 start behind dynamic rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.

The winner of this weekend's Washington-Seattle playoff game is going to become a chic Super Bowl pick, and understandably so. Washington could have a slight edge in the wild-card game because of the home-field advantage. Seattle, however, would have a better chance of a long playoff run because its defense is superior.

5. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision in November to turn the starting quarterback job over to Colin Kaepernick, even though incumbent Alex Smith was playing remarkably efficiently. If the 49ers don't go to the Super Bowl, some are going to blame it on that decision.

However, if the Niners are to have a disappointing postseason, it's most likely going to be the result of a recent rash of injuries. Wide receiver Mario Manningham is out for the year. It's possible that San Francisco's difference- making defensive lineman, Justin Smith, will be far less than 100 percent during the postseason because of a partially torn triceps tendon.

The 49ers earned a first-round playoff bye and they have the No. 2 seed. They have an exceptional defense and a potentially big playmaker at quarterback in Kaepernick. It would be wrong to count them out, despite their sorry showing at Seattle in Week 16.

4. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Is there a team playing better than the Seahawks right now? Maybe not.

Seattle would probably be one of the championship favorites if it had the chance to play at home in the playoffs. That won't be the case, though, as the Seahawks had to settle for the No. 5 seed.

Seattle finished 8-0 at home and just 3-5 on the road this season. However, it won its final two road games, perhaps a sign that it can reverse its poor results away from home. To get to the Super Bowl, the Seahawks will need to win road games against Washington, and probably Atlanta and Green Bay. It wouldn't be easy, but none of those teams is all that excited to have to face Seattle at this point, either.

3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Especially at this time of year, it's tough to pick against the Patriots. Their pass defense is far from perfect, but they still have Tom Brady at quarterback. As long as that's the case, they're always going to be one of the favorites.

Houston's loss to Indianapolis on Sunday enabled New England to get a first- round bye. The Patriots should be able to handle any potential divisional-round opponent, whether it's Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis. New England whipped Houston and Indianapolis during the regular season. The Patriots lost to Baltimore early in the year, but the Ravens simply aren't the same team anymore.

A New England vs. Denver AFC title game could be a classic. The Patriots won the regular-season meeting, but the Broncos' home-field advantage would make them a slight favorite.

2. GREEN BAY PACKERS: The Packers have been one of the league's best teams during the month of December, which usually bodes well for January. The main reason for making them the favorite in the NFC, however, is this: They seem to have fewer warts than the rest of the field.

Atlanta has no previous playoff success. San Francisco has not been playing as well as it did earlier in the season. Washington has question marks on defense, Seattle has not been nearly the terror on the road that it is at home, and Minnesota has little offense beyond Adrian Peterson.

Oh, and the core of this Packers team won a Super Bowl two years ago.

1. DENVER BRONCOS: Denver has won 11 games in a row, although only two of those victories have come against playoff teams (Cincinnati and Baltimore). The Broncos have to be considered the overall favorite right now because they've played so well for so long.

They're very good defensively and they've got Peyton Manning under center. The AFC Championship Game could feature a Manning vs. Tom Brady matchup, which could prove to be the marquee game of this postseason. It's going to help that the game would be in Denver, and Manning should be able to thrive against the Patriots' shaky pass defense.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.