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Separating Contenders From Pretenders in the 2012 NFL Season

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2012 NFL Midway Point: Super Bowl Contenders vs. Pretenders

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The beauty of the NFL is it's unpredictability. The 2012 season is arguably more wide open than any previous season in league history. There are about 10 teams with realistic chances of winning the Super Bowl, but even more than that (12) make the playoffs each year and if 2011 was any indication, just getting into the postseason means all bets are off.

Last season showed why teams are so focused on just qualifying for the playoffs and this year even more teams are adopting the philosophy of "anything can happen once the playoffs begin."

Thus, it's become a very intriguing challenge to try and predict which teams actually have a chance to win the Super Bowl granted they make the playoffs. As mentioned, that task is arguably harder in 2012 than any previous year, but has you covered. No need to waste your time reading about teams that are considered contenders just because of their name, the city in which they play or names of popular (but not necessarily talented) players on their roster. No, we've got the teams who actually can win the Super Bowl, regardless of their popularity…or lack thereof. On the flip side, we also have the teams who may seem like they are surefire title contenders because of their record, but in reality, they won't last once the real fun begins in January.

Here are 10 teams who might appear to be Super Bowl contenders, but are not and 10 teams who have not only a realistic shot at winning the game, but very likely will do just that:

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pretender

Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started off the season horribly as arguably the worst team in the league. They've found some recent success by handing the ball to Doug Martin, but two high-scoring wins over the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders don't mean much. The second half of Tampa Bay's schedule will reveal the Bucs' true colors.

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San Francisco 49ers: Contender

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Two hiccups are the only blemishes to an otherwise flawless 2012 campaign by the San Francisco 49ers, whose stifling defense is indescribable and whose offense is arguably the most pleasant surprise in the NFL this year. The 49ers only have two "tough" games left at home against the Chicago Bears and on the road versus the New England Patriots. Expect San Francisco to finish 13-3 and head coach Jim Harbaugh to have his team click on all cylinders come playoff time.

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Minnesota Vikings: Pretender


Minnesota got off to a such a great start to the season and were even labeled a contender by many through the first quarter of the season. However, as Christian Ponder goes, so go the Vikings. The sophomore quarterback has gone ice cold over the past three weeks and the Vikings, who were once sitting pretty at 5-2, now find themselves at 5-4 with a very tough stretch of game ahead. Minnesota has already proved it relies way too much on Ponder, who apparently can't hang with the big boys.

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Chicago Bears: Contender


Any team with a defense as good as the Bears' is going to contend. Period. The key for Chicago will be the play of Jay Cutler once the Bears get deep into the postseason and are only up against top-notch NFL offenses. So far, Cutler has played well, especially when throwing to Brandon Marshall. Unless the Bears run out of gas, Chicago has a great shot at bringing home a second Lombardi Trophy.

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San Diego Chargers: Pretender


To say the San Diego Chargers are inconsistent is a serious understatement. This is a team in turmoil that needs a new head coach and a general makeover. The Chargers' front office officials must have fallen off a turnip truck if they think Norv Turner is going to lead this team to a title. Philip Rivers is overrated and no one on the team is giving 100 percent effort each week. See the pattern? The Chargers have a lot of problems.

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Cincinnati Bengals: Contender

David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

Yes, I'm aware the Cincinnati Bengals are 3-5 and on a four-game skid. Yes, I know they lost to the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns in back-to-back games. However, I also know they have a winner in quarterback Andy Dalton and a much easier schedule in the second half of the season. Cincinnati plays five straight "easy" games beginning in Week 11 and we've already said that once a team gets into the playoffs, anything can happen. Keep that in mind with the Bengals come January.

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Arizona Cardinals: Pretender


This one's a lot easier. The Arizona Cardinals started off the year 4-0 and they're now 4-5. To top it off, things don't get any easy for the Redbirds down the stretch with games against the Atlanta Falcons, Bears and 49ers (combined record of 21-3) left on their schedule. Arizona has a serious problem at quarterback, but if that's fixed, they could definitely be a contender this time next year…but certainly not before then.

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Denver Broncos: Contender

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

You can say you heard it here first: The Denver Broncos will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII and they've got a great chance to win it. Anyone who doubted Peyton Manning before this season is nowhere to be found now because the man is playing out of his mind and by his standards, that's a historical level…literally. Not only that, but his teammates are responding. Denver's defense is a top 10 unit at midseason and to say the Broncos' offense is clicking on all cylinders is an understatement. The scariest part? Manning says their best is yet to come.

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Miami Dolphins: Pretender

Thomas J. Russo-US PRESSWIRE

Miami has been a very back and forth team this year and has deceived many into thinking they might get hot after wins over the Bengals and New York Jets, but don't be fooled. Sure, Ryan Tannehill is playing worlds better than expected in his rookie year, but it's not nearly enough to get Miami into the playoffs. When teams like the 49ers and Patriots line up against the Dolphins, Miami's true colors will be revealed.

