The NFL playoffs are finally here, and it's officially the most wonderful time of the year!
This year's postseason is shaping up to be a fascinating one. All four games of the opening weekend are compelling, and none more so than the 49ers and Packers on Sunday afternoon.
Several titanic matchups loom large, whether it's a potential AFC Championship Game between Tom Brady's Patriots and Peyton Manning's Broncos or a divisional-round clash between NFC West rivals San Francisco and Seattle.
Even though the teams with first-round byes have the best odds (except for San Francisco, which Bovada has third), it's important to note that the last three Super Bowl champions have come out of the Wild Card Round, lending added importance to the opening weekend.
Here are the predictions and odds, courtesy of Bovada, for every playoff team to win Super Bowl 2014.
The San Diego Chargers completed their improbable march to the postseason with a heart-stopping, overtime victory in Week 17 against the Chiefs. The win earned them the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
The job done by first-year coach Mike McCoy and his staff, particularly offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, cannot be commended enough. The Chargers weren't expected to contend this year, but they find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. A lot of that also has to do with the exemplary play of quarterback Philip Rivers, who experienced a career renaissance, tossing 32 touchdown passes against only 11 interceptions.
Now, the Chargers look ahead to Sunday's Wild Card Weekend matchup in Cincinnati against a Bengals team that defeated them in Week 13. The bad news for the Chargers? That game was in San Diego, and this one will take place in the Queen City, where the Bengals just completed a perfect, 8-0 home schedule.
While San Diego is both the clear underdog in this game and the team with the worst odds in the postseason to win the Super Bowl, a deep run isn't out of the question. If Rivers plays lights-out, the Chargers are capable of beating anyone.
If the Chargers are fortunate enough to beat the Bengals, a divisional-round trip to No. 1 seed Denver would await. That's a place where they've already won this year, having pulled a shock upset there in Week 15.
Next Game: at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET)
The Indianapolis Colts easily claimed the AFC South title, and they head into the postseason buoyed by a three-game win streak in which the smallest margin of victory was 16 points. One of those wins came against their Wild Card Weekend competition, the Kansas City Chiefs.
That game took place in Kansas City, where the Colts surprisingly dominated. That result has to give coach Chuck Pagano's team a ton of confidence, especially considering this round will be in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts have been somewhat of an enigma this season. They hold wins over juggernauts San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, but St. Louis blew them out at home and they struggled to beat Tennessee twice. It's still unclear what their ceiling is, and it's worth noting that Kansas City's odds to win the Super Bowl are better, despite being the road team in this game.
Ultimately, the Colts' success or failure will come down to the right arm of quarterback Andrew Luck. If he can raise his level of play and take over games, the rest of the AFC will need to watch out.
Next Game: vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET)
The Kansas City Chiefs were the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team at 9-0, but they stumbled down the stretch, winning only two of their final seven games to finish 11-5. By virtue of losing the AFC West to Denver, they find themselves playing at AFC South champion Indianapolis in the Wild Card Round.
The Chiefs hosted the Colts in Week 16 and were thoroughly handled, 23-7. It was a shocking result, and especially so given that it took place outdoors in the cold at Arrowhead Stadium. That loss surely sent coach Andy Reid back to the drawing board for this Saturday's rematch.
After a hot start to the season, the Chiefs' defense and pass rush tapered off late, and the way the Colts pushed them around was disconcerting.
After that game, cornerback Dunta Robinson said, per Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star:
We gotta look in the mirror and we gotta decide what kind of team we want to be moving forward. Yeah, OK. You dominate Oakland. Yeah, you dominate (Washington). But what are we going to do when we face other powerhouses? We’re a much better team than we showed today.
There's little doubt that the defense will be gunning for retribution, but the offense will need a better showing as well. The unit lives or dies with quarterback Alex Smith and star running back Jamaal Charles.
It's certainly possible that the Chiefs could beat the Colts, but it's hard to envision a scenario where they could take out either New England or Denver on the road in the divisional round.
Next Game: at Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET)
It might have taken until Week 17, but the New Orleans Saints qualified for the postseason, smashing the Buccaneers to claim the sixth and final spot in the NFC. That capped off an 11-5 season for coach Sean Payton's team.
The team's loss to Carolina in Week 16 was devastating, as it ended up costing New Orleans the NFC South title and a potential first-round bye. Now, the Saints will have to win three consecutive road games to make the Super Bowl, which is a daunting task considering they went 3-5 away from the Superdome this year. The first test comes this Saturday night in Philadelphia against the NFC East champion Eagles.
