After 17 weeks of NFL action, just 12 teams remain in contention to win Super Bowl XLVIII, which is scheduled to take place on Feb. 2, 2014, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
However, not all playoff teams are created equal. There are a select few among the 12 being touted as heavy favorites to win the Lombardi Trophy, and for good reason.
We all know games aren't played on paper, but on the gridiron. Upsets happen every single weekend during the regular season, and they've been know to be a regular occurrence in the playoffs, too.
That said, these upcoming teams have a proven track record of winning and feature exceptionally talented rosters.
Note: Odds courtesy of Bovada, as of Dec. 29, 2013.
1. Seattle Seahawks
To nobody's surprise, the Seattle Seahawks enter the playoffs as the team to beat in the NFC and the heavy favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Thanks to a much-needed win at home over the St. Louis Rams in Week 17, Seattle finished the regular season as the top seed in the NFC, which earned the Seahawks home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Before Arizona's shocking win at CenturyLink Field in Week 16, the Seahawks hadn't been beaten at home since the end of the 2011 season—14 straight games.
While the Cardinals proved Seattle is beatable at home, the 12th man won't stop making life difficult for opposing offenses.
"The Link" is just as tough as ever to play in for road teams.
Seattle's roster is loaded with talented players on both sides of the ball, and the team's defense is especially formidable at home. It's going to take nothing less than a perfect effort to beat the Seahawks at home in January.
2. Denver Broncos
The team assembled in Seattle is all about balance. On both sides of the ball, the Seahawks dominate their opponent on a regular basis, which isn't the case when evaluating the Denver Broncos.
Denver's Super Bowl hopes are pinned on the shoulders of one man, as the Broncos will go only as far as Peyton Manning takes them.
Given the legendary season the future Hall of Famer has put together, he could take them all the way.
However, the Broncos have struggled to defend opposing offenses all year long.
Thanks to the team's potent offensive assault, opposing teams have been forced to pass the ball early and often, but Denver's defense has allowed considerable yardage in many of those circumstances, ranking No. 28 against the pass heading into Week 17.
Now, with Von Miller out until next season with an ACL injury, it falls even more on Manning to carry his team deep into the postseason.
3. San Francisco 49ers
It wasn't easy, but the San Francisco 49ers finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak after taking down the molten lava-hot Arizona Cardinals in the desert in Week 17.
San Francisco's ferocious defense has come alive in the second half of the season, with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman leading the way. During the team's final six games, the 49ers allowed just 15.3 points per game.
The addition of Michael Crabtree has been keenly felt since the standout receiver made his return back in Week 13. He's opened up passing lanes for other receivers, and the biggest beneficiary has been Anquan Boldin, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season.
Jeff Duncan of Nola.com thinks the 49ers are the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, thanks to Crabtree:
Though Frank Gore was stymied in a big way against Arizona, the 49ers have been one of the league's best at running the ball in 2013. Fans can expect the running game to be at the forefront of the team's offensive attack in the playoffs.
Combined with the aforementioned defense, San Francisco has a winning formula and a team that can potentially knock off Seattle at CenturyLink Field.
4. Carolina Panthers
Carolina finished off a spectacular regular season by beating the Atlanta Falcons in a thriller at the Georgia Dome to earn a 12-4 record, the NFC South crown and the No. 2 seed in the NFC, as pointed out by the Panthers on Twitter:
After the game, inside linebacker Luke Kuechly spoke about the team's focus going forward, as noted by the Associated Press (via USA Today): "Now we can cross that goal off. Now we can concentrate, get guys healthy and get ready to go."
Carolina's defense finished the season as one of the league's top-ranked units against the run, the pass and points allowed.
Combined with a balanced offense led by Cam Newton, the Panthers have the ability to hang tough with any NFC team. Newton hasn't yet proved himself as a playoff quarterback, but he's been phenomenal all year long, accumulating 30 (24 passing and six rushing) total touchdowns while throwing just 13 interceptions.
The Panthers will be dangerous at home, and nobody should be shocked to see this team challenge the other top teams for the NFC championship.
5. New England Patriots
Injuries have been a never-ending issue for the New England Patriots this season—especially on offense. Rob Gronkowski's season-ending knee injury was a brutal blow, and Tom Brady has been operating with a skeleton crew at receiver since Week 1.
That hasn't stopped the three-time world champ from having a fine season and leading his team to the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a terrific 12-4 record.
There's always one or two players who step up when this team needs them the most.
In Week 17, playing in the heavy rain against a feisty Buffalo squad, it was LeGarrette Blount who came through with a huge performance, as Bill Belichick commented on, as noted by Field Yates of ESPN Boston:
You can never count out Belichick and Brady.
This team will be a tough out, no matter the circumstances.
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