We begin our preview of this weekend’s NFL playoffs (the onset in Miami of annual mourning by bereft Dolfans) by bringing you an astonishment and a guarantee.
The astonishment is that my preseason Super Bowl prediction — San Francisco 49ers over Houston Texans, published on these pages Sept. 7 — remains very much in play. This is against all odds. Not that those teams proved to really good, but that I somehow foresaw it.
The guarantee is that, with New Orleans hosting the 47th Super Bowl in one month less a day, angry Saints fans sent reeling from the playoffs by Bountygate will boo NFL commissioner Roger Goodell so loudly during the postgame presentation that the Vince Lombardi Trophy will explode in his hands from the decibels.
There are no other certainties involving this postseason, except this:
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Emotional, exciting story lines.
Interspersed among the 12 surviving teams, we have two of the greatest comeback seasons in the history of sports with Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson.
We have a retiring legend’s last hurrah in the old Cane, Ray Lewis.
Three record-setting rookie quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
A coach heroically back from a months-long battle with leukemia in Chuck Pagano.
Five teams that have never won a Super Bowl.
And, for a bit of local serendipity, unlikely starring roles for an FIU Panther and (yes) an FAU Owl in T.Y. Hilton and Alfred Morris.
Here, now, I rank the 12 playoff teams top to bottom based on overall likelihood they’ll be handed the exploded shrapnel that used to be the Lombardi trophy:
1. Denver Broncos: Manning, likely league MVP, has won 11 games in a row, none of them all that close, has the home-field advantage throughout and a very good defense, by the way. (Sorry, Dolfans, but Peyton picking Denver over Miami in free agency is looking like a pretty good call by him.)
2. Green Bay Packers: Yeah, I know they’ll have to win on the road, but I really trust Aaron Rodgers, and that defense gets a huge boost with Charles Woodson’s return from injury.
3. New England Patriots: The team Miami wants to be when it grows up is still going strong in what seems like the 45th year of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady regime.
4. San Francisco 49ers: I like my predicted champs a lot, I just can’t pick Colin Kaepernick over Rodgers to come out of the NFC.
5. Atlanta Falcons: This is low to rank a top seed, but Falcs are 0-3 in the playoffs under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, and last week’s home loss to Tampa Bay didn’t inspire much confidence.
6. Houston Texans: They ended the season rather sluggishly, but this team has the talent (eight Pro Bowl picks) to play with the big dogs.
7. Washington Redskins: Rookie stars RG3 and Morris give this team a Cinderella quality. An upset this weekend, and who knows?
8. Baltimore Ravens: Return of Lewis adds an emotional lift, but just can’t see this team winning at Denver or New England.
9. Seattle Seahawks: If every playoff game was at home, maybe. Team not good enough on road, even with Wilson.
10. Indianapolis Colts: Pagano is an inspiration and Hilton had a big season, but the team is too mistake-prone (minus-12 on turnovers), so the Colts will soon run out of Luck.
11. Cincinnati Bengals: Most recent playoff win was in 1990. Why start now?
12. Minnesota Vikings: Last because, Peterson or not, I give ’em the least chance to win this week.
OK, now let’s rank the 12 teams not by Super Bowl chances but by Independent Rooting Interest (IRI), which I just made up. Who should you be hoping wins it all if you aren’t a fan of any team in particular?
Answer: Which fans are most starving for a Super Bowl?
I added each franchise’s number of seasons since its last Super Bowl win and last SB appearance. The combined number of years is our IRI index, and the higher the number, the greater the historic underdog. Here we go:
1. Vikings (88): No SB wins in 52 franchise years; last appearance 1976.
2. Bengals (69): No SB wins in 45 franchise years; last appearance 1988.
3. Falcons (61): No SB wins in 47 franchise years; last appearance 1998.
4. Seahawks (44): No SB wins in 37 franchise years; last appearance 2005.
5. Redskins (42): Last SB win and appearance, 1991.
6. 49ers (36): Last SB win and appearance, 1994.
7. Broncos (28): Last SB win and appearance, 1998.
8. Ravens (24): Last SB win and appearance, 2000.
9. Texans (22): No SB wins or appearances in 11 franchise years.
10. Patriots (9): Last SB win, 2004; last appearance, 2011.
11. Colts (9): Last SB win, 2006; last appearance, 2009.
12. Packers (4): Last SB win and appearance, 2010.
To summarize, put your money on the Broncos if you want to saddle up the Super Bowl favorite. But put on your purple for the Vikings if you’d like to adopt a somewhat more sentimental rooting interest.
By the way, the Dolphins would have an IRI index of 67 years — last SB win, 1973; last appearance, 1984 — and would have trailed only the Vikes and Bengals on our misery/waiting list. Had they made the playoffs, of course.
I’m sorry if the preceding paragraph made any Dolfans even sadder than they already naturally are this time of year.
Our King Sport 2012 season awards, briefly:
•MVP — Peyton Manning, Broncos QB:
A late charge by Vikes RB Adrian Peterson, but Manning’s comeback year has Denver poised as Super Bowl frontrunner.
•Offensive Player of Year — Adrian Peterson, Vikings RB:
Coming within 9 yards of the 28-year-old league rushing record is good enough for me.
•Defensive Player of Year — J.J. Watt, Texans DE:
This category is a virtual tie, though, with the Broncos’ Von Miller.
•Offensive rookie — Robert Griffin III, Redskins QB:
I think the Colts’ Andrew Luck will win, but I look at RG3’s numbers and can’t deny them. Or him.
•Defensive rookie — Luke Kuechly, Panthers LB:
A wide-open race, but Kuechly was the tackling machine he was advertised to be.
•Coach of Year — Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians Arian, Colts:
No sympathy vote. Pagano’s fight with leukemia and Arians taking over shaped Indy’s remarkable year.
•Dolphins MVP — Ryan Tannehill, QB:
Team’s lone Pro Bowl pick, defensive end Cam Wake, would be a safe choice, but Tannehill’s progress was the story of Miami’s year.