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In this NFL season the mighty Cardinals beat the Patriots in Foxborough. The Jets actually scored 48 points in a game. The 75th pick in the draft (Seattle's Russell Wilson) finished with a higher passer rating than Tom Brady and Drew Brees; the 173rd pick (Washington's Alfred Morris) rushed for more yards than Ray Rice and, well, everyone not named Adrian Peterson. The same Giants defensive cast that stifled Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Brady in last year's postseason ranked 31st in the league in defense this year.
The Colts, Redskins and Seahawks won 14 games combined last year, and none made the playoffs. The Colts, Redskins and Seahawks started rookie quarterbacks every game this season and won 32 games combined this year. All made the playoffs.
In other words, forecast the regular season at your own risk.
But the playoffs? Not as tough to pick as you'd think. You don't have to be Nate Silver to see how past performance helps predict future results. Here are five pieces of advice when you sit down to figure out who will meet in Super Bowl XLVII—and who will win.
1. Seeds are meaningless. Seeding of the last seven Super Bowl champs, starting with the most recent: 4, 6, 1, 2, 5, 3, 6. The last two teams to win the Super Bowl, the Giants and the Packers, played five of their six conference playoff games on the road, showing that the playoffs are about who's playing best in January, not who's playing at home. The fifth-seed Seahawks will have to win at Atlanta and then at Green Bay or San Francisco to reach the Super Bowl this year, but recent history says you shouldn't discount their chances.
2. It's good to have a quarterback with a pedigree. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers—is this a list of the six quarterbacks who have won the last nine Super Bowls or a roll call of the Canton-bound QBs of this era? Or both? When San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh benched Smith for Colin Kaepernick in November, part of his thinking was that he knew he needed a quarterback in January who could make more plays than Smith did against the playoff-tested Giants in last year's NFC title game. And certainly when Denver president John Elway went all in chasing free agent Peyton Manning last March, he was thinking of winning a Super Bowl, not a wild-card game.
3. It's best to have a quarterback you trust in the biggest moments. Brady began to make his bones with a field goal drive in the last two minutes to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl 11 years ago. Eli Manning might have fashioned a Hall of Fame bust with his late touchdown drives to beat the Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Those two Eli wins bracketed three other superb performances by the winning QBs in the intervening Super Bowls: Roethlisberger's threading the needle to Santonio Holmes to beat Arizona, Brees's completing 15 straight against the Colts and Rodgers's making a perfect arcing throw downfield to Greg Jennings on the winning drive against the Steelers.
4. You'd better be playing good defense, with a pass rush. All 16 Super Bowl winners since 1995 have allowed fewer than three touchdowns per game, on average, in their postseason runs. The Giants' pass rush is what stood in the way of Brady's having four or five Super Bowl rings. Think of the roles that Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Robert Mathis, respectively, played in the Packers', Steelers' and Colts' recent Super Bowl runs.
5. Being hot down the stretch is important—but not as essential as being healthy. In 2007, the Giants lost two of three and squeezed in as a wild card. Two years later New Orleans went from 13--0 to 13--3 before rampaging through the postseason. But the last nine Super Bowl winners had their starting quarterbacks and top two offensive weapons intact in the playoffs, except for a gimpy Plaxico Burress in '07 for the Giants—and even he caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII.
So let's see who fits the criteria as the NFL enters the divisional playoff round this weekend. In the AFC, Denver has the established quarterback in Peyton Manning, the pass rush with Von Miller (page 56) and Elvis Dumervil, good health and the hot-down-the-stretch element—the Broncos have won 11 in a row. New England has most of that ... but its best pass rusher is potentially wounded. Rob Ninkovich, who led the team with eight sacks, limped off the field in Week 17 with a hip injury, and though he'll play on Sunday against Houston, he may be limited. The Texans' Matt Schaub hasn't proved he can be trusted in the big spot yet, and Baltimore's struggling offense and patchwork defense make the Ravens long shots.