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Indianapolis Colts: Contender


Before the season began, you read right here at that the Indianapolis Colts would win the AFC South. Well, at midseason they're two games back with two meetings to go against the Houston Texans. Andrew Luck has already proven he was the right choice with the No. 1 overall pick, but he's not nearly done yet. The Colts could easily by 10-3 by the time they travel to Houston in Week 15, so you better believe Indy could be the first team to win the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback.

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Detroit Lions: Pretender


The main problem with the Detroit Lions is opposing defense know they're going to throw the ball 50 times per game. That makes it very easy to game plan against the Lions. Add in the fact Detroit plays the Texans, Bears, Colts, Falcons and Green Bay Packers twice in the second half of the season and the Lions won't be anywhere near the postseason.

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Atlanta Falcons: Contender

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Atlanta started 5-0 for the first time in franchise history and are still undefeated heading into Week 10. The best part for the Falcons is they only have one "tough" game left on their schedule against the New York Giants in Week 15. Atlanta has an excellent chance to finish 15-1 and get a first-round bye in the playoffs. That's not even the half of it; the Falcons aren't just good, they're good in the clutch. Sure, Matt Ryan is playing the best football of his life right now, but the entire Falcons roster is making big plays when it counts. It's hard to beat a team like that.

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New England Patriots: Pretender


Are you rolling your eyes right now? You might want to study up on the Brady Bunch first. Sure, they put up a ton of points, but the Patriots' defense is one of the worst in the NFL, especially when it comes to defending the pass. Even with the Golden Boy, Tom Brady, at quarterback, New England hasn't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 NFL season and there's a reason for that: No defense. Once the Patriots play top defenses like the Texans and 49ers in Weeks 14 and 15, the world will see they can't compete against teams who pay attention to both sides of the ball and not just one. Does that sound familiar when you reflect upon their past two failures in the big game?

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New York Giants: Contender

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Do you want to know why the Giants seem to be in the middle of the title race every year despite their record? It's because they have a superb pass rush that lifts its game when it counts. They have an elite, top-notch quarterback on top of that, which makes them dangerous on any given Sunday against any opponent.

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New Orleans Saints: Pretender

John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

The New Orleans Saints haven't overcome the devastation they suffered during the Bountygate scandal and they never will. The string of success that this once embarrassing franchise has recently enjoyed has come to an end and it will painful watch as they get crushed by the 49ers, Giants and the Falcons twice down the stretch. They have no defense (last in the NFL) anymore and no running game (third-to-last). Drew Brees can only do so much. This is the end.

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Green Bay Packers: Contender


Green Bay hasn't been dominant for the majority of this season, but the Packers have a switch that, once flipped, causes them to play like an unbeatable team. When Aaron Rodgers gets hot, they're unbeatable. When their defense gets rolling, it's impossible for opposing offenses to score. They've won four in a row and if that streak continues, the Packers could easily win their second title in three years.

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Seattle Seahawks: Pretender


You know how some teams play spoiler at the end of a season? The Seattle Seahawks seem to thrive in that role every game of every season. They win and lose the games they're not supposed to, which is a good and bad thing and results in a roughly .500 record every year. Don't let their high-profile wins fool you; the Seahawks will flop when it counts. Guaranteed.

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Baltimore Ravens: Contender

David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

They're certainly not perfect, but the Baltimore Ravens have a swagger that is unrivaled by any team in any sport around the world. Couple that with Joe Flacco's best season as a pro and you've got a title contender if there ever was one. The Ravens' young defenders will overcome injuries to stars like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and this team will be in the thick of things come January.

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Houston Texans: Pretender


The Texans have a good offense and a good defense, which results in big wins when both play well and/or mistake-free. However, Houston has a problem in that it's not great and it's not clutch. Sure, the Texans beat the Broncos and Ravens (both contenders on this list) already this year, but those games weren't playoff games. Matt Schaub is a good quarterback, but not an elite quarterback and defenses know that, which is why Arian Foster will be rendered useless in the postseason. When opposing offenses step up their game in the playoffs, Houston's defense won't rise to the challenge. The Texans just don't have "it" yet.

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Pittsburgh Steelers: Contender

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a Super Bowl contender this year because they have the league's top defense (statistically) and and offense that hasn't even come close to reaching its full potential yet. Once the Steelers' three-headed monster of a backfield gets healthy, Pittsburgh's running game will rival any other team's in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger has two rings, which means title experience, so the Steelers have all the tools in place to play their best football at the right time.

Check out this NFL 1st round mock draft with analysis.

A terribly wasted talent from each team in the NFL.