The NFL playoffs have almost arrived, but before the new year of 2014 rings in, there are a slew of monumental regular-season finales in Week 17.
Even with so much to be decided at this late juncture of the season, though, some teams have established themselves as surefire Super Bowl favorites.
According to the experts at Bovada, two of the three teams with the shortest odds to reach the upcoming outdoor Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium hail from the NFC West. The club sandwiched between them is the unquestioned class of the AFC, and any combination of that matchup would be epic.
Let's take a look at the trio of franchises that look like the most promising candidates to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in the oddsmakers' eyes.
Note: Odds are indicated in parentheses (courtesy of Bovada) and are current as of Monday, Dec. 23.
Seattle Seahawks (11-4)
Despite losing their first game in two years at home to the division rival Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday, Seattle remains narrowly ahead of Denver as the No. 1 Super Bowl contender.
It did take a fluke of an interception to prevent second-year phenom Russell Wilson from driving down the field and winning it for the Seahawks. However, credit the 10-5 Cardinals, who stood tall against the best team in football in a must-win game.
Lockdown cornerback Richard Sherman vowed that he and his teammates would respond to the defeat:
In a way, the loss almost alleviates the pressure off of Seattle to keep its record intact at CenturyLink Field. This revelation of mortality should prove to be a mere speed bump en route to the NFL's promised land.
With what may be the best secondary in football headlined by free safety Earl Thomas and Sherman, a deep and athletic front seven, a battering ram running back in Marshawn Lynch and Wilson under center, no team is more complete.
What Seattle must do is secure home-field advantage, which isn't a lock due to San Francisco's impressive late-season form. By winning in Week 17 over St. Louis, the Seahawks can do just that.
Assuming they do bounce back from Week 16's disappointment, Seattle will go to the NFC Championship Game and do enough to beat whomever its opponent is.
From there, a date with the Broncos likely awaits in New Jersey, where the Seahawks defense will stymie the explosive offense led by Peyton Manning and take home pro football's ultimate prize.
Prediction: Super Bowl XLVIII champions
Denver Broncos (3-1)
Manning set the single-season record by throwing for his 51st touchdown of the year in Week 16, leading the Broncos to a division-clinching triumph over the outmatched Houston Texans.
The 37-year-old living legend trumped the record set by his most prolific and comparable contemporary in New England Patriots star Tom Brady. As ESPN Stats & Info points out, though, Manning's TD total was spread out in large sum to a larger variety of targets:
What hurts Denver slightly is the news that dangerous pass-rusher Von Miller tore his ACL this past Sunday, per Mike Klis of the Denver Post:
But as terrible and sad as that is for Miller, it is worth noting that he missed the first six games of 2013 and the Broncos won all of those.
Brady's Patriots look to be Denver's biggest impediment from reaching the Super Bowl stage as the AFC's second seed. The last time these two teams met, as few could forget, Brady rallied his team from a 24-0 deficit to win in overtime.
There will be a massive amount of pressure for Manning to deliver the goods and win his second Super Bowl ring after arguably the best season in NFL history for a QB, per SportsCenter's official Twitter account:
While the Broncos should have the tools and the home-field advantage to knock off the shorthanded and flawed Pats, it won't be enough to match up with the more balanced and deeper Seahawks.
Prediction: AFC champions
San Francisco 49ers (7-1)
Two years at the helm for head coach Jim Harbaugh, and two trips to the NFC Championship Game. Don't be at all surprised if it happens again.
The Niners have seen Colin Kaepernick improve throughout the course of his maiden campaign as the full-time starter. Kaepernick has taken his lumps, learned from them and risen to the occasion in the midst of San Francisco's current five-game winning streak.
That has been especially impressive considering the parity and depth of the NFC, which Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com highlighted before the Niners' Monday night 34-24 win over Atlanta at home:
No need to worry about any disastrous scenarios now, because the victory in Week 16 assured last year's Super Bowl finalist of a playoff berth.
What really drives this San Francisco team—it's no secret—is the defense (third in points allowed per game, second in total defense entering Monday night) and the rushing attack, led by Frank Gore.
Health is also on the Niners' side at the perfect time, with last year's No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree returning to complement Anquan Boldin, who ironically burned San Francisco in the most recent Super Bowl.
As long as Kaepernick holds up on his end, it seems he is destined to lead the franchise to a third straight NFC title game. It just won't be quite enough to knock off Seattle on the road.
Prediction: NFC finalists