There is more than one way to try to win the Super Bowl. There are, in fact, four.
Every NFL team has its own organizational philosophy and playing style, but the teams with any real chance of winning the Super Bowl this year can be chunked into these four broad categories:
Category 1: Wind up the Franchise Quarterback and Watch Him Go
TEAMS: Broncos, Packers, Patriots, Saints
These teams remain Super Bowl contenders as long as their quarterbacks are healthy. Not only are their offenses pass-heavy, but their systems are also built around the quarterbacks' ability to make adjustments at the line and read defenses as easily as they read restaurant menus. The Packers, Saints and Patriots have loaded up with receiving talent to assist their franchise quarterbacks; the Broncos know Peyton Manning got used to throwing to guys like Jacob Tamme late in his career, so they don't want to mix him up.
All of these teams field competitive defenses, usually the kind that produces turnovers when opponents are forced to catch up. But while their coaches may stress balance and ball control, these teams win an awful lot of 34-27 and 45-41 games. (Except the Broncos, but they are now really the spiritual descendants of the 2006 Colts.)
Category 2: Strong and Sturdy Everywhere Wins the Race
TEAMS: Bears, Bengals, Chiefs, Falcons, Giants
The Giants won two Super Bowls in four years with pure teamwork. The passing game, rushing game and overall defense were all solid, the special teams pitched in, and the bench was strong enough to keep things humming in the face of multiple injuries. The Falcons follow a similar path; last year, it led them straight into the Giants. The Bears put most of the elements together last year but forgot about the bench. The Bengals and Chiefs have provisional membership in this category.
The best teams in this category have very good quarterbacks, but not the kind who can complete 70 percent of their passes over four seasons or throw four interceptions in 500 attempts. Category 2 teams are hard to build, but it may be harder to acquire and develop a Category 1 quarterback than the dozens of capable players needed to be strong across the roster.
Just about every coach, general manager and owner in the league would swear that they aim for Category 2 every season, even the ones that score 32 points per game but load up on receivers and tight ends in free agency. A few teams, however, are defiantly proud to be part of the next category.
Category 3: Ground, Pound and Rarely Throw it Around
TEAMS: 49ers, Jets, Ravens, Seahawks, Steelers, Texans, Titans
These teams could travel back in time to 1975 and fit right in. They are built around their running backs and defenses. The quarterbacks are expected to just make a big play or two and not turn over the ball.
The Ravens, 49ers and Jets are textbook examples of this philosophy. The Steelers are a Category 2 team that reverts to Category 3 at the first sign of trouble, like when Ben Roethlisberger starts limping. Ditto for the Texans; once Matt Schaub or Andre Johnson go down, they will call 45 zone-stretch handoffs per game and love it. The Seahawks and Titans are provisional members.
Category 3 is a great strategy in a weak division, as the 49ers demonstrated last season. It's a terrible strategy in a division with a Category 1 powerhouse, but don't even try to explain that to Rex Ryan.
Category 4: Big-Play/Big-Mistake Roulette
TEAMS: Bills, Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Panthers
These teams aspired to Category 1 or Category 2, but failed. They have exceptional strengths but potentially crippling weaknesses, meaning they could win or lose 42-10 in any given week.
The Lions are the ultimate boom-or-bust team -- exceptional passing game, no running game, a defense that could produce 10 sacks or 150 yards in roughness penalties. Both the Eagles and Cowboys walk a tightrope of bombs and sacks on both sides of the ball, though the Eagles are more likely to allow a 60-yard run up the middle on defense than a bomb. The Chargers vacillate between Category 2 and Category 4, depending on Norv Turner's nap schedule. The Bills, with their gadget offense and expensive new defensive acquisitions, are provisional members. So are the Panthers, who may be a year away from Category 1.
No team wants to stay in this category long; it's a rest stop on the way up (Lions, Panthers, Bills), a foothold for a long-time contender on the way down (Eagles), or a symptom of crippling organizational bewilderment (Cowboys, Chargers). The Redskins may join these ranks this season, and if they do, it will be their greatest accomplishment of the decade.
Sitting outside the four categories are the obvious rebuilding teams: the Redskins, Raiders, Colts, Rams, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Browns, Jaguars, Dolphins and Vikings. A few of these teams are in an organizational malaise that defies categorization.
From Pigeon Holes to Super Bowls
Now that we've oversimplified the NFL into a four-part harmony, let's make things one step simpler. The best way to reach the Super Bowl is to transcend your category. A team with a franchise quarterback must develop something else. A team that is good at everything must become great at something. A ground-pound team must get more than the occasional blip from its passing game. A big play-big mistake team must eliminate the latter.
The provisional teams' (Seahawks, Chiefs, Titans, Bengals, Bills, Panthers) aren't ready to transcend anything yet. The Eagles, Cowboys and Chargers have been doing what they do for too long to change. If the Lions discovered discipline in the offseason, they had a funny way of showing it.
The Broncos have a franchise quarterback, but almost nothing else. The Saints are also a little too dependent on one man this year. The Jets won't get anything from their passing game this year and have given up pretending to try.
We're down to nine teams. The 49ers and Texans can ride easy divisions into the postseason, but it's hard to envision either of them surviving the playoff gauntlet. The Bears and Steelers have weak offensive lines and old defenses, undermining their philosophies. The Giants? The problem with going 9-7 and winning the Super Bowl is that it's easy to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
That leaves the Packers, Patriots, Falcons, and Ravens. The usual suspects. Teams that have a habit of meeting in the playoffs. Logical, if somewhat predictable, choices for the championship games.
If you are craving a Super Bowl prediction: Patriots over Falcons.
Of course, the NFL, like Plinko, is completely unpredictable: there may only be four slots at the bottom of the board, but you can never guess where the balls are going to land.