There are great storylines from this NFL final four, but that's not all that makes it great.
The playoffs have seemed like a raffle lately. The hot team wins. Rarely have we gotten to the last four standing in recent years and been able to say that the best four teams made it through.
We can safely say it this year.
After San Francisco went to Green Bay and Carolina on back-to-back weeks and won, especially after the convincing Panthers win, there's no doubt the 49ers are one of the two best teams in the NFC. The only reason they were the No. 5 seed is because they played in the same division as the Seahawks.
Seattle was the NFL's best team in the regular season, followed closely by Denver. After New England destroyed Indianapolis and Cincinnati went out quietly in the first round, there's nobody else but Denver and New England in the conversation in the AFC. There weren't any flukes this January, just the four best teams in football taking care of business to get to this point.
So how do these teams stack up from one through four? Let's say goodbye to the four teams we lost last weekend, and take a look.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
8. San Diego Chargers
Maybe last week's game is different if Ryan Mathews wasn't trying to play through a reported high ankle sprain, but probably not that much. It was really one-sided through three quarters. But the Chargers got everything they could out of their season.
7. Indianapolis Colts
It says something they got this far with a defense that allowed 87 points in two playoff games. The centerpiece, Andrew Luck, is in place. That's the most important thing. The rest of the roster looks like a rebuilding project, though.
6. New Orleans Saints
The battle over Jimmy Graham, and whether he should be a receiver or tight end for franchise tag purposes, will be interesting. It's not hard to see this team as a Super Bowl contender again next year, not as long as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are around.
5. Carolina Panthers
The NFL world will be watching Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman closely this offseason. They need to find some weapons for Cam Newton and improve the secondary, and they don't have a ton of cap room to do it. He doesn't have an easy job.
THE FINAL FOUR
4. New England Patriots
Being fourth on this list isn't an insult, because there's not much separation between the best and "worst" team alive, and all four teams have a great shot to win it all. It's still amazing that the Patriots are in the AFC title game despite all the offseason issues and injuries. They've reinvented the offense, or at least did last week, and that's not easy. This is seriously one amazing story, but won't be treated as such because we've become so accustomed to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick being on top, it's hard to view them as underdogs.
3. Denver Broncos
The injuries are piling up for the Broncos too. Losing Von Miller was a huge blow, and so is cornerback Chris Harris, who is out with a torn ACL. It's a good thing that they have the championship game at home, where the forecast calls for a high of 58 degrees, partly cloudy and little wind. The Peyton Manning-cold weather playoff panic was probably a little premature.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle was the best team, without much doubt, in the regular season. So it's tough to move them down now. But the offensive issues are real. They gained just 277 yards against the Saints. And that's their second-best game since Dec. 2. They've gained 265.8 yards per game over their last five. To put that in perspective, the Buccaneers were 32nd in the NFL in total offense in the regular season, at 277 yards per game. Jacksonville was the only other team that gained less than 304.8 yards per game, at 293.8. So this isn't a minor slump for Seattle's offense, it's a real crisis. They just don't have enough playmakers on the outside, and who knows how healthy Percy Harvin is. Maybe the defense can carry them to a title or the offense finds the spark it had for the first three-quarters of the season. But you can't ignore what's happening to Seattle's offense.
1. San Francisco 49ers
If every game from here on out was on a neutral field, I'd pick the 49ers to win it all. Now, that's why the regular season matters, and why Sunday's NFC title game is at Seattle. The Seahawks earned the right to host, and they have the best home-field advantage in the NFL. It wouldn't surprise me at all if that carried the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. But right now the 49ers are playing great defense and the offense is much more diverse with Michael Crabtree back. They have three viable threats for Colin Kaepernick (Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Crabtree) and compare that to the Seahawks' options. The running game is strong. They're well coached. And they're on a 13-2 run with the two losses coming by four combined points to Carolina and New Orleans.
That doesn't mean the 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl. Home-field advantage this weekend can't be dismissed, and any one of these four teams can beat the other. But right now, it's hard to argue that the 49ers are playing the best of all the teams who still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
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