We're still five days away from knowing which teams will fill out this year's NFL playoff picture, but all the potential matchups are already on the table. The seeding permutations still have to work themselves out, though seven of the eight teams for the Wild Card Round are likely going to be the Bengals, Colts, Chiefs, 49ers, Saints, NFC East champion and NFC North champion.
There's still a few unlikely upsets that could screw that up—Buffalo and Atlanta could boot the Patriots and Panthers, respectively, out of first-round byes—but those are far-fetched possibilities at best. Assuming the four top-two seeds in each conference remain the same, that still leaves a multitude of exciting first-round possibilities.
The Wild Card Round has produced a Super Bowl participant in seven of the past eight seasons, and with no seemingly indomitable front-runners in either conference, 2013 seems likely to continue the trend. Here then, are three potential first-round games that could not only be wildly entertaining, but produce a legitimate championship threat.
49ers (6) vs. Eagles (3)
A San Francisco-Philly matchup would happen if the Eagles can win their NFC East championship game against the Cowboys and if the 49ers lose to the Cardinals while the Saints beat the Bucs to secure the fifth seed.
The game would certaintly be a dandy. The main storyline would likely surround the 49ers' excellent run defense, eighth in opponents' yards per carry, attempting to combat the Eagles' league-leading ground game. Most fans would gladly sign up for LeSean McCoy trying to wriggle free from sideline-to-sideline roaming linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
The challenge for the Eagles would be covering San Francisco's greatly improved offense. Philly's pass defense has certainly improved, but Michael Crabtree's return has goosed the Niners offense to championship-caliber levels.
Since getting his top receiver back in Week 13, Colin Kaepernick has a 98.3 passer rating that ranks eighth in the league and an 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt average that ranks fourth, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks recently had an excellent breakdown of Kaepernick and noted how Crabtree's presence was creating more space for other receivers:
Without Crabtree on the field early in the season, opponents were able to throw a blanket around Boldin and Davis, containing the duo down the field. The tandem accounted for all 14 of Kap's touchdown passes leading up to Week 13, when Crabtree made his season debut. The lack of dimensions and perimeter threats in the Niners' passing game made it easy to defend by elite defenses (Carolina and Seattle).
That has certainly changed since Crabtree's return. He's opened up the field with his presence out wide, emerging as a bit of a deep threat in spread formations. This has helped Kaepernick improve his third-down efficiency and made the 49ers tougher to defend in critical situations.
The Eagles have had their fair share of troubles against an underwhelming slate of quarterbacks, conceding 11.3 yards per completion, a mark which ranks 21st in the league. The key would then be to keep McCoy and the offense on the field and limit Kaepernick's opportunities. The winner of that strength-on-strength matchup would likely punch a ticket to the divisional round.
Chiefs (5) vs. Bengals (4)
Perhaps because of the quarterbacks Denver and New England employ, it does not feel as likely that the AFC will produce a wild-card Super Bowl representative. But if this matchup materializes, it would pit the two teams most likely to conjure a three-game run to Jersey.
The Chiefs and the Bengals will meet if Cincy loses to the desperate Ravens and both the Colts and Patriots beat their also-ran divisional foes. Each team has one obvious offensive superstar—Jamaal Charles for the Chiefs, A.J. Green for the Bengals—that the other would likely put all their resources into neutralizing.
Cincinnati has an obvious counter to Charles in linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has been one of the league's best cover linebackers in the league. Burfict's plus-13.7 pass coverage grade is third-highest among all 4-3 linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. However, the linebacker may or may not be ready in two weeks, depending on how severe the concussion he sustained against Minnesota is:
The Chiefs, meanwhile, may not be so lucky in combating Green. Kansas City has a pair of cornerbacks with name value in Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith, but neither has been particularly good. Smith has been slightly above average, but opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 103.9 rating throwing at Flowers, the 16th-worst mark in the league per Pro Football Focus.
Both teams are more flawed than your typical Super Bowl contender, but they are the two AFC teams with enough game-changing players to give themselves a reasonable chance to upset the conference favorites.
Saints (5) vs. Packers (4)
This is the most far-fetched of the three potential matchups, as it requires the most dominos to fall into place. New Orleans must beat Atlanta and have San Fran lose to the Cardinals. The Packers must also beat the Bears, something that would be a lot easier with Aaron Rodgers.
Indeed, it is Rodgers' possible return that keeps Green Bay on the fringes of Super Bowl consideration. The Packers defense has plummeted in recent weeks, and according to Yahoo's Tyler Brooke, there are legitimate questions about the future job status of defensive coordinator Dom Capers:
A number of players haven't played well, and that shouldn't be put on Capers, but what should be put on him is the fact that he hasn't given others opportunities over these struggling players. Despite the poor play in the secondary, Sean Richardson, who many have wanted to see get more playing time, has only recorded 102 snaps on defense.
Despite having the second-highest overall grade on defense for the Packers from Pro Football Focus, Jamari Lattimore has failed to see the field more frequently, playing in less than 10 snaps in each of the past four games he's played in.
At some point, if things aren't working, you have to start looking at others to step up. Capers has failed to do that at this point in the season, and the Packers are seriously struggling because of it.
New Orleans comes with its own share of questions, as the prospect of the Saints offense thriving in the frozen tundra seems far-fetched based on their season's results. The Saints' home-road splits are alarming, as they essentially mark the difference between Denver's league-leading offense and Baltimore's floundering unit:
Still, despite recent struggles, both teams have quarterbacks with recent championship pedigrees. It is far from unreasonable to think that either Rodgers or Drew Brees could embark on a Flacco-esque hot streak through the postseason.
As the 2012 Ravens proved, a hot quarterback can carry a team for the duration of the small playoff sample size, and Brees and Rodgers are as likely as any to catch fire.