Super Bowl XLVIII: Forecasting Best Bets in 2014 NFL Playoffs
The 2013 NFL regular season has ended, and the playoff teams for the Wild Card Round and game times are set through January 19. Almost everyone has an opinion of how the first round will unfold.
Predictions of the full playoffs are much more difficult, however. Picking a team to win Super Bowl XLVIII that loses in the first round can destroy a bracket.
People who do not even follow the NCAA can fill out those brackets because they are set. Reseeding for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs makes that much more challenging. Even foreseeing a Wild Card winner this coming weekend can change the matchups and alter the rest of the playoff picture.
This makes things interesting for those who are willing to test their prediction skills. Predicted outcomes can be ranked from most to least likely; no team can be more likely to win a later game no matter the opposition because the team has to get there first.
The focus becomes on which team is likely to win each round more than how it matches up against its foe. With that in mind, here are the predicted winners for each round, starting with the most likely winner rather than in the order the games will take place.
Seattle Seahawks Win Divisional Round
The most likely occurrence in the 2014 NFL playoffs is that the Seattle Seahawks win their first game, regardless of the opponent.
Everyone knows how dominant they are at home. They had one loss to the Arizona Cardinals this season and one game that everyone but Pete Carroll and Golden Tate knows was a loss to the Green Bay Packers last season.
That being said, the first home game for Russell Wilson will be an entirely different animal. Coming off a bye week, a lot of young teams lose rhythm and intensity. This is especially true of teams that were not especially strong at the end of the season.
However, Seattle is clearly the best team in the NFC and built to take the pressure off the quarterback with a running game and solid defense. Moreover, the Seahawks are sure to get a good matchup in the first round: the defenseless Green Bay Packers, the already-dominated dome team New Orleans Saints or the San Francisco 49ers, who are led by a quarterback that cannot handle Seattle's noise or pass rush.
Denver Broncos Win Divisional Round
Many fans think defense wins championships. Others credit it all to the quarterback.
Both opinions are wrong, and that is a good thing for the Denver Broncos. They do not have a good defense, and their quarterback has the label of a guy who shrinks in big games.
The reality is that Super Bowls are won and lost as a team. That is why Peyton Manning only has one title, and why he won it during his statistically worst playoff run since his first three years in the league.
The offense carried the Indianapolis Colts to the postseason, and the defense carried them through it. Then they both put forth a good effort to take Super Bowl XLI.
Losing to great teams is not the same as coming up small. Five of the 11 teams that Manning has lost to have won the Super Bowl. He had a passer rating of more than 82 in all but two of his first three appearances.
The Broncos will play the offensively challenged Kansas City Chiefs, the inexperienced Colts now without their best receiver or the San Diego Chargers, who only made it because of a home-friendly call against a team playing their scrubs. Denver will also be playing extra hard for coach John Fox, who had a heart surgery during the season.
Thus, one of only three near-locks in the playoffs is Denver winning its first game.
New England Patriots Win Divisional Round
The Pats haven't had a postseason road win in a decade. They have taken advantage of a weak AFC East to get first-round byes and home-field advantage in every single playoff game over the last five years, but they have lost almost as many as they have won.
So why the confidence in this year's cast, sans any real receivers for Brady to work with? It is again as simple as their competition.
The Patriots will either face the Cincinnati Bengals or the winner of the Indianapolis Colts vs. Kansas City Chiefs. None of them have the playoff acumen—that includes coaches and quarterbacks—to show they are ready to take out the alpha dog of the AFC, even when Brady's best days are behind him.
Cincinnati Bengals Get First Playoff Win Since 1990
The Cincinnati Bengals were dominant at home this season, being the only NFL team to go unbeaten. They are up against the San Diego Chargers, which barely took care of business at home against a team that was playing many second-stringers.
The Chargers probably would not have even made it to overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs if not for a missed call. That means a lot more than Cincinnati's history in the playoffs. Most of the Bengals' past success came with different personnel—players, coaches and front office.
San Diego's playoff history is not much better, and that includes the current quarterback. It will also be cold for the warm-weather Chargers, and they may have to rely on the passing game even more with the injury to Ryan Matthews, even if he does play.
Cincinnati is literally the last winner that is a good bet. Every other game is either a toss-up or the team's second win after an undetermined matchup.
Carolina Panthers Win Divisional Round
The Carolina Panthers are the real deal. They have an elite defense, a good ground game and a dynamic quarterback with a couple of very good weapons in the receiving corps.
They are also a young team. Cam Newton will be playing in his first NFL playoff game and still has growing to do. They will feel the pressure building over an extra week, and who knows how a team will react until it gets there?
Ron Rivera reached the postseason with the Chicago Bears, but he has not been there as a coach. Some idea of how Carolina will respond can be gleaned from its close to the regular season—it went and got the NFC South title.
Most likely, the Panthers will be facing a more flawed team for their first game. The defenseless and mostly unproven Eagles might earn a trip to Carolina with a win over the New Orleans Saints; otherwise, the winner of the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers will make the trip east.
The Panthers beat the Niners in San Francisco earlier this season. The Packers have an exploitable defense. Neither would be the favorite in Carolina.
Denver Broncos Win AFC Championship
The Denver Broncos are more likely to win a second contest—the AFC Championship Game—than three of the Wild Card Weekend teams are to win one game. Several opponent have a chance to beat them, but they have by far the best chance to advance.
The primary competitor is generally considered to be the New England Patriots. They came roaring back from a big halftime deficit to beat the Broncos during the regular season. However, that game was in Foxboro, and the Pats needed the win more.
