The way the Green Bay Packers blew through the regular season, it would be foolish to pick against them repeating their Super Bowl victory. Yet they are not on the hottest streak nor playing the best football as the play-offs begin.
That distinction is shared by the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints, both 13-3 and unbeaten in the second half of the season.
Like Green Bay (15-1), both have dynamic, sometimes unstoppable, offences led by magnificent quarterbacks, and bolstered by a deep and dangerous group of receivers.
All three also have so-so defences that often require Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady to win shoot-outs.
That is a difficult way to prosper in the post-season, particularly when playing against a rugged, versatile defence such as the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans possess.
"A lot of it is working on what we need to work on; working on things that have been a problem for us, that if they come up again we need to handle better," said Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach.
New England rallied from 17-0 and 21-0 deficits to win their past two games.
The Patriots have also lost their last three post-season games, including at home to the Ravens and New York Jets the past two years.
Behind the record-setting performances of Brees, the Saints soared past all eight opponents at home, but if they can handle the Detroit Lions on Saturday night in the Superdome, then they must head to San Francisco. And if they get by the formidable 49ers, who rode a stingy, big-play defence to a 13-3 mark, a date to play Green Bay at Lambeau Field is likely.
That is, if the New York Giants don't start partying like it's 2007. They were seeded fifth that year, but closed the regular season with a close loss to the unbeaten Patriots. Then the Giants knocked off division winners Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay before shocking New England for the championship.
New York won three of their last four to grab the NFC East title. With their pass rush suddenly reborn, the Giants can be dangerous.
"Different guys, different teams. I'd love to have the same ending as the 2007 team," said Chris Snee, the Giants guard. "We certainly have the capability of doing that, as we have shown."
Baltimore, like New Orleans and Green Bay, went 8-0 at home and were an entirely different team on the road (4-4). Still, with some help from outside - ironically, the Pittsburgh Steelers, their AFC North rivals, are the most likely to provide it - the Ravens might not have to leave the Inner Harbor to get to Indianapolis in February.
For the Steelers, the loss of their running back Rashard Mendenhall to a torn right-knee ligament is particularly damaging for a veteran team that have been to the Super Bowl three times in the past six seasons, winning twice.
The Steelers won seven of their last eight as their supposedly aged defence looked fresh and frugal.
"We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is all about," said Ryan Clark, the safety. "Now's the time to go play it.
"Now we have to go and play better on the road," he added of Sunday's game in Denver. "I believe this team can win anywhere."
When a team is peaking, that certainly is true. The Steelers (2005) and Packers (2010) got going in December and carried their superb play right through the post-season.
Unfortunately for some play-off qualifiers, their recent performances spell early exit. The Texans (10-6) lost their final three games, are playing a rookie, third-string quarterback, and have never been in the play-offs. Their opponents on Saturday are the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7), losers of three of their past five.
Detroit were torrid in going 5-0, tepid in losing five of the next seven. The Lions (10-6), in their first play-offs since 1999, have already lost at New Orleans this season.
The Atlanta Falcons went 4-4 on the road and, barring a slew of surprises, won't get a home game. The Falcons don't match up well with any of the NFC's other play-off teams except, perhaps, the Giants. A win in the Meadowlands on Sunday wouldn't be shocking, but anything beyond would be. Then there's the Denver Broncos (8-8), who took the AFC West despite losing their final three games.
"It's what you make of it," said John Fox, the Denver coach, of the Super Bowl chase. "I know not too many years ago, there was a team in New Orleans that lost their last three, and I think they won the Super Bowl."
These Broncos don't resemble those Saints at all.