Not every team that qualifies for the NFL playoffs has the look of a champion. Some teams—on paper—are much more equipped for a Super Bowl run than others.
Granted, once the opening whistle blows, the NFL playoffs usually provide shocking results. The human element is something that can't be quantified or predicted, and it creeps up in unusual ways when pressure mounts in big games.
But taking into account what teams have already overcome, what they're currently dealing with and what they bring to the table for the future, these teams are clearly in the best shape for a deep playoff run.
There's a lot of chatter around the web about how Seattle is trending the wrong way as the playoffs approach. After losing two of the last three games, it's not technically wrong to say such a thing, but it certainly doesn't have any bearing on what this team will do in the postseason.
Just look at the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens from a year ago—losers of four of their last five regular-season games.
The Seahawks are still the league's most balanced team, as noted by Tony Dungy, and with one more win at home against the St. Louis Rams in Week 17, Seattle will be playing at home throughout the playoffs:
Arizona's shocking win at CenturyLink Field not withstanding, the Seahawks are practically unbeatable at home. Before the loss, Seattle had won 14 home games in a row—many of which ended in lopsided blowouts.
All you have to do to see how effective the home-field advantage has been this season is look at the two games against San Francisco and New Orleans. Seattle won those two games against top NFC teams by a combined score of 63-10.
Russell Wilson has been stellar throughout his first two seasons. He rarely loses the game with turnovers, making smart decisions under pressure. Marshawn Lynch has struggled a bit toward the end of the season, but the offensive line will get healthy in the bye week.
Combined with Seattle's defense, which is typically dominant at home, the Seahawks are clearly the team to beat in the NFC.
It's hard to fall in love with any AFC team heading into the postseason, as each team carries with it deep flaws that could spell doom.
That said, given the season Peyton Manning—and Denver's offense—has had, it's clear the top-seeded Broncos are in the best shape for a deep playoff run.
Thanks in large part to the right arm of Manning—along with what's between his ears, which is a formidable weapon—Denver averages 38.1 points per game, which is over 10 more points than any other team in the league.
Wes Welker has been out with a concussion, and he's expected to stay on the sideline until the playoffs, as reported by SportsCenter:
It's hard to imagine Welker won't be ready to play in the divisional round when Denver hosts its first playoff game. With him back in the lineup, the Broncos will be even more difficult to corral defensively.
A huge loss on defense will surely challenge Denver in the playoffs, however, as Von Miller tore his ACL in Week 16 at Houston. John Elway spoke to reporters about the loss, calling it "a blow" while discussing how the team would rebound, as Brandon Moree of DenverBroncos.com relayed:
We’ve had several guys step up. Shaun Phillips has really had a tremendous year for us and really has done a great job of stepping up when Von wasn’t there. And Robert Ayers, we’re going to have to ask more of him. Jeremy Mincey, who we picked up last week, came in and played a lot for us yesterday. We’ll ask more of him and also some of the things we do defensively to try to create some pressure.
The Broncos will ____ in the playoffs.
Even with Miller in the lineup, the Broncos have struggled on defense for much of the second half of the season. Before the big win at Houston, Denver had allowed an average of 29.25 points in its last four games.
Defense has been an issue all year, though, and the Broncos have still managed to win 12 of 15 games. When Manning is on point, Denver is nearly unbeatable.
And he's been at the top of his game an awful lot in 2013.
San Francisco 49ers
Battle-tested and hungry for success, the San Francisco 49ers are gaining momentum as the postseason looms. Winners of five in a row, San Francisco escaped Candlestick Park on Monday Night Football in Week 16 with a thrilling victory, courtesy of NaVorro Bowman's pick-six in the waning moments.
Though this team has undoubtedly experienced some rough patches throughout the course of the season, the 49ers appear to be putting it all together just in time for a deep run.
Which NFC team will go to the Super Bowl?
The addition of Michael Crabtree, who finally broke out with his first 100-yard game against Atlanta, has been noticeably beneficial to Colin Kaepernick's confidence. The duo has an uncanny connection, and Crabtree has proven himself trustworthy to make big plays when his team needs them.
Combine Anquan Boldin, who has benefited from Crabtree's presence, with Vernon Davis and Frank Gore, and the 49ers have an offensive arsenal capable of putting up points in bunches.
The team's defense is perennially one of the league's toughest, and this year is no different. Stacked with talent at all three levels, the 49ers have allowed just 16.8 points per game (No. 3 in the NFL).
49ers fans will be pleased to know the best may be yet to come.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee noted this defense is getting healthy at just the right time, "...which gives the 49ers’ defense reason to think it is in good shape—better than last season, even—to make a run through the playoffs."
Likely, San Francisco will need to win in Seattle to advance at some point, but if any team is equipped to do so, it's this one.
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