NFL preview: Underdog teams ask, ‘Why not us?’

Associated Press file photo by JULIO CORTEZ -- Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after their 34-31 win against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in February. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by JULIO CORTEZ -- Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after their 34-31 win against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in February.

OK, sports fans — and NFL fans, in particular — here’s a little preseason quiz for you now that the make-believe (exhibition) games are over: What was the last franchise to win the Super Bowl as a No. 1 or 2 playoff seed?

If your answer was the New Orleans Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season, go straight to the head of the class.

As the No. 1 seed that year, the Saints made it to the Super Bowl the conventional way — earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and winning two games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to earn their date with destiny.

Since then, the meek have ruled the NFL postseason world. In those three seasons, a No. 6 seed and a pair of fours have beaten the incredible odds in winning seven road games between them.

The 2010 Packers had to win their last two regular-season games just to squeak into the playoffs as the sixth seed but topped the Pittsburgh Steelers. A year later, the Giants were 9-7 but still reached the Super Bowl and beat the New England Patriots.

Last season, of course, the Ravens lost four of their final five games and limped into the playoffs as the fourth seed, as were the Giants one year earlier, and defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

There have been other recent examples of teams flying under the radar.

In 2007, the Giants were seeded fifth but won three playoff games on the road before crushing the Patriots’ dream of a 19-0 season.

And in 2010, the sixth-seeded New York Jets went on the road and upset the No. 3 and 1 seeds, then came up six points short in the AFC title game of making it a 6 seed versus a 6 seed Super Bowl against the Packers.

So, who will it be this season — if anyone?

In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers or Houston Texans could be prime candidates.

The Steelers didn’t make the playoffs last season after finishing 8-8 and in third place in the AFC North. But that will only serve to motivate a proud franchise, not to mention coach Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Texans have been playoff road busts the past two seasons after winning the AFC South title each time. They won their playoff openers at home, but couldn’t win on the road — which is a prerequisite for winning the Super Bowl when you can’t nail down the No. 1 seed.

In the NFC, it could be the Seattle Seahawks, who nearly pulled it off a year ago, or perhaps the Saints.

The Seahawks were seeded fifth for the playoffs and went on the road to beat the Washington Redskins. In the divisional round, they took the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons to the wire before losing by two points and could be a 5 or 6 seed again behind the favored 49ers in the NFC West.

The Saints, of course, missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2008 after a tumultuous season. But coach Sean Payton is back, which could be worth at least three more wins even though the Falcons are favored to win the NFC South.

The problem there is the Saints have never won a postseason game away from the Superdome under Payton — except for Super Bowl XLIV. They can dream, can’t they?

Teams on the rise

Kansas City

2012 RECORD: 2-14

WHY THE OPTIMISM? First, things really can’t get much worse than a year ago. There’s a new Chief in town in Andy Reid, who has 140 wins in 14 seasons as a head coach, and he has enough talent to win at least five more games if quarterback Alex Smith can stay healthy and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is properly motivated.

Arizona

2012 RECORD: 5-11

WHY THE OPTIMISM? Like the Chiefs, they have a new coach in former Saints assistant Bruce Arians. And they also have a new quarterback in Carson Palmer, who has some weapons to use — and a coach to help him use them. Their defense and former LSU star Patrick Peterson haven’t been the problem.

New Orleans

2012 RECORD: 7-9

WHY THE OPTIMISM? Sean Payton isn’t new to the Saints, but he is to a lot of the players on his roster after sitting out the 2012 season as his punishment for the bounty scandal. His presence should be worth at least three more wins and the defense will be better because it couldn’t be any worse than it was in 2012.

San Diego

2012 RECORD: 7-9

WHY THE OPTIMISM? There is a recurring theme here for the teams with new head coaches, in this case Mike McCoy. That’s the presence of a veteran quarterback in Phillip Rivers who can get the job done and a back with potential in Ryan Mathews. But it won’t be easy as they try to rebuild the old-fashioned way: through the draft.

Carolina

2012 RECORD: 7-9

WHY THE OPTIMISM? The Panthers started the 2011 and ’12 with eight losses in their first 10 games, so they have to believe that won’t happen again. If Cam Newton can make some positive strides in his third year, he has enough talent to help him and the defense might be good enough to help carry the load.

Teams on the decline

Baltimore

2012 RECORD: 10-6

WHY THE PESSIMISM? Instead of going for a repeat, the reigning Super Bowl champions could take a big giant step back after losing half of their starting defense — including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They made some nice moves to try to rebound, but Joe Flacco will have to be better than good to get this team back to the playoffs.

Washington

2012 RECORD: 10-6

WHY THE PESSIMISM? Simply put, it’s the health of Robert Griffin III. If the flashy second-year quarterback can’t be as mobile as he was last season just eight months after knee surgery, it could be a tough start. Also, their defense wasn’t that great in 2012; they finished 28th in total yards and were 30th against the pass.

Minnesota

2012 RECORD: 10-6

WHY THE PESSIMISM? Like the Redskins, their defense in the back end is pretty suspect after they ranked 24th against the pass and had just 10 interceptions in the regular season before losing their best cover corner. On offense, Adrian Peterson is great, but questions remain about the consistency of quarterback Christian Ponder.

Houston

2012 RECORD: 12-4

WHY THE PESSIMISM? They’ll probably still make the playoffs because of their solid defense and the fact that their strength of schedule is tied for fifth-easiest in the league. Their offense is also good, but they will have to avoid injuries because they’re back to battling the Colts for the AFC South title.

