Sometimes the top seeds in the NFL playoffs aren't necessarily the hottest teams, and that is no exception in 2012. Anything can happen on any given Sunday, and that's what makes the one-and-done format so exciting.
The past two Super Bowl champions have been NFC teams that finished the regular season outside of the conference's top three teams, but were on a roll at the right time.
Here is a breakdown in descending order of the teams that should be the odds-on favorites to win it all in February—consisting of three prohibitive favorites and a particularly dangerous wild card upstart.
1. Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning has made such a massive difference on both sides of the ball. To start with the confusing part of that proposition, the Broncos defense was on the field for long stretches of time last season thanks to the Tim Tebow-led offense leading the league in three-and-outs.
After Manning's acquisition, an upgraded secondary featuring safety Mike Adams and CB Tracy Porter and the hiring of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Broncos are much improved.
With pass-rushing terrors Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil getting some extra rest, Denver has enjoyed a strong all-around defense.
Now back to Manning's impact on the offense: third-year receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are suddenly one of the best one-two punches in the entire NFL. Even an injury to RB Willis McGahee hasn't slowed the offense down.
One thing about Manning—in the regular season, his teams don't often lose games they shouldn't lose. After a very difficult schedule, the Broncos have not only improved as a team but faced lighter competition by comparison.
That's not to dismiss their 11 wins in a row. Such a feat is impressive no matter what, and Manning has been largely to thank for it thanks to an MVP-caliber season.
In any other year, The Sheriff might be the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year and NFL MVP. But Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson may take the cake after coming just nine yards short of the single-season rushing record and dragging his team to the playoffs.
Not that Manning dwells on individual accolades, but even if he did, he could take solace in the fact that his Broncos are the unquestioned favorites to win the Super Bowl.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson had only been sacked 27 times all season before Sunday's grueling NFC West showdown with the St. Louis Rams. Some of that is due to his slick moves to evade pressure, and some of it is due to solid pass protection.
After being sacked five times in the first half, Wilson went down only once in the next 30 minutes and stepped up his game when the team needed him to.
Wilson finished 15-for-19 for 230 yards through the air and a touchdown, along with 10 carries, 58 yards and the game-winning, two-yard run in a 20-13 win.
The Seahawks have a newly balanced offense thanks to Wilson's improvement and the beast mode style of RB Marshawn Lynch. Combine that with a phenomenal defense that will be at completely full strength in the postseason with the return of Pro Bowl CB Brandon Browner, and it's hard not to like Seattle's chances.
There is the perception that this team isn't built to play on the road, but their signature overtime victory in Chicago indicates otherwise.
The Rams tested the Seahawks more than they had been tested in a month. They responded to the adversity. This tight-knit, young and scarily athletic team has molded into a force down the stretch, and are the last squad that the NFC East champion Washington Redskins want to host in Round 1.
If there is any wild card team that has a chance to win this thing, it's the Seahawks.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The only reason the Niners are down here is because they were so thoroughly blown out in Seattle that they can't possibly be placed ahead of them.
Even though Jim Harbaugh's team took care of business to clinch the NFC West on Sunday, it was against one of the worst teams in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals. It isn't hard for a halfway decent defense to shut down the anemic Cards offense.
There have been concerns about San Fran's typically stout defense without DL Justin Smith, and those still lurk. Smith has a partially torn triceps, and isn't sure to be a prominent contributor in the team's playoff run.
Here's the good news: Harbaugh implemented Colin Kaepernick as the starting QB. It occurred due to an injury to incumbent Alex Smith, but was immediately justified in the second-year signal-caller's breakout performance in his debut against Chicago.
Kaepernick gives the Niners incredible athleticism and a cannon arm that stretches the field in ways Smith can't.
So even if the defense struggles, Kaepernick has the explosiveness to lead the Niners back.
The concern is that Kaepernick isn't experienced and may wilt in the playoff atmosphere. But if that were in his DNA, he wouldn't have lit up the Bears on Monday Night Football like he did in his first start.
This is an improved team from the one that came so agonizingly close to making it to the Super Bowl in 2011. There is no reason to count them out despite the inexperience under center.
4. New England Patriots
Just as preseason pundits predicted, the Patriots rolled to another impressive season thanks to a weak schedule. What wasn't forecast was how balanced the offense would be with RB Stevan Ridley putting up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers.
Even superstar TE Rob Gronkowski's extended absence couldn't slow Tom Brady's offense down. The return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels—who also brought along WR Brandon Lloyd from the 2011 St. Louis Rams—has led the Pats to the No. 1 scoring offense in pro football.
It's been a bit of a struggle for the past month, but New England took advantage of the chance at a first-round bye by shutting out AFC East rival Miami 28-0 at home.
The Dolphins gave the Pats a tough game several weeks ago, but clearly the better team made the proper adjustments.
With another week for Gronkowski to heal and an extra week to continue shoring up the defense—which has been bolstered recently by the presence of CB Aquib Talib—New England is as dangerous as anyone.
Another Brady vs. Peyton Manning matchup may await in the AFC Championship game, and who wouldn't want to see that?
If it does come down to the Patriots and Broncos, there is no reason to think that Brady and Co. couldn't pull off the upset on the road.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!