An action-packed Week 17 delivered impressive results, and the NFL finally has its full slate of teams for the 2014 playoffs. Predicting the Super Bowl champ won't be easy, but it's certainly worth taking a crack at.
With little disparity in the NFL this season, this playoff slate figures to be one of the most memorable in recent memory. Sure, that's all on paper, but the quality of all 12 playoff teams has the potential to deliver some hard-fought matchups.
Will we see a surprising run like the Baltimore Ravens made last season? There are definitely a few underdog teams capable of running the gamut, but everything will have to fall into place for that to happen. Sometimes it's just a matter of catching a team at the right time.
Don't be surprised if the NFL rounds unfold in the following way.
Wild Card Round
|Wild Card Predictions|
|Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts||Saturday, Jan. 4||4:35 p.m. ET||NBC||Colts|
|New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles||Saturday, Jan. 4||8:10 p.m. ET||NBC||Eagles|
|San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals||Sunday, Jan. 5||1:05 p.m. ET||CBS||Bengals|
|San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers||Sunday, Jan. 5||4:40 p.m. ET||FOX||Packers|
The Cincinnati Bengals should easily take care of the San Diego Chargers, and the same can be said for the Indianapolis Colts over the Kansas City Chiefs. Previous matchups between these teams this season would suggest that the Bengals and Colts are superior.
As for the other contests, anything can happen.
It's hard not to favor the Philadelphia Eagles given the fact that their loss on Dec. 15 to the Minnesota Vikings is their only loss in two months. Plus, Nick Foles is on an entirely different planet right now in terms of production. You can never count out Drew Brees, though, and that's why the New Orleans Saints shouldn't be counted out.
Aaron Rodgers makes the Green Bay Packers legitimate underdogs in the NFC. Colin Kaepernick will need to play well to beat them this game, but the San Francisco 49ers haven't received consistent production from him all season long.
Green Bay will surprise some people after limping into the playoffs on a 2-5-1 run.
|Colts at Denver Broncos||Sunday, Jan. 12||4:40 p.m. ET||CBS||Broncos|
|Bengals at New England Patriots||Saturday, Jan. 11||8:15 p.m. ET||CBS||Patriots|
|Packers at Seattle Seahawks||Saturday, Jan. 11||4:35 p.m. ET||FOX||Packers|
|Eagles at Carolina Panthers||Sunday, Jan. 12||1:05 p.m. ET||FOX||Panthers|
The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers will all be fresh heading into the divisional round given their first-round bye.
The Broncos benefit the most, however, as they'll be getting Wes Welker back for their game against the Colts, reports Josh Alper of NBCSports.com.
Of the four teams coming off a bye, I predict an easy go of it for Denver and Carolina. Indianapolis and Philadelphia are not the complete squads that the aforementioned teams are, even if the Eagles' recent hot streaks have seen them play good football.
Cincinnati should give New England a run for its money. If Andy Dalton can play well and channel his inner Joe Flacco (see: the 2012 playoffs), then the Bengals have a real shot. The Patriots will capitalize on turnovers, though, and Dalton has been prone to that at times this season.
In the divisional round's only upset, I predict the Packers to shock the Seahawks. Green Bay will be riding the momentum after two straight do-or-die wins, and Rodgers will do just enough to succeed against a strong secondary.
Eddie Lacy will be the key to the game. Seattle has had lapses this season against good running backs, and Lacy showed just how valuable he can be in Rodgers' absence.
|Patriots at Broncos||Sunday, Jan. 19||TBA||TBA||Broncos|
|Packers at Panthers||Sunday, Jan. 19||TBA||TBA||Panthers|
The AFC Championship Game is pretty much as expected. The Broncos (No. 1) and the Patriots (No. 2) were the top seeds heading into the postseason, and the two will battle it out for the privilege of playing in the Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady's rivalry will take on new heights in this one. Manning, having just broken Brady's single-season touchdown record, will look to continue his unbelievable season.
The game will come down to which weapons help their quarterback the most. Brady has dealt with a less-than-stellar group of receivers this year, while Manning has been the beneficiary of having four quality receiving options—Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker. These four will help the Broncos win.
The NFC Championship Game features two teams that weren't expected to compete in the game at the start of the playoffs.
Cam Newton, in his first career playoffs, progressed well this season and proved he can be a top-tier quarterback. This isn't Rodgers' first go-around, but he'll be at a disadvantage against an aggressive Panthers pass rush.
The pass rush is what will give Carolina the edge here. With Rodgers constantly pressured and uncomfortable in the pocket, the Panthers will move on to their first Super Bowl since the 2003 season.
|Super Bowl XLVIII|
|Broncos vs. Panthers||Sunday, Feb. 2||6:30 p.m. ET||FOX||Broncos|
Not even the Panthers' pass rush will be able to slow down Manning and his plethora of weapons.
Running back Knowshon Moreno might struggle to find running room on the ground, but he'll be an asset in the short passing game. Manning will still be able to set up play-action passes as a result, and those will inevitably be the downfall for Carolina.
While it won't be a blowout, I don't think Carolina will ever have a real shot at winning this game. Manning will lead Denver to an early lead that won't be relinquished.
Denver has too much veteran experience as a team to start out slowly. This is the first go-around in big games for many of the Panthers' key players, and the pressure might just get to them early on.
Manning was the best player in the NFL this season, and he'll lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl win in his brother's home stadium.
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