Participating in back-to-back Super Bowls is an impressive achievement. The New England Patriots were the last team to accomplish that feat when they won Super Bowls after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. As you can see by the accompanying chart (right), participating in consecutive conference championship games is also very difficult. While the New York Jets recently managed back-to-back appearances in the AFC title game, the NFC title game hasn't had a repeat participant since the Philadelphia Eagles made four straight in the early aughts.
The New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Patriots will each field very talented teams in 2012, but the odds are against most of them returning to their respective conference title game. With that in mind, I've ranked those teams from 1 to 4 based on their chances of playing in this year's AFC/NFC Championship Game.
1) New England Patriots
Why they will return to the AFC Championship Game: Tom Brady is the main reason why the Patriots have the best chance of returning to the conference championship game. He continues to play at an elite level and he is clearly the top quarterback in the AFC. It is almost a given that the Patriots will win their division considering they have done just that in eight of the past nine seasons. The defense should be more athletic in 2012 with the addition of first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.
Why they won't return to the AFC Championship Game: There are still concerns on the defensive side of the ball. They finished the 2011 season ranked 31st in total defense and pass defense. They added nice pieces via the draft, but there likely will be an adjustment period before those rookies can have a major impact. By letting Mark Anderson depart and failing to re-sign an injured Andre Carter, the Patriots must find a way to replace 20 of their 40 sacks from last season. The offense is in very good shape, but New England must replace two very dependable players in OT Matt Light and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
2) San Francisco 49ers
Why they will return to the NFC Championship Game: The 49ers have arguably the most talented young roster in the NFL. They return eight Pro Bowl selections from last season and have added several impact players in both free agency and the draft. The defense is dominant up the middle, boasting several elite players: DL Justin Smith, LB Patrick Willis, LB NaVorro Bowman and safety Dashon Goldson are each among the top players in the NFL at their respective positions. The offense was very conservative in the 2011 regular season, but flashed potential by winning a playoff shootout against the high-octane New Orleans Saints. The offseason addition of WRs Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins should provide a huge boost to the 49ers' passing attack in 2012.
Why they won't return to the NFC Championship Game: The 49ers will have a tougher road to the conference title game. They'll have to navigate a first-place schedule and the NFC West should be greatly improved. Alex Smith will be under pressure to improve his production after the 49ers front office aggressively upgraded the wide receiver position in the offseason. Punter Andy Lee and placekicker David Akers will be hard-pressed to duplicate their record-breaking performances of 2011.
3) Baltimore Ravens
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Why they will return to the AFC Championship Game: This team is extremely battle-tested and has won at least one playoff game in each of the past four seasons. Joe Flacco outplayed Brady in last year's AFC title game and proved he was ready to take the next step in his development. The defense is still led by two hungry future Hall of Famers (Ray Lewis and Ed Reed) and shows no sign of losing its reputation as the NFL's most physical unit.
Why they won't return to the AFC Championship Game: The potential season-ending injury to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs was a huge blow to the Ravens. They don't have a player on their roster capable of replacing his production as a pass rusher. The Ravens must also navigate through the only division in the NFL that sent three teams to the postseason in 2011. There is also the potential distraction of the contract extensions sought by both Flacco and running back Ray Rice.
4) New York Giants
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Why they will return to the NFC Championship Game: Eli Manning cemented his status as one of the NFL's top signal callers with his performance last season. The pass-catching duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz is arguably the best in the NFL. The defense returns one of the top pass-rushing fronts in the entire league. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was dominant last season and he is one of the early favorites for Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
Why they won't return to the NFC Championship Game: They must first earn a ticket to the postseason. That won't be an easy task in 2012. There hasn't been a repeat winner in the NFC East since the 2004 Eagles won their fourth consecutive division title. All three of the Giants' NFC East opponents have made major roster upgrades: The Eagles plugged holes at linebacker, the Cowboys added two talented cornerbacks and the Redskins secured a franchise quarterback. The Giants likely will need much better production out of their secondary and running game to return to the NFC Championship Game. In 2011, their defense ranked 29th against the pass and their offense featured the league's worst rushing attack.