They will not have any weapons for Tom Brady to use to exploit the Broncos defense. They also do not have a good enough defense to stop Denver. Most importantly, they have to do something that they have not done since 2002, when they played a rookie quarterback in the AFC Championship Game.
The Indianapolis Colts also beat the Broncos, but that was also at home, and they are without their best receiver. The Kansas City Chiefs are the best non-division winner out there but could not win in two tries against their AFC West rivals. The Cincinnati Bengals are unlikely to go from no playoff wins in 23 years to the Super Bowl.
The AFC Championship Game is Denver's to lose, and it is likely to take it.
Seattle Seahawks Win NFC Champsionship
The Seattle Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in the NFL. Their recent record at home proves that, especially considering they were not a dominant team overall until this season.
If the young team facing its first bye week comes through that, watch out. In addition to having home field throughout the NFC, Seattle has a very good (not elite) quarterback, a power running game and a defense that feasts on teams forced into passing situations.
This is not to say that the Seahawks do not have weaknesses. Power running games can be effective against them, mobile quarterbacks can evade their pass rush and improvise, and Seattle is young and did not play its best in December.
More than that, the team has little real playoff success to its credit—one win in an undeserved home game against a dome team three years ago and another last year over a team that lost its franchise quarterback. The Seahawks are vulnerable to a team on a mission.
However, the teams that can beat them are few. Three come to mind:
The San Francisco 49ers have been dominated in two straight trips to Seattle. Colin Kaepernick has trouble getting plays off, and his slow delivery leaves him susceptible to Seattle's strong edge pass rush.
The Green Bay Packers could ride the emotion of the Fail Mary and the confidence of knowing that win was earned in Seattle, no matter what the official records say. However, the defense has shown no signs of being able to handle Marshawn Lynch.
The Carolina Panthers have the balanced attack and defense to win it all. They also are a young team with a quarterback that has even less playoff experience than Wilson. They have the best shot, but they have to be the underdog in Seattle.
New Orleans Saints Topple Philadelphia Eagles
If you think games are won defensively, the New Orleans Saints are the pick in the Wild Card Round. A once-questionable defense has been good enough this year to put it head-and-shoulders above the Philadelphia Eagles, even if it is a little premature to believe in it long term.
If you think this is a game of dueling quarterbacks, then the Saints are also the pick. True, Nick Foles has been good this season, but he has never played a playoff game. Drew Brees had as many wins in one season as Foles has had in two, and Brees runs a proven offense.
No one knows if Chip Kelly's offense will have staying power in the NFL.
If you are obsessed with how well a team is playing now or the small sample size of outdoor playoff games in the history of the Saints or Brees, the Eagles are the pick. That just does not make up for having a worse defense and less-reliable offense.
This game could go either way, but the team to bet on is New Orleans—with or without the 2.5-point spread.
Kansas City Chiefs Upset Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts manhandled the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium. Why would they lose at their own stadium?
For one, that stadium did not fill up for the longest time. This is not a case of Green Bay fans being unwilling to put money down early for a team that did not make the playoffs until six days ago and then having to decide whether they want to sit in icy temperatures. Indianapolis plays in a dome and has been in the postseason for weeks.
How much home-field advantage do the Colts really have?
For another, Alex Smith is a seasoned veteran for the Chiefs. He leads a ball-control offense that fits the playoffs, while the Colts will have to rely on second-year quarterback Andrew Luck.
The big X-factor is Tamba Hali. If he is healthy enough to play effectively, Kansas City is winning this game.
San Francisco 49ers Win Fourth Straight over Green Bay Packers
In the interest of full disclosure, I have bled green-and-gold since my earliest memories, so it is hard to get a read on this game. Then again, maybe it is this hard for everyone.
The wind chill might be 50 below during the game on Sunday. The local coverage of the San Francisco 49ers makes it clear that the weather will be on their minds, and they did not fly out early to prepare for it. Even though many Packers are from warm climates, they are more acclimated to frigid conditions as a result of living in Wisconsin during the season.
The Niners are also still searching for the right formula, and their confidence can be shaken. The team that spent the offseason talking smack about the Packers being a finesse team whined incessantly about one high hit on Colin Kaepernick, who ironically declared after the game that the team not talking had nothing but words of intimidation to offer.
San Francisco just barely beat that team on its home field. It was handed a free third-down do-over that it was not supposed to get. If the 49ers have enough confidence, they should let their play speak for itself.
All of that is great, but games are won and lost on the field. The fact is the winning team is always warmer in the bitter cold, and that team should be the Niners.
True, injuries in their defensive backfield can be exploited by the top three-man wide receiver tandem in the NFL. However, the passing games of both teams may be somewhat grounded.
Even though Green Bay now has a running game, the defense is without its best pass-rusher and run-stuffer in Clay Matthews. That makes it easier to see San Francisco stopping the Packers offense than vice versa.
Denver Broncos Win Super Bowl XLVIII
By far the least likely single result will almost always be any team winning three or more games. But the Denver Broncos are the most likely team to pull it off.
They have a better home-field advantage than most other teams. They will face the easiest competition against the lowest seeds in an AFC that lacks depth.
More than that, Peyton Manning is on a mission to erase his unfair choker label. His record-setting season he has left him within reach of every career passing record next season. A championship along the way would secure his place as the greatest of all time...until Aaron Rodgers passes him.
MJ Kasprzak is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers and writes professionally on the San Jose Sharks for Examiner.com after he got a start as Bleacher Report's original community leader for both teams.