The NFL doesn't feature a dominant team this season. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are the top seeds in their respective conferences, but even those talented teams aren't overwhelming favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
As the Baltimore Ravens showed last season, it all comes down to which teams play the best over the next month as opposed to which squads shined over the previous 17 weeks. Even the Broncos and Seahawks will need to take another step up to survive in the playoffs.
Underdog teams can use the Ravens, who garnered little hype before their run to a championship, as motivation. With that in mind, let's examine the matchups most likely to take place in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in early February.
|2013-14 NFL Playoff Teams|
|1||Denver Broncos||Seattle Seahawks|
|2||New England Patriots||Carolina Panthers|
|3||Cincinnati Bengals||Philadelphia Eagles|
|4||Indianapolis Colts||Green Bay Packers|
|5||Kansas City Chiefs||San Francisco 49ers|
|6||San Diego Chargers||New Orleans Saints|
1. Broncos vs. Seahawks
Yes, recent history would suggest a meeting between the top seeds is actually a long shot. Over the next few weeks, before the Broncos and Seahawks return from their byes, there will be a lot of talk about the stat passed along by Peter Schrager of Fox Sports or something similar:
Yet, despite that trend and the overall parity throughout the league this season, it's still difficult to suggest any other matchup is more likely. They are the best teams in their respective conferences, both in terms of the eye test and Football Outsiders' statistical efficiency analysis.
The Broncos have a virtually unstoppable offense thanks to the front office's terrific job of putting an amazing amount of weapons around Peyton Manning. Add in the fact Denver ranks eighth against the run, which should prevent opponents from using a ball-control strategy, and it is clearly the top dog in the AFC.
On the NFC side, the Seahawks are the most complete team. They rank first defensively and average the fourth-most yards per game on the ground. Russell Wilson hasn't been asked to play many shootouts, which is why Seattle ranks low in the passing game, but he's capable of playing that high-flying style if necessary.
With two championship-caliber rosters and a combined 14-2 record at home, the Broncos and Seahawks represent the most probable Super Bowl foes.
2. Broncos vs. 49ers
The most dangerous team in Seattle's path on the NFC side is San Francisco. Serious questions were raised about the 49ers' ability to make another deep playoff run after back-to-back blowout losses to the Seahawks and Colts early in the season.
Those have certainly faded away as the 49ers went 11-2 over their final 13 games, including six straight wins to conclude the regular season. Their only losses over that span were to the Panthers and Saints by a grand total of four points.
They are built just like the Seahawks. Great defense led by the dynamic duo of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, an effective rushing attack thanks to the always reliable Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick filling in the gaps.
San Francisco came within one touchdown of winning the championship last season. Given the team's strong play in the second half of the season, there's no reason to believe the 49ers can't make a similar run this time around and perhaps even finish the job to win a title.
3. Bengals vs. Seahawks
While the general assumption points toward the Patriots being the biggest hurdle for the Broncos, don't sleep on Cincinnati. The Bengals represent a very tough potential opponent for both New England and Denver as they enter the playoffs under the radar.
Cincinnati is the only AFC playoff team which ranks in the top half of the league defensively at No. 3 in yards allowed. The next closest is Denver at No. 19. That's going to serve as a major advantage in every game the Bengals play, starting against San Diego.
Furthermore, while the Bengals aren't as explosive as the Broncos, Patriots and the rest of the AFC field, Andy Dalton's continued progression along with playmakers like A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Marvin Jones give them enough offensive upside to make a run.
Much like their division rivals from Baltimore last season, Cincinnati has all the pieces to get on a roll and make a run all the way to the Super Bowl. If it does, there's a good chance the Seahawks will be the opponent.