The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks enter the playoffs as the favorites in their respective conferences, and rightfully so. They were the best two teams in football during the regular season, but rarely do things go according to script in the postseason.
Since the playoffs are just as much about which team gets hot at the right time as any other factor, there are always a couple twists and turns on the road to the Super Bowl. That's why, as Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post points out, the top seeds facing for the championship has been rare:
With that in mind, let's examine the most dangerous sleeper teams in each conference. Even though they didn't have the best regular seasons, both squads have enough talent to make deep runs and could end up Super Bowl-bound if they catch a few breaks along the way.
AFC: Cincinnati Bengals
The most promising stat for Cincinnati is courtesy of its defense. The Bengals rank third in the NFL in yards allowed per game, according to NFL.com. No other team competing in the AFC playoffs is higher than 19th on the list (Broncos), which should equate to a sizable advantage in every game they play.
Led by Vontaze Burfict, who racked up a league-leading 171 total tackles, the unit ranks inside the top five in both pass and run defense. Given the number of high-powered offenses on the AFC side, including the San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati's first opponent, being able to slow them down is key.
How far will the Bengals go?
On offense, the Bengals don't generate much hype because outside of A.J. Green the group doesn't possess a lot of star power. But when you look at each area, it becomes clear they have the weapons necessary to make serious noise.
The combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who handles the tough running between the tackles, and Giovani Bernard, who's capable of breaking big plays and helps in the passing game, is a formidable duo in the backfield.
Along with an elite receiver in Green, the Bengals also have the emerging Marvin Jones as well as Mohamed Sanu and Andrew Hawkins at wideout. Add in tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and it becomes a very solid receiving group.
The offensive line has also done a superb job. As Pro Football Focus notes, a key reason for that success up front has been the terrific play of Andrew Whitworth regardless of where he's been asked to play:
Andrew Whitworth graded at +20.2 as a left tackle and +16.5 at left guard. Impressive season. @Bengals— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 4, 2014
It's clear the Bengals have built a solid roster. The biggest remaining question heading into the playoffs is whether Andy Dalton is ready to take his game to the next level under center, much like Joe Flacco did while leading the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl last season.
Dalton continued to make strides in his third season, passing for nearly 4,300 yards and 33 touchdowns. But for the Bengals to make a Super Bowl run, he must limit his mistakes after tossing 20 interceptions. If he does, the rest of the team appears ready to roll.
NFC: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles entered the season garnering a lot of attention following the arrival of Chip Kelly. After three straight losses to fall to 1-3, however, the spotlight shifted elsewhere and it looked like the learning curve for Kelly and the players in his offense was going to take a while.
Quietly, following a 52-20 loss to the Broncos, the Eagles started to making the subtle changes necessary to become more competitive on a weekly basis. They took their foot off the gas a little bit more, especially when in control of a game, and the results started to improve.
They had a five-game winning streak in the middle of the season and won four of their last five after a late bye week to enter the playoffs on a high note. As you'd expect, the offense leads the charge, ranking second behind Denver in yards per game.
What will be interesting to see is how the up-tempo pace translates to the postseason, which tends to feature more tightly played games. Phil Sheridan of ESPN.com passed along comments from Cary Williams, who discussed the importance of every possession:
You've got to make sure you’re on your game. Every possession counts. Every reception counts. Every deflection counts. Every play is a monumental play in a playoff game. It could be the very play that could win, it could be the very play that can lose.
That doesn't mean Philadelphia should change its approach. But the Eagles must be prepared in case they get pulled into a slow-paced, low-scoring contest against the multiple defensive-minded teams in the NFC playoffs.
How far will the Eagles go?
The efficiency of Nick Foles is crucial. He finished with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions during the regular season, which resulted in him leading the league in passer rating. He must continue to play at that level for the Eagles to succeed, especially in those tight contests.
If Foles plays well, Philadelphia has the playmakers around him to make an impact regardless of how good the opposing defense is. The group is highlighted by LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, who are game-breakers in every sense of the term.
The defense, which ranks in the middle of the pack in points allowed in part due to the tempo of the offense leading to more possessions for opponents, also has game-changing players in Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin.
Every game, starting with the New Orleans Saints, will be a serious test in the stacked NFC. But the Eagles could very well pass them all.