The wild-card teams in the NFL playoffs are the true wild cards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most dangerous quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The Seattle Seahawks have the most dangerous team. The Kansas City Chiefs are the hottest team, with 10 wins in a row. The Green Bay Packers offer the passing of Aaron Rodgers.
Ten playoff wild cards have advanced to the Super Bowl, and six have gone all the way to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Since the 32-team realignment in 2002, three wild cards have won Super Bowls, so don't immediately block the paths of this year's entries to the Super Bowl because of three possible road games. The wild cards have chances because this postseason is wide-open for several reasons.
My colleague, Mike Sando, is ranking the playoff teams. I am going to evaluate the paths to the Super Bowl, which may offer some surprises. Quarterback injuries certainly play into the equation, as that creates situations in which inexperience factors in.
So here goes, the best paths to the Super Bowl, from clearest to foggiest:
1. New England Patriots: Even though the Broncos took away home-field advantage from the Patriots on Sunday, the Pats have the best path of any team to go back to the Super Bowl, because they have the best AFC quarterback standing, Tom Brady. Sure, Brady took some hits down the stretch and lost his final two games. It was strange seeing him play in the season finale, because Bill Belichick is usually in position to rest his starters before a bye week. Look at the quarterbacks in the AFC among other top teams: Peyton Manning has a plantar fascia injury and isn't what he has been; and Andy Dalton is hoping to play in the Cincinnati playoff game, but he may be pressing it four weeks after breaking his right thumb. Beyond that, you have Alex Smith or Brian Hoyer under pressure on a big stage if one of them comes to Foxborough in the divisional round. The bye week will give the Patriots a chance to get Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer back for the offense. Even as the second seed, the Pats have a lot going for them.
2. Carolina Panthers: The road to the Super Bowl goes through Charlotte. At the very least, the Panthers have a good chance to be in the championship game, and it would be at home. Their best path is to avoid playing the Seahawks in the divisional round. The Seahawks came into Charlotte three times in Russell Wilson's first three years and won low-scoring games. Even though the Panthers won a high-scoring game against the Seahawks in Seattle this season, the Seahawks fear no team and have the experience and leadership to win on the road. But the bye week will allow Carolina's offense to get healthy. Jonathan Stewart should be back running the football. What might make the Panthers vulnerable to defeat is age and injury in the secondary. Cornerback Charles Tillman reinjured his knee Sunday. Cortland Finnegan came out of retirement to play the slot. Safety Roman Harper is 33. That said, the Panthers were the only team in football to go 8-0 at home, and that means plenty for a team that knows how to win anywhere it plays.
3. Arizona Cardinals: Despite the embarrassing 36-6 loss to Seattle on Sunday, the Cardinals might be the most complete team in the playoffs -- good on offense, defense and special teams. Coach Bruce Arians is using the loss as a teaching tool. "This was a valuable lesson today," Arians said. "You could see it coming all week. Players, coaches reading press clippings." The Cardinals, like most teams, are banged up, but they will be healthier given the week off, allowing players to rest and heal their bodies. Sunday's loss may have let Cam Newton get the MVP vote over Carson Palmer, but Palmer will be extra motivated. He had his best year. This is his best team. He's looking to win his first playoff game, and he needs only two wins to get to the Super Bowl.
4. Seattle Seahawks: With the way Russell Wilson is running the Seahawks' offense, the team is never out of any game. Last week's loss to the St. Louis Rams ended a 62-game streak in which the Seahawks held the lead at some point. Wilson has had only two games in which his team lost by more than seven points, and he has had the lead in each of those games. San Diego and Green Bay got late scores to win by more than seven. The Seahawks looked like a Super Bowl team Sunday, going into Arizona and winning by 30 points, even though they were missing their top two offensive linemen (Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy), halfback Marshawn Lynch and strong safety Kam Chancellor. Lynch is expected to return Monday. Wilson is on fire and the defense regained its swagger. With this team, it's not as much about who they play, it's that they could be a favorite in every instance.
5. Denver Broncos: Getting two home games and home-field advantage was huge, because there was no way the Broncos would have made the Super Bowl as a wild card or by going to New England. Still, this won't be easy. Gary Kubiak has to choose between Manning and Brock Osweiler at quarterback. Osweiler faded down the stretch, opening the door for Manning to come off the bench and lead the Broncos to Sunday's thrilling victory over San Diego. What you don't know is whether Manning can hold out on his bad foot for two games. Wade Phillips' defense keeps their hopes alive, but even with Manning, the offense has been average and might be at risk of turnovers if he can't plant his feet.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: This season reminds me so much of 2005, when the Steelers were the wild card, knocked out Carson Palmer's knee in the first round of the playoffs and went to the Super Bowl, where they beat Seattle. Andy Dalton broke his thumb in the one-sided loss to Pittsburgh four weeks ago. If he plays against the Steelers, will his grip be good enough to get the offense into the range of the 27.8 points a game he averaged as a starter this season? With Roethlisberger in charge of the offense, the Steelers can score on anyone. The offense is good enough to go to Denver or New England and score. The Steelers are the most dangerous team in the AFC, even though they needed help to get into the playoffs.
