Making a Lombardi case for all playoff-bound teams


We've reached the second week of December. The pretenders are being exposed on a weekly basis now, the humiliation of this realization banishing the team's stars from public life until literally every single Super Bowl party.

But how about the teams still with a fighting chance at a Lombardi? There are informed reasons why every one of these clubs can win the final football game of the season (even you, eventual AFC South winner!). That said, we understand every fanbase has its eternal pessimists. Today, I'll take them on.

We'll go through each team in ascending order based on current playoff seeding. That's right, I'm hopping aboard the "IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY" train in a big spot! Let's get to it.

Sixth seeds

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

"Oh, please. Why are you even writing about us? Sure, we're on a hot streak, but I haven't drank so much that I forgot about our crater job last year. We should have picked Mariota and our defense isn't nearly good enough to win big games in January. You're trolling me by even including the Bucs in this exercise. I hope our pirate ship falls on you."

Whoa, calm down buddy. I've got kids. Are the Bucs a smart pick to be on the field in February? No, not necessarily, but let's not sleep on what they've achieved during this four-game winning streak. Marcus Mariota is a stud, but Jameis Winston has been a star since October, throwing 15 touchdowns against just four picks in Tampa Bay's last eight games. I don't know how a former No. 1 overall pick can be under the radar, but that's what's happening here. Speaking of underrated, Mike Evans might be the best wide receiver in the NFL this season. Oh, and that crappy defense you're so worried about? Since Week 10, they are the No. 1 defense in football in points per game (13.3), takeaways (11) and opposition passer rating (67.3). Buck up, buttercup!

Denver Broncos

"We're done. I'm actually counting on Trevor Siemian to limp back on the field and save my season like he's football Willis Reed. How did it come to this? Can Tony Romo retire today, pull a Favre and sign with us? Oh well, at least I got to see my team win a Super Bowl in a game where Coldplay played halftime. Man, I really like Coldplay. What's wrong with music that makes you feel good?

Lot to unpack here. First off, I tend to agree that Denver is doomed if Siemian is asked to be a hero. Can't have that. The Broncos will need somebody to step up in the running game to help out the kid. But a repeat will live and die on the back of the defense, and your defense remains studly. Denver ranks first in the NFL in pass defense (192.7 pass YPG allowed), sacks (36) and passer rating allowed (68.6). If they can find another gear -- this happened 11 months ago -- you're flying! Also, Coldplay is a perfectly good band. Don't let anybody shame you into Pitchfork compliance.

Fifth seeds

New York Giants

"Oh, please. We have no chance. The offense is terrible and Eli might lose to his brother in a deep-ball contest right now. Even if Eli does improve, Odell Beckham will have a horribly timed personal foul penalty that destroys our season. Just leave me alone."

I won't lie to you. The Giants' O is a major problem right now. Since Week 7, the Giants have the league's 30th-ranked offense. The only teams worse are the Rams and Browns. Dear God! Luckily, the defense has picked up the slack, becoming one of the best units in the league in that same stretch. We'll see if they can recover from the loss of JPP, which is a big one. That said, are you really going to bet against Eli if the Giants make the playoffs? Are you not a student of history, sir? Or did your drunken celebration from those Super Bowl wins wipe out the memory of the games?

Oakland Raiders

"We blew it. We had a chance to take the first seed, and Derek Carr and his crippled pinky decided against Kansas City in prime time was the perfect time to turn into a pumpkin. Now we're all the way down here, just another team. This sucks. Oh, and Coldplay is terrible."

I feel you, buddy. And I'm sure the hangover can't feel too good today. It was a bad night. Here's the thing, though: You play that game 10 times, I'm not so sure the Raiders don't win seven. Carr obviously was off, and the finger situation is something to track. But the Raiders aren't dead, and neither are their bye chances. Lotta football left. As for Coldplay, I get it. "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall" isn't going to be pumping out of speakers in The Black Hole any time soon. You do you.

Fourth seeds

Atlanta Falcons

"Yeah, you go ahead and keep singing our praises while we keep losing games. We'll be lucky to make the playoffs at this point. If we don't score 30 points a game, we lose. Who wins the Super Bowl like that? 2016 can kick rocks."

I agree, 2016 is a terrible thing that needs to die. But you shouldn't be so gloomy about the Falcons. At 7-5, there isn't a ton of room for error, but did you know Atlanta has the easiest remaining schedule in football the rest of the way? You get the Rams on Sunday (lol), starting a string of four straight matchups against teams with losing records. And yes, you're 1-5 when scoring less than 30 points per game this season, but here's the upshot: The Falcons average a league-best 32.2 points per game. Your offense is a juggernaut, a wondrous blemish blaster. Remember this when the Falcons are 10-6 and everyone is calling them the team no one wants to play in the NFC.

Houston Texans

"Brock Osweiler is my quarterback."

This is a compelling argument. At this very moment, I wish I would've waited one week to write this column, allowing the Colts to officially join the playoff picture. Regrets, I've had a few.

Third seeds

Detroit Lions

"I am legitimately stunned that this team is going to be 9-4 when we beat the Bears on Sunday. We were losing in the fourth quarter of our first 11 games! And we won seven of them. That's not sustainable! If Roger Goodell announces next week the Lions will be renamed the Motown Unsustainables, I won't even complain. We are about to become the poster children for regression. Lions fans can't have nice things."

