The opening round of the 2014 NFL playoffs is complete, and the excitement surrounding the AFC and NFC battles has many football fans shifting their focus to the Super Bowl and which remaining teams have the best chance of making the championship game.
With powerhouses like the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos yet to play this postseason, the likelihood that one or both of those franchises make the Super Bowl grew exponentially with each securing a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
Add in the Wild Card Round success of last year’s championship runner-up San Francisco 49ers, and there are some teams that more serious contenders than others for a berth in the biggest game of the season.
Here are the teams that every NFL fan should be watching as the postseason progresses.
Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
The Seattle Seahawks are vaunted as the best home team in the NFL over the last three seasons and proved it by losing only once at CenturyLink Field this season.
It’s worth noting that the loss came in Week 16 when the Seahawks had all but secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
For the three remaining teams in the NFC, traveling to Seattle is the worst-case scenario.
The Seahawks’ success starts with the defense.
As one of the top units in the NFL, Seattle has only allowed 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per game to opposing offenses. Add in the 44 sacks, 28 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and 112 pass deflections, and it’s clear that whichever team the Seahawks play will be dealing with a swarming defense.
Seattle’s passing attack hasn’t lived up to the hype this season, but the elite rushing combination of running back Marshawn Lynch and dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson has helped the franchise rank fourth in the league on the ground with 136.8 yards per game.
While the air attack has struggled, the return of wide receiver Percy Harvin as a full participant in practice on Friday, Jan. 3, according to John Boyle of The Everett Herald, is a great sign that he could be available this week and moving forward.
With another weapon like Harvin in the lineup, a great rushing attack and a stingy defense, Seattle is the clear NFC favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Denver Broncos (13-3)
Many believed that the loss of outside linebacker Von Miller to a season-ending knee injury would doom the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl aspirations, but this is a franchise that will win or lose based on the play of quarterback Peyton Manning and the offensive unit.
Denver allowed 356 yards and 24.9 points per game during the regular season and still managed to win 13 games. While losing Miller is a blow to what little defensive pressure the Broncos were getting, the team won with the pass-rushing linebacker out of the lineup before and will do it again.
With Manning under center, the offense can compensate for the defensive struggles.
Not only did the veteran QB set multiple major single-season passing records, but he also helped his team rank first in points per game (37.9), yards per game (457.3) and total touchdowns (76).
Denver plays the San Diego Chargers for the third time this season in the divisional round Sunday, Jan. 12, and while San Diego deserves credit for stealing the win in Week 15, the Chargers defensive unit doesn’t have the talent to hang with Manning and the team’s passing attack in the postseason.
The Broncos will cement their spot as AFC Super Bowl favorites with a dominant win.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers may be the kryptonite for Seattle’s Superman.
There is no questioning the talent and the advantages the Seahawks have in the NFC on paper with a bye week and home-field advantage, but the team with the best chance of dethroning them before the Super Bowl is San Francisco.
After losing to Seattle in Week 2 and starting the season slow, the 49ers have returned to the elite form that brought the franchise to the Super Bowl and finished the season with six straight wins, including a victory over the Seahawks in Week 14.
It also doesn't hurt to have a legend on their side:
49ers win! WOOOOO! Congrats SF! Obviously my pep talk worked! WOOOOO! #OldSchoolRaw— Ric Flair® (@RicFlairNatrBoy) January 6, 2014
Using the same basic principles as Seattle—a run-first offense and a stingy defense that hits hard—San Francisco has been a longtime thorn in the side of the Seahawks.
If the 49ers can beat the less-experienced Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, the NFC West foes would meet for a third time this season in the conference championship.
The Seahawks may be one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but San Fran may have their number.