7. Kansas City Chiefs: Ron Rivera is probably the coach of the year in the NFC. Andy Reid is the coach of the year in the AFC. The Chiefs allowed only 128 points over the final 10 games. Except for his back-to-back interceptions Sunday against Oakland, Alex Smith does a great job of protecting the ball. The path isn't bad to start. They are favored to beat the Houston Texans. After that, it could be tough. Smith would go into the divisional round with a 2-2 playoff record, but it's hard to think he's good enough to win three playoff games -- unless we see some of the best play of his career.
8. Cincinnati Bengals: I feel bad for the Bengals. This is their best overall team in more than two decades. Dalton has been so good this year, he should be in the top five in the MVP vote. I fear they could be one-and-done for the fifth straight year. Fans question Dalton's ability to rise to the occasion, but this time health is the issue. Had Dalton not injured his thumb, the Bengals probably would have finished as the No. 1 seed and be at the top of this list. The roster is excellent, but we just don't know what they'll have at the most important position.
9. Green Bay Packers: This doesn't look like a Super Bowl season for the Packers. In fact, they were so bad offensively down the stretch, they needed a Hail Mary in Detroit just to get into the playoffs. The problem is twofold. First, receivers can't get separation from defenders: Between Week 6 and Week 16, the Packers averaged only 318.8 yards a game offensively, ranking 25th in the league. Through 16 weeks, Rodgers completed only 28 of his passes that went 20 yards in the air; he was at 50 last year. Teams play one safety deep against the slow Packers receivers and go at them with man coverage. The other problem is injuries have really taken a toll on the offensive line. Protection broke down so badly that Rodgers was sacked eight times last week against Arizona. It's hard to believe, but the Packers' path to the Super Bowl is weakened because of the offense.
10. Minnesota Vikings: The easiest thing to figure out this season was that the Vikings were going to be a playoff team. You put Adrian Peterson in the backfield with young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who went 6-6 as a starter and scored 22 points a game as a rookie, and they were an easy playoff pick. But his recent play makes you wonder if Bridgewater is truly ready to take this team to the Super Bowl. Going into the Sunday night game against Green Bay, the Vikings have been 2-11 against .500 teams or better. They might be good enough to get one playoff win, but it's a mystery beyond that.
11. Houston Texans: Congratulations on winning the AFC South. The Texans might be able to match the Chiefs for defense. Brian Hoyer might be able to have a good game against Alex Smith, but he's not going to be able to win in Denver or New England. Can the defense play at an incredible level? And can Hoyer go beyond his previous level of play?
12. Washington Redskins: Jay Gruden found a quarterback by picking Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III. His hiring of Bill Callahan has been crucial to the rebuilding process of the offensive line. Everything is headed in the right direction, but winning the NFC East isn't going to have anyone thinking Super Bowl just yet. No team faces a tougher path.
Inside the Huddle
The finish for running backs was even worse than expected. Injuries to Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and LeSean McCoy limited the NFL to only seven 1,000-yard rushers, six fewer than in 2013 and 2014. There were only 93 100-yard games by running backs, six fewer than last year.
The 2015 season will be remembered for its close games. More than 50 percent of the games ended up decided by seven points or fewer. That's the most since 2002.
Chaos is everywhere in Cleveland, and that extends to the field. Center Alex Mack is expected to opt out of his contract to get with a winning team. Left tackle Joe Thomas, the team's best player, said, "If they bring in Mangini Part 2, I don't know if I want to be here. I've lived it."
Don't discount the chances of Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson as the Philadelphia Eagles' next coach. He has spent more time in Philadelphia than Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who is expected to interview with the Eagles this week.
The Bears expect to lose offensive coordinator Adam Gase to Miami, Cleveland or another team.
Don't underestimate the chances of former Bills coach Doug Marrone getting interviews for head-coaching jobs with as many as eight teams looking for coaches.
I do think the Detroit Lions will hire a general manager who would like to keep Jim Caldwell as head coach and Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator. Ownership likes Caldwell. Matthew Stafford likes Cooter.