I think that might have been the name of Michigan's XFL franchise way back when. Listen, I get your trepidation. The Lions have played exactly one team this season that currently holds a winning record (the 6-5-1 Redskins). Is there really any reason to believe they can hang with the big boys in an elimination game? Let's start with Matthew Stafford, who has rode the magic Cooter all the way into the MVP discussion. Stafford has 14 TDs and just one interception in his last eight games. The Lions are 14-7 since Jim Bob Cooter's promotion to OC in Week 8 of last season. And then there's this: The Lions' defense -- which nobody talks about -- has allowed 20 points or less eight times this season, tied for the best mark in football. Has the competition been weak? Sure, but mojo is building in Motown.

Baltimore Ravens

"Did you read that story about Joe Flacco sleeping in a bedroom with Tom Brady posters on the wall? What the hell, man? They should repossess that Corvette he got for winning Super Bowl MVP just for that. The Ravens are OK, but they are destined to be a team that loses 21-17 to the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Why should I get excited about that? Also, Coldplay lost the plot after their second record, you know the one with the piano song that went deh-deh-deh-duh-duh-duh-deh-deh-duh-duh-duh-dehh-deh-deh-deh?"

I'm not even sure this guy is a Ravens fan. Who's screening these people? The Ravens are currently my NFL sleeper team. This might sound insane, and I get that. But the Ravens have the NFL's No. 1 total defense and No. 1 rushing defense this season. They are absolutely for real, and last Sunday the offense showed serious signs of life. If the defense continues to dominate and Flacco gets hot (THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE), why can't Baltimore work its way through a wide-open AFC? I'm pretty sure the Coldplay song you're thinking of is "Clocks".

Second seeds

Seattle Seahawks

"I haven't slept since Earl Thomas broke his leg. It's literally all I think about. If I could give up my own legs so that Earl Thomas could get his back to 100 percent, I would do it without a second thought. Prosthetics have come a long way in the last 20 years. I think it would actually help to give me an identity, something that I've lacked in my first 27 years of life."

Um. OK. Let's start with the Seahawks, who will most definitely miss Earl Thomas. That was a killer injury, every bit as important to the NFL Super Bowl tournament as Gronk's back injury. Can the Seahawks fill the void? No, not at safety. But let's not forget how many other star players are in the mix: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner and so on. This team remains loaded, and if Thomas Rawls can stabilize the running game, Russell Wilson can do the rest. As for the other stuff, you need to talk to someone, sir. And join some clubs or online groups, find something you're passionate about. You have value.

Kansas City Chiefs

"I love this team, and I had the time of my life last night. I quit my job to tailgate for nine hours and I have literally no regrets. Being a cook at Buffalo Wild Wings didn't define me, anyway. Here's my concern though: If Derek Carr makes some plays yesterday, we probably lose. And, let's keep it real, Alex Smith will never win a Super Bowl. Let's not delude ourselves here. Did you hear that Train cover album of "Led Zeppelin II"? What the f--- was that about?"

We don't talk about Train around here, sir. Only Coldplay. And yes, as I wrote earlier -- so much writing -- the Chiefs probably lose last night seven out of 10 times. But they didn't! And you know why? The 2016 Kansas City Chiefs have JUICE. They have been flying under the radar all season, and now they're in line for a playoff bye and at least one home game at Arrowhead, where, based on Thursday night, one can presume it will be -83 degrees for a mid-January affair. And enough of this Alex Smith hate. He ain't going to Canton, but he's also the author of two of the best individual playoff performances by a quarterback in the last 10 years. Sleep on the Chiefs and their "game manager" at your own peril.

First seeds

Dallas Cowboys

"I know I shouldn't be worried about the Cowboys, but I am. That Vikings game scared me. Minnesota proved our offense isn't unstoppable and everyone knows our defense can be picked on. Everyone is ready to send us to the Super Bowl, but all I can think about is relentless FOX cutaways to a despondent Jerry Jones in his box as Joe Buck drools over the heroic performance of Aaron Rodgers/Eli Manning/Matthew Stafford whatever. Tell me you can't see it."

I get the consternation from a Dallas fan. There is an air of inevitability being floated by the general public about a Cowboys Super Bowl return. The Chicago Cubs overcame the same collective jinx army, and now America's Team must do the same to survive the NFC gauntlet. But here's the real stuff: This team is special. Tony Romo said it himself during that press conference that's already entered franchise lore. This is a fun team loaded with gifted, young playmakers and a defense that has held opponents at 20 points or fewer eight times, tied for the best in football. As Penny Lane once said, "It's all happening." Try to enjoy it.

New England Patriots

"Losing Gronk is like the saddest Coldplay song. It's no coincidence that the one time we won the Super Bowl since 2010 is the year Gronk was healthy and galloping free through secondaries like a gorgeous buffalo on Red Bull and Tito's. Without him, we're just another team. We still have Tom, but what happens when Von Miller is in his grill every other snap? This is all Mark Wahlberg's fault."

Cool it with the Coldplay stuff, people. Gronk's injury was the biggest game-changer in the NFL this season. The AFC felt like a one-horse race when Gronk and Brady were humming together. Take away Brady's best weapon since peak Randy Moss, and New England is absolutely vulnerable. But here's the good news for Pats fans: The Patriots will still win 12 or 13 games and claim a bye and (probably) home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The deck will be stacked in their favor and -- here's the most important part -- every other team in the AFC has flaws. The Cavs cruise to the Finals every year because their conference is unable to produce a worthy adversary. That same setup might help send the Pats back to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the Belichick-Brady era.

And if they get picked off, blame Mark Wahlberg. By all means.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus and check out his stuff on the End Around.