One player who certainly struggled on the road was quarterback Drew Brees. While he's one of the elite signal-callers in the NFL, there's no question that Brees performs at a higher level in the friendly confines of the Superdome. Brees threw 27 touchdown passes against only three interceptions at home, but only 12 touchdown passes against nine interceptions on the road.
The defense, which finished ranked fourth overall under the leadership of coordinator Rob Ryan, faces a significant challenge against the Eagles' high-octane offense. It's going to be tough to hold down quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, meaning it'll likely be up to Brees and the offense to put up points in bunches.
Given their status as the No. 6 seed and poor road record this season, the Saints face an extremely rough road to the Super Bowl. Even if they manage to beat the Eagles, a return trip to Seattle would await, and they were waxed there in Week 13.
Next Game: at Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday, 8:10 p.m. ET)
The Philadelphia Eagles clinched the NFC East title with a Week 17 victory in Dallas, and in doing so they claimed the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, capping off an excellent first year by coach Chip Kelly.
Any concerns about the viability of Kelly's offense in the NFL have surely dissipated after a stunning season by the unit. Quarterback Nick Foles was outstanding after replacing an injured Michael Vick, finishing with a preposterous touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27 to two. Running back LeSean McCoy claimed the rushing title with 1,607 yards, and the Eagles finished the season with the fourth-ranked scoring offense.
The defense struggled early but came together late, with back-to-back solid efforts in the season's final two games to help claim the division.
The Eagles will host the Saints in the Wild Card Round in what's sure to be an entertaining and high-scoring affair. They're favored to win that game, and if they do, they will travel to Carolina in the divisional round by virtue of the No. 3 seed, thereby avoiding a potential trip to Seattle until the NFC title game.
Next Game: vs. New Orleans Saints (Saturday, 8:10 p.m. ET)
The Cincinnati Bengals had a very fruitful Week 17. Not only did they knock division rival Baltimore out of the postseason, but they also completed a perfect 8-0 home schedule and locked up the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs in doing so.
The AFC North champions have to be feeling good about hosting a home playoff game after losing in Houston the past two postseasons, and they will play a Chargers team that they defeated on the road in Week 13.
Quarterback Andy Dalton is in his third postseason in three years as the team's signal-caller, but questions still abound about his inconsistent play. There were five games this season in which Dalton threw multiple interceptions, including four in the Week 17 win over Baltimore. If the Bengals are to advance and make any noise, Dalton will have to play well and avoid turning the ball over.
The Bengals have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and are heavy favorites to advance to the divisional round, where they would play the Patriots in Foxboro. But it's imperative that the Bengals don't look past a dangerous Chargers team. A third consecutive one-and-done postseason trip would be devastating to the Cincinnati faithful.
Next Game: vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET)
This just in: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is pretty damn good.
Rodgers returned to the lineup after missing seven games with a broken collarbone just in time to beat the Bears in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North title. The win came in insanely dramatic fashion, with Rodgers tossing a late touchdown strike to receiver Randall Cobb with the game and a playoff berth on the line.
Now, the Packers enter the postseason as a very dangerous football team with a healthy Rodgers, as noted here by B/R's Michael Schottey. But unfortunately for them, they host the 49ers on Sunday in the Wild Card Round, and San Francisco has the best odds of any team playing this weekend to win the Super Bowl. Vegas has installed the 49ers as 2.5-point favorites on the road.
The 49ers have had the Packers' number recently, including an absolute demolition of them in the divisional round of last year's playoffs. The difference this year is that the game will take place on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and not in Northern California.
If a team out of the Wild Card Round ends up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, it'll likely be the winner of this game on Sunday. While the Packers are underdogs, bet against them and Rodgers at your own peril.
Next Game: vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET)
While things looked bleak after a 1-3 start, the Carolina Panthers closed the season by winning 11 of their final 12 games to capture the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
It was a stunning revival for the team and coach Ron Rivera, who seemed headed for the unemployment line. Rivera eschewed his reputation as a conservative coach once his seat seemed ready to burst into flames, adopting the "Riverboat Ron" persona, rolling the dice on fourth-down calls and coming up aces seemingly every time.
Quarterback Cam Newton had a sensational season, playing within himself and the offense. Plus, he showed improved leadership on and off the field. He proved that he has what it takes to win and dominate at the NFL level, and never more so than in his game-winning touchdown drive against the Saints in Week 16.
And yeah, there's the matter of that amazing defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Luke Kuechly, which finished ranked second overall.
