There's been so much discussion about the final playoff spots in each conference. You've been overloaded with statistics on schedule strength for the final four weeks, who's peaking, and who's treading water. It's a fun conversation because everyone thinks, "If my team can just get in, anything can happen!"
But like Frances McDormand said in "Almost Famous," I didn't ask for this role but I'll play it. I'll be Bobby Bubble Burster because you need to know the truth: There's not many teams who can win the Super Bowl. In fact, there's only four. Who are they? Some are obvious, some are not, and the omission of some from the list of true contenders is going to upset a lot of people. But I have to be the voice of reason.
DISMISSED IMMEDIATELY: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Denver, Oakland, Chicago, Detroit. All are very solid. All can reach the playoffs. And all are so ill-equipped to navigate it. Tim Tebow's going to win in New England or Pittsburgh? Scratch that -- are any of these AFC teams going to win in New England or Pittsburgh? In the NFC, the Bears will fade with Caleb Hanie and without Matt Forte. The Lions are a great story, and they'd be fun. But the lights get really bright in the postseason and Detroit is flawed. The minute they have to play away from Ford Field they're flying back home with an L. You have to be able to play tough football in adverse conditions in hostile environments and these teams can't do that right now. (Though the NFL may invent a new playoff spot specifically reserved for Tebow. I don't mean the Broncos, I just mean Tebow, who will play 1 on 11.)
UPON FURTHER REVIEW, YOU ARE DISMISSED: Atlanta, Dallas, New York Giants. All of these teams are missing an ingredient that stops them from stepping up in this conversation. Matt Ryan has taken a step back this season, the Giants act like they're playing against each other as much as they are their opponents, and the Cowboys have that 'ceiling can cave in at any time' look about them. Are these teams capable of pulling a shocker along the way? Absolutely. Are they good enough to string two or three great games together to win it all? Not quite. Intangibles can vault a team over the top, and it can also keep them from achieving.
AFTER LONG, HARD THOUGHT, YOU ARE DISMISSED: Jets, Houston, San Francisco, New Orleans. As a Jets fan, this pains me, but the Jets are a 'so far' team. As in, with the talent they have, even if they put it all together they can only go so far. This team is not as good as they were a year ago, which in retrospect was probably the year they had the best shot at getting to the Super Bowl. Mark Sanchez only is going to slay so many dragons before a better team ends the Jets' season. The Texans and 49ers both fall into the same category of not being able to score enough when it really counts. Can they play hellacious defense and run the football? You bet. Can they both get a bye and win their first playoff game? Absolutely. But can they outscore teams on the road in the conference title games when they'll have to? If Sanchez can't do it, there's no way T.J. Yates is going to. Ditto Alex Smith. Remember, you need an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl now. The era of the just-don't-mess-up-the-rest-of-the-great-team-we-have-here quarterback is long over.
The Saints were the toughest team to figure out. They're on the borderline more than any other team in this category. But I can't get away from this fact: they'll have to go on the road to get to Indianapolis. For some teams, playing at home in the playoffs is overrated. They can go on the road, in the cold, in the wind, in a hostile environment, and play their style of football. Others? It's too much of an obstacle to overcome. Remember, the Saints were loaded in 2006 and got steamrolled by the Bears in Chicago. They were home all the way through the playoffs in their 2009 Super Bowl season. They gave up 41 on the road to the Seahawks last season in an opening-round loss. They're not battle-tested away from the Superdome and I can't trust them.
So who are the teams who can raise the Lombardi Trophy this season?
Green Bay. The most obvious of the bunch. The only type of team that can give them trouble is one who can score with them for 60 minutes and not turn it over. The Giants were close last week, but any rematch in Lambeau won't be in their favor. Dallas could hang for awhile, but Tony Romo would have to play the perfect game to come away with a win, and he has never shown he can do that in the playoffs. The 49ers would keep it close for a little while, but eventually their defense would be on the field for way too long and Green Bay would pull away. This is how I see the NFC Championship Game unfolding -- something to the tune of Green Bay 31, San Francisco 10. And they'd be the favorite against anyone in the Super Bowl.
New England. The real main threat to Green Bay, and the Packers' probable opponent in Indianapolis. The Patriots can go score for score with Green Bay, and you can trust Bill Belichick to come up with just enough of a scheme to get a key stop or two and pull out the victory. The biggest obstacle to them is their 'Lady or the Tiger' matchup to get to XLVI. If they draw Pittsburgh in the playoffs, they win. They've had Ben Roethlisberger's number throughout his career and there's no reason to think that won't continue. But get the Ravens? Look out. Baltimore has won in New England in the playoffs and can get enough pressure on Brady to turn his arm scattershot like the Jets did in January.
Pittsburgh. No matter what type of team they have, December and January is Steelers time. What makes them more dangerous this year is how this different edition is compared to recent years. With Antonio Brown emerging opposite Mike Wallace, the Steelers are better through the air than they've ever been, and are more comfortable in a shootout as a result. Rashard Mendenhall isn't going to fool anyone into thinking he's viable as a bell cow runner but he won't have to. If things fall right, Pittsburgh is well rounded enough on its best day to beat the Packers.
Baltimore. The darkhorse of the bunch, but the Ravens are every bit as good as the Steelers, and I think Joe Flacco can go on an Eli-Manning-in-2007-type run in the playoffs. We've seen it from Flacco in spurts, he's just not consistent. But he knows how to beat both of the other favorites in the AFC, which is huge. To beat Green Bay, everything would have to go right, and they must get turnovers. It's a tall order but it can be done.
See Jason Smith on "NFL Fantasy Live," airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the NFL RedZone channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on NFL.com daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.