Three teams, it seems, have the best shot at winning this year's Super Bowl.
And with sincere apologies to fans of each of the following nine franchises, none of the teams that will take home the 2012 National Football League championship are named the Bengals, Broncos, Texans, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Giants, Lions or 49ers.
Nope, when it comes right down to it, this year's NFL title chase looks strictly like a three-horse race: the defending champion Green Bay Packers, the three-time Super Bowl champ New England Patriots, or the New Orleans Saints, who claimed the crown two years ago.
Those are your true title contenders; the rest of those playoff hopefuls are all just pretenders.
Now, predicting which one of our three favorites is going to go on and win it all is a real crapshoot, especially because all three of them defy that age-old axiom that defense wins championships.
You see, defense is simply something that the Packers, Patriots and Saints try to do — and often do pretty poorly — when their offense doesn't have the ball and is busy lighting up the scoreboard.
Indeed, instead of being defensive-minded teams that make it tough for their opponents to score, like most Super Bowl champions have been in the past, our top trio of title hopefuls simply pile up the points and hope that, at the end of the day, they've got more of them than their opponents.
They usually do.
And they all have one common denominator, as you might expect — a truly outstanding quarterback.
Green Bay lost only once all year long in a stellar 15-1 season which featured another superb performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, last year's Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and a strong candidate for league MVP honors this year. Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns — great numbers, for sure, but somebody else's stats were even better.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who was the Super Bowl MVP in 2010, threw for an NFL-record 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns this season. His yardage total shattered the previous single-season mark of 5,084 yards passing set by Miami's Dan Marino back in 1984.
New England, of course, has pretty-boy QB Tom Brady at the controls of its offense, and the three-time Super Bowl winner has racked up another stellar statistical season — 5,235 yards passing (which also surpassed Marino's 27-year-old record) and 39 touchdowns.
But, unlike the Patriots' championship teams of the past, this ballclub can't seem to stop other teams from scoring points. And the Packers and Saints have the same problem.
In Green Bay's regular-season finale against Detroit, which Rodgers sat out, the Packers turned back the Lions in a wild 45-41 shootout. Green Bay's pass defense ranks just 32nd in the league, giving up an average of 300 yards a game, and the Packers have allowed 21 or more points nine times this season.
That doesn't speak too well to their chances of defending their NFC title against New Orleans, a team which lost just three times this season and boasts the best passing attack in the league. The Saints dropped a 42-34 duel to the Packers in their season-opener, but New Orleans, with the 30th-ranked pass defense in the league, also suffered inexplicable setbacks to lowly Tampa Bay and St. Louis.
The key factor in the inevitable Packers-Saints NFC championship showdown could be the weather in Green Bay — especially since New Orleans is a dome team that isn't accustomed to playing on what could very well be the proverbial frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in late-January. That, in a nutshell, will likely determine the NFC title-winner and eventual Super Bowl champion.
New England, which finished the regular season with eight straight wins, will likely roll through the AFC playoffs. But the Patriots, much like the Packers and Saints, have a lousy pass defense of their own — ranked 31st in the league, or right between those of Green Bay and New Orleans on the stat scale.
The Patriots allowed 20 or more points a staggering 13 times this season, including a 25-17 loss to AFC playoff rival Pittsburgh midway through the season. And yet they only lost three times in all on their way to a 13-3 record.
So, look for a highly entertaining Packers-Patriots matchup in the Super Bowl, with Green Bay winning by a 35-31 score. Unless, of course, the tundra of Lambeau Field isn't quite so frozen when the Saints come to town to decide the NFC title.
In that case, New Orleans just might come away with a victory and a spot in the Super Bowl, where they'll beat the Patriots by that same highly entertaining 35-31 score.
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