Super Bowl forecasts always have been difficult to make. Because teams that enjoyed first-round playoff byes have failed in recent divisional-round playoff games, accurate forecasts are almost impossible. For instance, this past postseason, three of the four bye-week playoff teams lost in the divisional round. Since the 2006 postseason, the higher-seeded teams in the divisional-round contests have posted a 5-7 record.
The key to determining Super Bowl contenders is figuring out which teams will come together late in the regular season and then get hot during the playoffs. Even predicting those teams is hard. The Arizona Cardinals were terrible in December but won three playoff games to reach Super Bowl XLIII. In the 2005, 2006 and 2007 postseasons, the Steelers, Colts and Giants won Super Bowls, even though each played in wild-card games. The 2007 Giants and 2005 Steelers were true wild-card teams; the 2006 Colts won the AFC South Division but finished behind the 14-2 Chargers and 13-3 Ravens in the overall AFC standings.
The task of forecasting the Super Bowl is more of a wild card than ever.
Here are the three teams in each conference -- in no particular order -- that are my favorites to contend for berths in Super Bowl XLIV in Dolphin Stadium on Feb. 7, 2010.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The champions have a chance to repeat because they'll play an easy schedule next season. That's a rare circumstance for defending champions. The Steelers entered the 2008 season with a .598 strength of schedule that decreased to a still-tough .525 when the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars had down seasons. In addition to playing AFC North teams, the Steelers will play AFC West and NFC North teams in 2009. Those future opponents combined for a .434 winning percentage this past season, so the Steelers will play the fourth-easiest schedule in the league. Their biggest shakeout of players will be along the offensive line. Guard Chris Kemoeatu and offensive tackles Marvel Smith, Max Starks and Trai Essex are unrestricted free agents.
New England Patriots: Even if quarterback Tom Brady doesn't return for the start of the regular season, the Patriots can franchise quarterback Matt Cassel and maintain their high-paced offense. In some ways, the 2009 Patriots could be similar to the 2008 Steelers. The Patriots will play the second-toughest schedule in the league next season; their 2009 opponents combined for a .594 winning percentage this past season. AFC East teams will play the AFC South and NFC South. New England is similar to Pittsburgh in that it is the best team in its division. New England could survive the tough schedule, go into the playoffs as a third or fourth seed and get hot at the end.
San Diego Chargers: I put the Chargers ahead of the Indianapolis Colts only because the Chargers have beaten them in their past two meetings in the playoffs. The Chargers have the best team in the AFC West, a division that underwent three head coaching changes. Philip Rivers continues to grow into an elite quarterback, and general manager A.J. Smith will find some players to fix holes in San Diego's starting lineup.
New York Giants: Until the Dallas Cowboys win a playoff game, it's hard to pick them to go to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys might be the most talented team, but New York is the one team in the division that has made it to the Super Bowl and won in recent years. The Philadelphia Eagles are good enough to make the playoffs and win a game, but their record in NFC Championship Games is 1-4 this decade. The key for the Giants is figuring out what to do with Plaxico Burress. Without him, quarterback Eli Manning won't have a go-to receiver.
Minnesota Vikings: The Chicago Bears will play the league's easiest schedule (.414) in 2009, but the Vikings will play the second-easiest (.420), and they have a better team. If the Vikings come up with a better quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson, they could make a Super Bowl run next season. Several of their key players are getting older, so this is the season head coach Brad Childress must find that quarterback who can push them over the top.
Atlanta Falcons: Quarterback Matt Ryan is the real deal. He went 11-5 as a rookie and could be even better next season. The Falcons will play the fourth-toughest schedule in the league at .588. If the Falcons can win the NFC South, they can enter the playoffs as a third or fourth seed. Ryan will have matured with a second season under his belt and should be able to exploit that experience in the postseason. Team owner Arthur Blank has to make sure the Falcons make aggressive moves this offseason to upgrade the roster and prepare his team for a tougher schedule.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.