Twelve NFL teams have survived the grueling regular season, but they still have a long road ahead if they want to realize their Super Bowl hopes.
Anything is possible within the postseason sudden-death format. Each and every team has clear flaws, and the better team can lose on any given day if it is exploited properly. Who plays on and who goes home will be determined as much by matchup and pure luck as it will by skill.
The eventual Super Bowl champions will have to pull out no fewer than three victories in a row, but they can't look ahead too far. Get too wrapped up in the enormity of the task, and they will fall short.
|Round||Date (Time)||Visitor (Seed)||Home (Seed)||Broadcast/Stream Info|
|Wild Card||Jan. 4 (4:35 p.m. EST)||Kansas City Chiefs (5)||Indianapolis Colts (4)||NBC|
|Wild Card||Jan. 4 (8:10 p.m. EST)||New Orleans Saints (6)||Philadelphia Eagles (3)||NBC|
|Wild Card||Jan. 5 (1:05 p.m. EST)||San Diego Chargers (6)||Cincinnati Bengals (3)||CBS|
|Wild Card||Jan. 5 (4:40 p.m. EST)||San Francisco 49ers (5)||Green Bay Packers (4)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 11 (4:35 p.m. EST)||Lowest NFC Seed||Seattle Seahawks (1)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 11 (8:15 p.m. EST)||Highest AFC Seed||New England Patriots (2)||CBS|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (1:05 p.m. EST)||Highest NFC Seed||Carolina Panthers (2)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (4:40 p.m. EST)||Lowest AFC Seed||Denver Broncos (1)||CBS|
|AFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||CBS|
|NFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
|Super Bowl XLVIII||Feb. 2 (6:30 p.m. EST)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
Super Bowl Prediction: Denver Broncos over Seattle Seahawks
It doesn't take great boldness to pick the two regular-season conference champions to face off in the Super Bowl, but this season, the safe call is the right call to make.
The Seattle Seahawks do have some formidable opponents on tap in the loaded NFC. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the potent Philadelphia Eagles offense all could face Seattle, while the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are every bit as strong on both sides of the ball as the Seahawks are.
But don't think about this in terms of challenges for the Seahawks. Rather, consider the hardship for those other teams potentially playing a postseason game in Seattle.
CenturyLink Field gets as loud as any stadium in sports, featuring a fanbase so rabid it went out and proved how loud it could get. Twice.
Seattle Seahawks fans reclaim world record for loudest crowd noise: http://t.co/Lhj1uohwx0— MSN (@MSN) December 3, 2013
Seattle averaged an even 30.0 points per game at home and allowed just 13.75; compare the Seahawks' plus-130 point differential in eight games at CenturyLink to everyone else's 16-game differential, and they still rank third behind only the Denver Broncos and the Niners.
That home-field advantage absolutely means something. The stadium is intimidating, and the team is built perfectly to succeed in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Marshawn Lynch and a dominant offensive line power the attack, while Russell Wilson's precise and creative playmaking with his arms and his legs is a great complement.
And then there's the Seattle defense, the best in the league at keeping points off the board. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas headline the only secondary in the NFL to hold opposing teams below 3,000 yards passing, while the front seven gives the Seahawks a top-10 spot in run D as well.
The Eagles and Packers can't match that defense, while the Panthers, Saints and Niners are just a cut below the Hawks at that same physical two-way game. Give Seattle home-field advantage in the NFC, and it has the conference locked up.
Ditto for the Broncos, as the ravaged AFC gives them a very favorable road to the Meadowlands.
Their toughest competition would be the New England Patriots, but Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are all done for the season. The Cincinnati Bengals have put both Geno Atkins and Leon Hall on IR, weakening the defense and putting all the pressure on Andy Dalton. Without Reggie Wayne, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts offense have not been as dangerous.
The Kansas City Chiefs could have been an intriguing matchup, but KC lost five of its last seven after starting 11-0, and those two wins came over the lowly Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins. That leaves the wild-card teams, of which we'll discount the San Diego Chargers; they sneaked into the playoffs with a bottom-five pass defense and won't stop Peyton Manning in January.
Then again, Manning might be unstoppable as a playoff QB right now. He threw multiple touchdowns in 15 of his 16 games this season, and he topped 300 yards passing in 12 games.
Peyton Manning: 4th player in NFL history to set TD pass and passing yards records in same season (first since Dan Marino in 1984)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 30, 2013
There is no one more able to pass against great defenses at the highest level. With DeMaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Knowshown Moreno, Julius Thomas and the rest of his weapons, no quarterback is better equipped to do so than Manning, either.
He won't have much issue in the AFC. Only the Bengals finished in the top 10 in pass yards allowed, and again, they're without their top cornerback in Hall. Granted, the Broncos are missing Von Miller themselves, but Manning is too good to fall to these conference foes.
Who will win the Super Bowl?
That leaves Denver and Seattle to play for the Super Bowl, far from their respective home turfs where they went a combined 14-2.
It will be a high-scoring championship game. Regardless of the opponent, Peyton will dictate the pace and make Seattle match his scoring, which Wilson and the Seahawks are not prepared to do. Denver ranks just 27th in passing yards allowed, but the Broncos were in so many blowouts that garbage time inflates that figure; Seattle is going to be outmatched in terms of scoring.
The Seahawks would much prefer to play a game in the teens than the 30s, but they won't have that comfort. Manning and the Broncos will put on a show against any opponent, and they will lift the Lombardi Trophy after an explosive Super Bowl.