The stage is set for the NFL playoffs, and 12 teams are ready to make a run at Super Bowl XLVIII. Some are clearly favored, while others are fighting long odds for the honor.
The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos ended the regular season tied for the top record (13-3) in the league, earning top seeds in their respective conferences. Carolina and New England came in right behind them at 12-4, earning first-round byes as No. 2 seeds.
The San Diego Chargers (9-7) and Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) sneaked into the playoffs through the back door after winning their regular-season finales in Week 17.
Here's a look at the records of all 12 playoff teams, along with current betting odds:
|1||Denver Broncos||13-3||11/4||1||Seattle Seahawks||13-3||11/4|
|2||New England Patriots||12-4||9/1||2||Carolina Panthers||12-4||10/1|
|3||Cincinnati Bengals||11-5||16/1||3||Philadelphia Eagles||10-6||16/1|
|4||Indianapolis Colts||11-5||28/1||4||Green Bay Packers||8-7-1||14/1|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs||11-5||25/1||5||San Francisco 49ers||12-4||7/1|
|6||San Diego Chargers||9-7||40/1||6||New Orleans Saints||11-5||22/1|
|NFL.com and Bovada.com|
Note: Odds courtesy of Bovada.
Seattle Is the Easy Favorite
After securing the top seed in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks are an easy pick as the betting favorite to win the championship.
The Seahawks have lost just once in their last 15 home games at CenturyLink Field, and the team is absolutely loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.
Featuring the league's stingiest (14.4 points allowed per game) and most opportunistic (39 takeaways) defense in 2013, Seattle has smothered teams in front of the "12th Man" with regularity since the start of the 2012 season.
Even worse for the rest of the NFC is this news, via 710 AM in Seattle, regarding receiver Percy Harvin:
As if it weren't already hard enough to beat this team.
If Harvin can return to the lineup and produce, then Seattle's offense will likely kick into overdrive.
Arizona proved in Week 16 that the Seahawks are beatable at home, but it'll take a minor miracle for lightning to strike twice at "The Link."
Cincinnati Could Sneak Past Denver, New England and the Rest of the AFC
Denver is clearly the top team in the AFC. There's no arguing that. As long as Peyton Manning is throwing passes to Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas, the Broncos are going to put up jaw-dropping points totals in most contests.
New England is also a formidable team that will find a way to get the job done, no matter the circumstances. Peter King of SI.com marveled at the team's 12-4 record in his weekly MMQB column:
Think of the agonizing four losses the Patriots have had in this four-loss season … 13-6 in a torrential downpour in Cincinnati, 30-27 with that push-the-pile penalty against the Jets, 24-20 on the wrongly picked-up flag in the end zone in Carolina, 24-20 with four shots into the end zone to win in Miami. Amazing how close this team came to the best record in football with the mayhem it dealt with at the skill positions all year.
But the team that could beat both of these two top AFC contenders resides in the great state of Ohio.
No, not the Cleveland Browns.
Cincinnati is on the cusp of emerging as the next top team in the conference, and nobody should be surprised if the Bengals end up as the last team standing this year.
The Bengals won all eight of their home games in 2013, thanks to a stifling defense that allowed just 16.75 points to opponents at Paul Brown Stadium. San Diego will be hard-pressed to break that streak in the Wild Card Round.
That puts Cincinnati in New England for the divisional round, and the Bengals already beat the Patriots once this year.
Andy Dalton has been red-hot throughout the season (with intermittent hiccups), and receiver Andrew Hawkins gushed about the team's offensive weapons after Week 17's victory over Baltimore, as noted by Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:
I've been saying it since day one. We've got a great group of receivers. A tight group. We're accountable ... we're happy for each other. We've added not just players, but great players. We're very versatile, as opposed to the last two years going into the playoffs.
If Dalton can get the ball into the hands of those playmakers while taking care of the football, then the Bengals will be tough to beat—both at home and on the road.
Green Bay Is the Dark Horse in the NFC
Here's what every defensive coordinator of an NFC playoff team said after Aaron Rodgers' miraculous game-winner in Chicago during Week 17:
Rodgers gives Green Bay a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl as the No. 4 seed. His mobility and strong, accurate arm make the Packers infinitely better on offense then we saw with Matt Flynn behind center, and his knack for the tremendous is always lurking.
Here's how Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey put it after the Packers beat Chicago to win the NFC North title:
Aaron Rodgers is the last quarterback any playoff team in the NFC is looking forward to facing.
This was a veritable doomsday scenario for the conference, as Rodgers represents one of the best passers not only in the league today, but also in recent memory. His ability to extend plays was on display in crunch time of the winner-take-all Week 17 contest against theChicago Bears, and there's little reason to suggest that he won't have more success as he continues to shake rust off and get even healthier in the coming weeks.
Green Bay's defense is a liability, for sure, finishing the season with the No. 25 total defense and No. 24 scoring defense.
And before any real talk of a Super Bowl is seriously in the works, the Packers must knock off the hottest team in the league and one that has had their number in recent history. The San Francisco 49ers will be at Lambeau Field on Jan. 5, having won three games in a row against their NFC rivals.
But if the Packers can figure out a way to keep Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco's offense in check and win at home in the Wild Card Round, then nobody should count this team out the rest of the way.
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