The Panthers are on a major roll, and they could definitely find themselves in the Super Bowl. They beat the 49ers earlier this season and barely lost to the Seahawks in Week 1. It's not outside the realm of possibility that they could play both teams again and emerge victorious.
Carolina will either host the Eagles (the Saints can only play at Seattle) or the winner of 49ers/Packers in the divisional round.
Next Game: Sunday, January 12, 1:05 p.m. ET
The New England Patriots fashioned together an extremely impressive regular season, finishing 12-4 and claiming a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. The feat is made even more incredible by the fact that so many key players were lost due to injury.
Quarterback Tom Brady put together a marvelous second half after an uneven beginning, finishing with 25 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. His playoff pedigree is second to none, with five Super Bowl appearances and three Lombardi Trophies on his dossier.
And the Patriots have the best head coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick. He's a difference-maker all by his lonesome.
The Patriots seem destined to play in Denver for the AFC title, as it's difficult to imagine any of the teams they could end up playing (Cincinnati or the winner of Chiefs/Colts) upsetting them in the divisional round. The Patriots did beat the Broncos earlier this season, but that was at Foxboro and with tight end Rob Gronkowski healthy. Pulling the upset this time will be far more difficult, but discounting Brady and Belichick in January is never a smart proposition.
Next Game: Saturday, January 11, 8:15 p.m. ET
In most years and situations, a 12-4 record would have been good enough to earn the San Francisco 49ers a first-round bye and perhaps home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. However, because the Seahawks finished 13-3, the 49ers will open the postseason on the road at Green Bay.
The 49ers closed the season on a six-game win streak and appear to be peaking at exactly the right time. The return of receiver Michael Crabtree has clearly done wonders for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the offense, which is humming as the calendar turns to January.
Although the 49ers will likely have to play three road games to make the Super Bowl, they are definitely capable of doing so. They have owned Green Bay in recent years and are the favorite to win that game. They also appear to be the NFC team with the best chance of beating the Seahawks in Seattle.
Their run game is outstanding, and the defense is stout. And coach Jim Harbaugh is no slouch either, earning his third postseason appearance in three years on the job. In 2011, the 49ers went to the NFC title game. Last year, they represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. It should surprise no one if the 49ers make a similar run over the next month.
Next Game: at Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET)
The Seattle Seahawks finished 13-3, claiming the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And given the fact that CenturyLink Field is a fortress, with the team only losing once there in the last two seasons, the Seahawks have to be considered the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
Despite the fantastic regular season, there are reasons for concern in the great Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks skidded a bit down the stretch, losing two of their final four games, albeit against teams that finished the season with double-digit victories (San Francisco and Arizona). The loss to the Cardinals was at home, which put a significant dent in the theory that the Seahawks are unbeatable at the Clink.
But the Seahawks still have quarterback Russell Wilson and the deepest roster in the NFL. Wilson is supremely clutch, and he thrives on the big moment. He's aided by monster running back Marshawn Lynch, and the entire offense could be buoyed by the return of receiver Percy Harvin, per ESPN.com's Terry Blount.
If the Saints win on Saturday, they will travel to Seattle for the divisional round. But if the Eagles win, the Seahawks will host the winner of Sunday's tilt between the Packers and 49ers.
In other words, if you're a Seahawks fan, you should be rooting hard for the Saints this weekend.
Next Game: Saturday, January 11, 4:35 p.m. ET
The Denver Broncos finished the 2013 regular season with a 13-3 record, winning the AFC West title and claiming home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They possessed the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL.
The Broncos scored an NFL-record 606 points, and quarterback Peyton Manning tossed an insane 55 touchdown passes. Manning is a lock to win his record fifth MVP award. They had a 1,000-yard rusher who scored 10 touchdowns on the ground (Knowshon Moreno), and four players caught 10 or more touchdowns (receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas). To say that the offense was impressive would be like saying Kate Upton looks decent in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
The season-ending ACL tear suffered by top pass-rusher Von Miller is problematic, but it's worth noting that the Broncos went 6-0 without him to start the season. Plus, this Broncos team is not going to advance to the Super Bowl because of their defense, but instead on the right arm of Manning.
Denver will host either the Chargers or the winner of Chiefs/Colts in the divisional round, as Cincinnati would play at New England if it were to advance.
Because of Manning, their home-field advantage and the fact that the Patriots are without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Broncos have to be considered the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Next Game: Sunday, January 12, 4:40 p.m. ET