NFL Playoff Picture 2014: Examining Road to Super Bowl XLVIII

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 04:  Quarterback Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates a fourth quarter touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during a Wild Card Playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 4, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Thus far in the NFL playoffs, former coach Dennis Green's famous quote, "They are who we thought they were," has been the theme.

In the NFC, the four teams with the best records are doing battle in the divisional round. In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers pulled off the road upset while the Indianapolis Colts held serve at home, albeit in historic fashion. 

There were nine teams with 11-5 records or better this season. Seven of them are still alive, and one of them had to be eliminated when the Colts hosted the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Wild Card Round featured four excellent games, with three of them coming down to the wire. So what does the remaining road to the Super Bowl have in store for fans?

In the NFC, everything goes through Seattle. The top-seeded Seahawks were 7-1 at home this season, are 15-1 at home in the past two years and have arguably the most raucous fans and best home-field advantage in the NFL. Even better, the Seahawks went 3-1 against the remaining NFC contenders, only losing to San Francisco on the road. 

In the divisional round, they face a New Orleans Saints team that they defeated at home in Week 13 with ease, 34-7. The Saints may have exorcised their playoff road demons against the Philadelphia Eagles, but can they do the same against an even better Seahawks team?

They certainly have plenty of motivation to do so after being destroyed by Seattle in the regular season. Tight end Jimmy Graham talked about that loss (via Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports):

It was embarrassing, humbling. It was all of the above, I guess you could say. I certainly won't ever forget that moment. And now we have a great opportunity to prove ourselves against one of the best teams in the NFL. It's gonna be a battle, that's for sure.

The other divisional-round game in the NFC is a rematch between the Niners and Carolina Panthers. The latter won a defensive struggle in San Francisco in Week 10, 10-9, and the Niners will want to repay that defeat at home with a win in Carolina.

Expect another defensive struggle—the Panthers are second in the NFL in yards and points allowed per game, while the Niners are fifth in yards per game and third in points allowed. The difference in this game will likely come down to which young, talented and mobile quarterback—Cam Newton or Colin Kaepernick—has the bigger game.

It's also worth noting that in the first game, the Niners lost Vernon Davis to a concussion and were without Michael Crabtree. Or that they've now won seven straight games. As they proved at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, they are a team to be feared, even on the road.

Should the Seahawks lose, the winner of the Panthers and Niners game would host the NFC Championship. The Panthers are 7-1 at home, while the Niners are 6-2 at Candlestick Park and would love nothing more than to retire the stadium by earning a trip to the Super Bowl. 

In the AFC, the Denver Broncos have home-field advantage throughout. The Broncos lost just one game at home all season long, but that came to the team they are hosting in the divisional round, the Chargers. The Bolts upset Denver in Week 15, 27-20, and come into this game with plenty of confidence, having won five in a row.

Denver won the first meeting between the teams in Week 10, 28-20.

Finally, we get to the New England Patriots hosting the Indianapolis Colts, the only divisional-round game that isn't a rematch from the regular season. The Patriots have quietly been excellent at home this year, going 8-0, while the Colts have played the role of giant slayer all season long, with victories over the Niners, Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs (twice).

Of course, the Colts will likely go as far as their inconsistent team can take them—well, unless Andrew Luck has a few more miracles up his sleeve—as Chris Wesseling of notes:

There's no telling which Colts defense will show up. After holding their final three regular-season opponents to 10 points or less, they were steamrolled by an injury-depleted Chiefs offense during Wild Card Weekend. They will need more than strip-sack master Robert Mathis to win in New England.

It's hard to imagine San Diego winning twice in one season at Denver, so home field will likely go through the Broncos. But should they lose, either the Patriots or Colts (7-2 in Indy) will be difficult to beat in front of their home fans.

The divisional games are traditionally the best of the season, as the heavyweights step into the ring and toss haymakers. With home-field advantage meaning so much to many of these teams in the regular season—and with little to separate the top contenders—don't be surprised if the teams that hold that advantage in the conference championships reach the Super Bowl.

New Jersey, here we come.


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