In my final article of the year at the New York Times, I look at one key statistic for each team.
Denver Broncos: Quarterback Curse
Can Peyton Manning break the hex? Only four quarterbacks — Tom Brady (2007), Rich Gannon (2002), Kurt Warner (2001) and Dan Marino (1984) — have played in a Super Bowl in the season in which they won the passing yards title, with none of the four winning the game. Since 1950, only Johnny Unitas in 1959 and George Blanda in 1961 (in the American Football League) have led their league in passing yards and won a championship in the same season.
Some quarterback will become the first player to pull off this feat at a Super Bowl, and Manning seems as strong a candidate as any: he broke the single-season record for passing yards, a record which is under league review.
The last player to be named the N.F.L.’s most valuable player and win the Super Bowl in the same season was Warner, in 1999. Manning will almost certainly be named the M.V.P. for the fifth time in his career, which means he can end two streaks with one Super Bowl title.
Indianapolis Colts: Giant Killers Have Slain San Francisco, Denver and Seattle
Only six teams have ever beaten three teams in the regular season that won 12 or more games. Two of those teams, the 1990 Bills and the 1999 Titans, went on to play in the Super Bowl, while another, the 2003 Patriots, won the Super Bowl. The 2011 Ravens team that lost in the final seconds of the A.F.C. championship game, to New England, is also on the list. The 2002 Saints are the only outlier on the list: New Orleans swept the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers but missed the playoffs.
Indianapolis, of course, is the sixth such team. Few teams run hot and cold like Indianapolis: countering those mammoth victories were embarrassing blowout losses to St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. The Colts would be wise to put the game in Andrew Luck’s hands and waste fewer carries on Trent Richardson, but Indianapolis will not lack confidence entering the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers: Best Team Through Three Quarters
The 49ers followed an N.F.C. championship in 2012 with 1-2 and 6-4 starts this season. As a result, San Francisco is one of the more underappreciated 12-4 teams in recent memory. The 49ers have averaged 18.1 points through the first three quarters of every game, while allowing just 9.6; that 8.5-point differential is the best in the N.F.L. San Francisco has a habit of dominating teams early and letting up on them late: the 49ers have been outscored in the fourth quarters of games this season, 119-117. But will the team be more ruthless in the postseason?
Last year, Jim Harbaugh waited until the playoffs to unleash the full potential of the Pistol offense under Colin Kaepernick. Against the Packers, Kaepernick set an N.F.L. record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game. San Francisco has operated conservatively this year, and easing up in the fourth quarter of games has hidden how dominant the 49ers can be. Does Harbaugh have another trick up his sleeve for January?
You can view the full article, and the statistics for the other nine teams, here.