Momentum plays a huge part in the outcome of the NFL playoffs, and the road to the 2014 Super Bowl could very well be determined by which hot teams can keep it clicking from week to week.
There always seems to be a dark-horse team or two that makes a surge through the conference during the playoffs. Last season, it was the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore finished the 2012 regular season with a respectable 10-6 record, though not many favored the Ravens to progress through the playoffs. A shocking win against the Denver Broncos in the playoffs prolonged their season, and Joe Flacco's great performance in the Super Bowl (and throughout the entirety of the playoffs) capped their championship run.
Picking a dark-horse team from the start can be risky business, but there are three teams that aren't being favored that warrant examination. All three are quality football teams that have either gotten hot at the right time or are showing the beginnings of a hot streak.
The Cincinnati Bengals are 5-1 in their past six contests and face the San Diego Chargers on Wild Card Weekend. Two of their five wins during the streak have come against current playoff teams (Chargers, Indianapolis Colts), and that will bode well for them.
Andy Dalton has been great this season, and he's the key to the Bengals' playoff hopes. Much like Flacco last season, a dominant run through the playoffs by Dalton can propel the Bengals into the Super Bowl.
Dalton threw for nearly 4,300 with 33 touchdowns and 20 interceptions this season. The 20 picks are a little high, and the fact that he tossed four in Week 17's win against the Ravens is worrisome. That being said, he went three straight games without a pick prior to the game and totaled nine touchdowns in the process.
While Dalton is the key for Cincy, there are certainly others to attribute their successes to. Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green and nearly the entire defense have played at a high level during the season. If they can keep it up, then this team is dangerous.
Don't sleep on the Bengals.
The Colts finished the season on a 4-1 run, but three of those four wins came against the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The other came against the Kansas City Chiefs, while their loss came at the hands of the Bengals.
Indianapolis has been arguably the most volatile team in the NFL this season. One week, they look unbeatable. The next, they look lost.
I like the Colts as a dark horse, though, because of the quality of the teams they took down earlier in the year. They defeated the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Broncos within the first seven weeks. While the caliber of team they beat wasn't that impressive later on, the fact remains that this team possesses big-game potential.
Which Colts will we see in the playoffs?
This year's playoffs will act as a learning experience for the young Colts. Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and many others are still learning the finer points of the NFL, but that doesn't mean they should be ruled out. Indianapolis can be one of the playoffs' scariest teams if it gets hot against the Chiefs.
Chiefs defensive back Dunta Robinson wasn't pleased with the way his team played against the Colts on Dec. 22. He told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports: "They came in and kicked our ass today. No excuses. We've got to look in the mirror and decide what kind of team we want to be moving forward."
Don't be surprised if the Colts deliver a similar beatdown in their Wild Card Game.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers alone makes the Green Bay Packers a threat to the rest of the NFC.
The 8-7-1 Packers stormed into the playoffs after winning a do-or-die NFC North battle against the Chicago Bears in Week 17, and that one game is enough momentum to keep the Packers confident heading into their game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Vic Ketchman of Packers.com highlights just what makes Rodgers so special in clutch moments:
If he [Rodgers] appeared rusty in the first half, he got back his old shine when it counted the most, making big plays at crunch-time moments. In addition to the fourth-and-8 touchdown pass to [Randall] Cobb, Rodgers had previously completed a fourth-and-1 pass to Jordy Nelson.
Rodgers doesn't need to be perfect during the playoffs. Sure, it'll help, but a little rust can still be expected after returning just this week from a collarbone injury. All he has to do is step up and make plays when his team needs them.
The former NFL MVP may be the most important player of the first batch of games this upcoming weekend. A win by the Packers against the Niners will show that the team that limped to the finish with a 2-5-1 record means business this January.