By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Here’s something that all NFL fans should understand: The best team in the league does not win the Super Bowl.
The hottest team in the league will come away with the title when the AFC and NFC champions meet Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
You don’t have to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and have a bye to win the Super Bowl. Last year’s Packers were the No. 6 seed and wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if they hadn’t beaten the Bears in the regular-season finale. They did and then they rolled through the Eagles, Falcons, Bears and Steelers in Super Bowl XLV behind red-hot Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball with Montana-like precision.
Since the NFL went to its current four-division setup in 2002, teams that played during Wild-Card weekend have made five Super Bowl appearances and have won three of them. In addition to last year’s Packers, the 2007 Giants were road warriors who defeated Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay on the road before beating the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
The 2005 Steelers beat the Bengals, Colts and Broncos on the road and capped the careers of Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis by beating the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
The precedent is there for success, and don’t be surprised if the Saints write their own championship story again this year. The No. 3 seed in the NFC would appear to have the same kind of explosiveness as the Packers and the Patriots and it would not be a shocker if Drew Brees led them to their second Super Bowl title in three years.
As impressive as the Packers, Saints and Patriots are, they have major flaws. In the new NFL, you don’t have to play defense to win. It’s been trending in that direction for years, but the 2011 season will be remembered as the year the best teams in the league just stopped playing on the other side of the ball.
The three worst teams at defending the pass are the Packers, Patriots and Saints, in that order. The Packers won their first 13 games and threatened ruining Mercury Morris’s life when it looked like they might go undefeated. But as explosive as the Packers are, opponents threw for a league-high 4,796 yards against them.
The Patriots fell behind the Dolphins and Bills in the last two weeks because their pass defense is so shockingly bad. When you have Tom Brady lining up behind center, you can come back against mediocre teams without a problem even when you allow 4,703 yards through the air. The Saints are also slow in coverage. While they can light up the scoreboard, they gave up 4,157 passing yards and a league-worst 14 passing plays of 40 yards or more.
Despite this weakness, only the Ravens and Steelers would appear to have outside chances of stealing the championship from Green Bay, New Orleans or New England. Both the Ravens and the Steelers have the kind of traditional teams that used to win championships. They play defense first and then they worry about offense. The Steelers have the top-rated defense in the league while the Ravens are third.
Are we simply dismissing everyone else? Absolutely. The 49ers may deserve more respect based on their 13-3 season and having the fourth-best defense in the league, but this team does not have the firepower on offense. Alex Smith is not a quarterback who wins games. He is the dreaded game manager and Jim Harbaugh knows that if the 49ers have to come from behind and Smith has to throw the ball all over the lot to stay in the game, his team will collapse.
Ben Roethlisberger’s damaged ankle will probably keep the Steelers from making a long march. The Ravens have a chance. Joe Flacco has shown he can come up big in playoff games and Ray Rice is a game breaker at running back. As far as the Bengals, Texans and Broncos are concerned, they are merely there to serve as cannon fodder.
On the NFC side, the Falcons and Giants should be primed to play a great game this Sunday, but the winner will have little chance against the Packers. The Lions may suffer a beating of epic proportions at the hands of the Saints.
Playoff time used to be for teams that limited their mistakes on offense and played great defense. You still can’t turn the ball over, but defense no longer matters. You have to be able to light up the scoreboard if you are going to have a chance.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.