Some teams seem to have a clear road to the Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos have home-field advantage, the Seattle Seahawks are the NFL's hottest team and the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers possess two of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL. Other teams will have a harder time traversing their playoff bracket.
These teams might not have the talent to compete with the NFL's best. Maybe they simply don't match up well with their opponents. Perhaps they struggle on the road. Whatever the case, these teams will need a minor miracle to get to the Super Bowl.
The Denver Broncos stomped the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore. How in the world can the Ravens beat the Broncos in Denver?
The Ravens are a mediocre 4-4 on the road this season, with just 179.1 passing yards per game on the road. The Broncos, meanwhile, have sacked opposing passers 52 times and give up just 290.8 yards per game. Baltimore will be hard-pressed to score more than 10 in this game.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have the NFL's 17th-ranked defense. That's not awful, but they have no prayer of stopping Peyton Manning and the NFL's fourth-ranked offense.
For the Ravens to be successful, they need to get after the passer as they did against the Colts. Good luck with that: The Broncos only gave up 21 sacks this season.
Even if the Ravens stun the Broncos on the road, they'll be forced to take on either the Houston Texans or New England Patriots on the road. The Ravens were trashed 43-13 at Houston earlier in the season, while they barely defeated the Patriots 31-30. Regardless of the past, both the Texans and the Patriots have superior talent to the Ravens.
Another thing to keep in mind is how poorly the Ravens perform after emotional games. They have run a very real risk of exhausting themselves in their win over the Colts, and I'll be surprised if the Ravens come out firing on all cylinders for a second week in a row.
After an emotional season-opening win against the Bengals, the Ravens lost to the lowly Eagles. After an emotional win over the Patriots, the Ravens only beat the Browns by a touchdown, and they needed a Cary Williams pick-six to do it. After an overtime win in San Diego, famous for Ray Rice's 4th-and-29 conversion, the Ravens lost to a Charlie Batch-led Steelers team.
The Ravens just can't string hard-fought wins together, and they certainly can't do it on the road. For this team to make the Super Bowl would require divine intervention.
Yes, both teams with the hardest road to the Super Bowl come from the AFC. Every team left in the NFC has a conceivable chance, but the Ravens and the Texans both have struggled so mightily lately that they will seemingly need a miracle to compete.
The Texans backed into the playoffs, losing their final two regular season games. An ugly win against the Bengals in the Wild Card Round did little to alleviate concerns over the Texans offense, which is overly reliant on Arian Foster.
The Patriots don't have a great defense, but it's better at stopping the run than the pass. The Patriots are smart enough to key in on stopping Foster, meaning Matt Schaub will have to win this game himself. Is he up to the task?
Also, the one flaw with the Texans defense is its ability to defend the pass. The Texans ranked 16th in pass defense this season, and now they have to take on Tom Brady and the NFL's fourth-ranked passing offense. Good luck with that.
Even if the Texans shock the Patriots, they will likely be forced to take on the Broncos' fifth-ranked offense in the AFC Championship Game.
One final thing worth noting: The Patriots already destroyed the Texans 42-14 in a game which saw Tom Brady throw for 296 yards and four touchdowns.
This is not the same Texans team that started the season 5-0. Since then, the Texans have struggled with top-tier passing offenses, and they'll have to face two to make the Super Bowl. That just won't happen.