There is no favorite left in the NFL playoffs - NBC Sports

There is no favorite left in the NFL playoffs
Brady gives Patriots an edge, but it's a razor-thin margin over other 3 teams
Reuters
Tom Brady could take the Patriots back to their first Super Bowl since the 2007 season.
January 16, 2012, 12:01 am

The Patriots, Ravens, 49ers, and Giants are all talented teams with obvious limitations. They are all fallible.

It feels like any team left has a great shot at the title, but of course that was the case all along. It just took the Packers and Saints getting knocked out to remind us that the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy was wide open.

We like to convince ourselves the NFL is predictable. We forget that the regular season often has little to do with the postseason. Every year, we are surprised and come back for more.

Consider: Next Sunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens marks the first time since 2004 that the top two seeds made the AFC Championship.

The NFC proved far more surprising. In the year of the record-setting quarterback, Alex Smith's team beat Drew Brees' Saints in a furious late shootout. Aaron Rodgers will likely win the MVP, but he was outplayed by Eli Manning.

All year, the Giants had a defense that gave up big plays in bunches. They couldn't run the ball on offense. But they spackled those problems, displayed their considerable talent, and well, got a little lucky. (9-7 wouldn't make the playoffs in most divisions.)

Now the Giants have a solid chance to win their second title under Tom Coughlin. I can't remember a Final Four that was more evenly matched. It wouldn't surprise me if any of these teams won, but I'm going to lamely try to predict what teams have the best chance left to win it all.

As NFL fans, we never learn.

1. New England Patriots
Things have fallen into place nicely for the Patriots. They only had to beat a mediocre Broncos team to get to the AFC title game.

The recipe to beat New England in the playoffs was simple: have a pass rush and a quarterback. Well, the best quarterbacks have been knocked out.

Baltimore is a difficult test, but the Patriots are a much different team than they were in 2009 when the Ravens won in Foxborough. They have won in a variety of ways. More importantly, Tom Brady has Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez at his disposal.

The Patriots' defense has also quietly improved. They are healthier than they have been all year with safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes both making a huge difference.

New England gets the top spot on my list because they have the last transcendent quarterback left in the field. In a one-game situation, I'll still take Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick drawing up a gameplan.

Brady and Belichick will only get so many chances to win one more title. They know what a great opportunity they have in front of them.

2. San Francisco 49ers
If the 49ers can survive that game against New Orleans, they can survive anything. The 49ers have the best group of defensive players remaining. Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, and Navorro Bowman are all among the best at their positions.

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Image: AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots

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3. New York Giants
Winning in Green Bay and San Francisco in back-to-back weeks is a tall order. The Giants can match up with any team's talent, but scoring on the 49ers will be difficult. New York's sagging running game figures to be stuffed.

The Falcons and Packers haven't had the horses to show the holes in New York's pass protection, but the 49ers can get to any quarterback. Just ask Drew Brees.

The Giants are peaking at the right time and they will get a lot of comparisons to the '07 title team. They remind me more of the '08 Eagles. That Philadelphia team was talented, got hot late in the year, and then lost in the NFC Championship game in Arizona just when everyone expected them to win.

4. Baltimore Ravens
The gap between the Ravens and Patriots is not great, but Baltimore finished fourth in my little exercise for a few reasons.

Houston dominated the line of scrimmage against Baltimore. The Texans were the better running team, and they had the better pass rush.

Baltimore had the better quarterback against Houston, but that won't be true against the Patriots. And it won't be true if the Ravens faced the Giants; Joe Flacco simply hasn't played that well down the stretch this season.

Could the Ravens win it all? Of course. But they are playing on the road Sunday and don't seem to be playing their best football.

As we learned Sunday, that can all change in one performance.