The end of the NFL season is fast approaching, and it is shaping up to be quite the wild ending.
The top seven teams in the AFC are in contention for the No. 2 seed with five of them to yet clinch a playoff spot. The Panthers and 49ers are tied for the second-best record in the NFC, but still sit in fifth and sixth place, respectively.
What if the season were to end today? What would it look like for the NFL's top contenders to make it to the Super Bowl?
Let's take a look, from the three easiest postseason paths to the three hardest around the league.
The Seahawks have all but clinched the top seed in the NFC. Barring an epic collapse, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Century Link Field.
That road isn't just the easiest among playoff teams because it means home-field advantage. Sure, that would make things easier for any team. As the Broncos could attest to last season, however, home field guarantees nothing.
Seattle has a different kind of home-field advantage, though. The 12th man at CenturyLink Field seems to imbue the Seahawks with otherworldly powers, particularly on defense.
The Seahawks are 6-0 with a point differential over opponents of 196-84 at home this season, including a 29-3 victory over the 49ers and a 34-7 win over the Saints.
It would take quite the performance for any team to knock off the Seahawks in Seattle.
Nothing is a given in the NFL.
Well, a few things are—Cleveland's futility and Tony Romo detractors come to mind—but there is a reason for the phrase "Any given Sunday." Broncos fans got a new-old lesson on that last season when the Ravens came to town and stole a playoff win en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Mile High Stadium is a tough place to play in for opposing teams, but the thin air is only so effective.
Still, as things stand, the Broncos would have it relatively easy in getting to this season's Super Bowl for the second-smoothest postseason itinerary in the league. The AFC road goes through Denver as things stand today, where the Broncos are 7-1, including victories over the Chiefs and Ravens.
New England currently holds the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the third-easiest path to the Super Bowl, though just about any contender in the conference can snag the first-round bye.
If the Patriots take care of business, though, they will have one of the top seeds in the conference. That means a first-round bye and at least one game at Gillette Stadium, where quarterback Tom Brady has gone 11-3 in the playoffs.
New England would likely have to travel to Denver if the current standings hold and the Broncos hold serve at home. The Patriots have already beaten the Broncos this season, but that was at home and with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Saints are a dangerous team, but they are more bark than bite away from the Superdome.
New Orleans is just 3-4 away from home, having been outscored, 149-112, on the road. They have been particularly bad as visitors as of late, losing 34-7 at Seattle and 27-16 at St. Louis in a game that wasn't really that close.
The good news is the Saints are sitting pretty as the NFC's No. 2 seed, though that spot is quite precarious given that they travel to Carolina to essentially decide the NFC South this week.
Should the Saints lose to the surging Panthers, the road to the Super Bowl would become that much more treacherous for quarterback Drew Brees and Co. Even though we are looking at postseason paths based on the current standings, it will still be no easy task.
The reason? Simply that the Saints would eventually have to travel to Seattle for their only road game, where they have already been crushed this season.
At one point, the Chiefs were living large at 9-0 as the top team in the AFC.
Three consecutive losses, including two to the Broncos, quickly dulled the luster of that undefeated start. Without help, the Chiefs will be the fifth seed heading into the playoffs, making things a bit more difficult for Kansas City.
If the NFL season were to end today, the Chiefs would have to travel to Indianapolis, Denver and likely New England or Cincinnati to get to the Super Bowl. They have already lost to the Broncos twice in convincing fashion.
Moreover, the Chiefs offense does not seem to be built to compete with some of the top teams in the league. Sure, they just shellacked the Raiders on the wings of five touchdown passes from quarterback Alex Smith—four to running back Jamaal Charles, a late-charging MVP candidate—but Andy Reid's cadre has averaged just 22 points per game against the four teams above .500 that they have played.
To make matters worse, that once-touted defense has given up almost 29 points per game over the past five games, though injuries are partially to blame.
The 49ers are tied for the second-best record in the NFC—good enough for the No. 6 seed.
Granted, plenty can change for San Francisco in the next two weeks, but the 49ers and their fans currently have the unenviable position of owning the most difficult path to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Like the Chiefs, the 49ers would likely have to travel for all three playoff games—to Philadelphia, New Orleans and Seattle as things sit today. The Eagles might be a paper tiger, but the 49ers have already lost to the Saints and Seahawks on the road this season.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Co. were only able to muster three points at CenturyLink Field earlier this season. They managed to eke out a home victory against their nemesis, but the Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in the league.
The 49ers are playing better ball than they were when they were crushed in Seattle, or even when they were beaten in New Orleans, but that doesn't make their task any easier.