With the Wild Card Round beginning this weekend, we finally have a road map for each team to reach the Super Bowl. We know the seedings for every team as well as the various permutations of potential future matchups.
Thus, since each team knows its most likely playoff path, the most likely Super Bowl matchups subsequently come into focus. Bovada released the odds of all the possible Super Bowl matchups occurring, and per CSNPhilly.com, the complete list is here.
Below are considerations of what a few matchups would offer, as well as what the two respective teams must accomplish to make the possibility a reality.
Broncos vs. Seahawks (9/4)
This is by far the most likely matchup on paper, though the top two seeds have met just once in the Super Bowl over the past 20 years—2009, when the Saints and Colts rode home-field advantage to Miami.
Denver has the clearer path, with the Colts, Chiefs and Chargers looming as second-round possibilities. While Indy and San Diego both beat Denver, neither really has the defensive personnel to thwart Peyton Manning and Co. a second time. Kansas City, meanwhile, had its byzantine zone-blitz schemes stripped for all the world to see in the teams' second meeting, a 35-28 Denver victory.
The Seahawks have a significantly tougher road and cannot be considered favorites against the NFC field as a whole, even with the 12th Man. The conference is absolutely loaded, and every team has a significant strength capable of stretching Seattle to its limit. In particular, the Seahawks have struggled with offensive line protection, something which could spell trouble against Carolina or New Orleans, both of whom ranked in the top five in sack percentage.
Denver and Seattle are probably the best teams in their respective conferences, but it is hard to imagine both surviving the field to meet in Jersey.
Patriots vs. Panthers (25/1)
A New England-Carolina game would bring a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII as well as one of the best games of the 2013 regular season. Many remember the controversial non-call at the end of the game, but in truth, it may have been the most well-played Monday Night Football game of the season.
The Patriots somehow scrapped their way to another first-round bye, their fourth consecutive, despite a plethora of injuries to major contributors. New England has not been impermeable, as the days of 30-point victories are gone. 11 of the Pats' 16 games were decided by one score, and this is an edge-of-your-seat team that will need a few breaks just to make it to the Super Bowl.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have exploded behind a breakout season from the defense. Carolina is one of the league's best against both the pass and run, and really has no weaknesses:
Even in today's increasingly open offensive NFL, we've seen good defenses trump otherworldly offenses in the postseason in recent years. Carolina is a team primed to repeat that trend, and getting a first-round bye against a tough NFC field is crucial to those hopes.
Bengals vs. 49ers (40/1)
This is a bit of a long shot Super Bowl matchup but has the one of the best odds among secondary contenders. It would also be the third Cincinnati-San Francisco Super Bowl, breaking the record for most frequent matchup, which seems a bit odd considering the Bengals are involved.
There's a perception that the Broncos and Patriots are the clear alpha dogs in the AFC, but Cincinnati has the personnel and firepower to beat both. Consider the formula: An erratic quarterback coupled with a dynamic all-purpose running back on offense, plus an injury-ravaged but steadily improving defense? If the 2012 Ravens can embark on a dark-horse Super Bowl run, the 2013 Bengals can do the same.
The 49ers are likely better than the No. 5 seed they have drawn, and the offense's improvement gives them hope of winning three road playoff games en route to North Jersey. Michael Crabtree's return from his Achilles injury has borne far greater fruit than many could have expected, as the Niners passing game is so much more open and multifaceted with their top receiver back in the lineup. No longer does San Francisco represent a team transported from the 1970s, a power running game and physical defense with a meager passing attack.
These are among the two most dangerous teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, and while the odds are always stacked against teams playing an extra game, there is no reason both Cincinnati and San Francisco could not buck those odds.