Cincinnati

2012 RECORD: 10-6

WHY THE PESSIMISM? They made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in three decades and have never done it in three consecutive seasons. So there’s that. They don’t know what to do when they get there as they haven’t won a postseason game in 22 years — the longest current drought in the league.

Five rookies to watch

Dion Jordan, DE

The third overall pick, his stock soared in the weeks and months before the Dolphins traded up to get him. They think he could be the next Jason Taylor, which is saying a lot for one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Tavon Austin, WR

Like Jordan, this 5-foot-9, 174-pound waterbug was a workout warrior in the offseason, which helped him leap in the rankings to become the eighth overall pick by the St. Louis Rams. Will be a dangerous weapon in the open field.

Kenny Vaccaro, S

Aggressive and versatile, he plays both safety positions and can cover slot receivers. The Saints safety plays with a lot of confidence and isn’t afraid to mix it up with anyone, as he showed during preseason camp this summer.

Geno Smith, QB

He lasted until the second round, but the Jets are hoping they got a steal. Mark Sanchez was hurt in the preseason, but it was only a matter of time before Smith took over from an inconsistent Sanchez anyway.

Montee Ball, RB

No running backs were chosen in the first round, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have good ones. A productive back in college, Ball should flourish in the Denver Broncos’ offense — even with their pass-oriented offense.

AFC predictions

EAST

1. New England (12-4 in 2012)

The Patriots lost Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, but their offense is still good enough to get the job done once again.

2. Miami (7-9)

The Dolphins spent lots of money and traded up in the draft to upgrade their team. It’s time to show it on the field.

3. Buffalo (6-10)

The Bills’ playoff drought has reached 13 seasons, but new coach Doug Marrone will get them there soon.

4. N.Y. Jets (6-10)

It’s a mess of major proportions. If Rex Ryan survives, it’ll be another Miracle on the Hudson.

SOUTH

1. Indianapolis (11-5)

Last season wasn’t about luck (well, maybe). Now they’re ready to unseat the Texans at the top of the South.

2. Houston (12-4)

Things are certainly bigger in Texas, like the enormous egg the Texans laid in the playoffs the last two seasons.

3. Tennessee (6-10)

The Titans took a major step backward and now coach Mike Munchak sits squarely on the hot seat.

4. Jacksonville (2-14)

New logo, new uniforms, new general manager, new head coach. But it’ll be the same-old, same-old here.

NORTH

1. Pittsburgh (8-8)

Once-proud franchise is in transition, but never count out Ben Roethlisberger or the defense.

2. Cincinnati (10-6)

After taking some hard knocks, the Bengals are trending upward with back-to-back playoff appearances. Shocking.

3. Baltimore (10-6)

The Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII with a great run, but a roster overhaul makes it difficult to get back.

4. Cleveland (5-11)

With just 23 wins in the past five seasons, they’re starting over — again — with another new head coach.

WEST

1. Denver (12-4)

Questions remain from last year’s shocking divisional playoff loss — and will until the postseason returns.

2. Kansas City (2-14)

Will Andy Reid really make that much of a difference? Well, they probably can’t do much worse, can they?

3. San Diego (7-9)

Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith have finally exited the building, and Chargers fans are still rejoicing.

4. Oakland (4-12)

The final vestiges of the Al Davis era are hanging on, but the Raiders have to get past that quickly.

AFC PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Wild-card round: Colts over Bengals, Steelers over Texans

Divisional round: Broncos over Steelers, Patriots over Colts

AFC Championship: Broncos over Patriots

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks 27, Broncos 24

NFC predictions

EAST

1. N.Y. Giants (9-7 in 2012)

They’ve won two Super Bowls in six seasons. Can the Giants do it in their own backyard in February?

2. Dallas (8-8)

There’s optimism as usual, but Tony Romo (the $108 million man) has to figure it out in a hurry.

3. Washington (10-6)

Caught lightning in a bottle with RGIII and got hot at the right time, but his health is a concern.

4. Philadelphia (4-12)

After watching Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban flop, you have to wonder if the pro game will suit Chip Kelly.

SOUTH

1. Atlanta (13-3)

Like the Broncos, the Falcons had it all in front of them for a Super Bowl run but still came up short.

2. New Orleans (7-9)

There is reason to believe the Saints can get back to their winning ways if the defense helps out a little.

3. Carolina (7-9)

The Panthers won five of their last six games and opened some eyes, but can they be that consistent early?

4. Tampa Bay (7-9)

Like the Jets, the Bucs have a real question at quarterback, and Josh Freeman isn’t the answer.

NORTH

1. Green Bay (11-5)

The Packers have to develop a better running game to help Aaron Rodgers and his talented receivers.

2. Minnesota (10-6)

The Vikings are the opposite of the Packers; Adrian Peterson is fun to watch, but he can use a little help.

3. Chicago (10-6)

Lovie Smith won 46 games in five seasons and was canned, so offensive guru Marc Trestman better be good.

4. Detroit (4-12)

The Lions have a lot of talent on offense, but a minus-16 in turnovers can’t happen again this year.

WEST

1. San Francisco (11-4-1)

The 49ers added some key pieces, so don’t rule out a return trip to the Super Bowl this season.

2. Seattle (11-5)

The Seahawks were aggressive trying to keep up with the 49ers. Can they give them a run for their money?

3. Arizona (5-11)

If they’ve ironed out their quarterback problems, the Cardinals could make some noise this season.

4. St. Louis (7-8-1)

After nearly breaking even last season, the Rams are thinking big. Do they have enough offense?

NFC PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Wild-card round: Packers over Saints, Seahawks over Giants

Divisional round: Seahawks over 49ers, Packers over Falcons

NFC Championship: Seahawks over Packers

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks 27, Broncos 24