There are still eight teams remaining in the 2013-14 NFL playoffs, but a few franchises have been established as favorites with the shortest odds to capture Super Bowl XLVIII.
Two of the three teams are the No. 1 seeds and will not take the field in the postseason until this coming weekend. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos will both play home games en route to a hopeful trip to MetLife Stadium, giving them a prohibitive advantage.
However, the San Francisco 49ers weathered the elements to advance through Wild Card Weekend in Green Bay, proving they can acclimate to adverse environments. Defeating the Packers at Lambeau Field is no small task, so it makes sense that the Niners' stock is rising after that victory.
Below is an overview of each of the three favorites with their odds included (courtesy of Bovada as of Jan. 6) and how they figure to finish their respective playoff runs.
San Francisco 49ers (5-1)
The Packers defense is by no means elite, but credit Colin Kaepernick for leading a comeback and converting key third downs on the winning field-goal drive using both his feet and his rocket right arm.
Kaepernick proved his game can weather the elements, which bodes well as the Niners prepare to travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round.
The young quarterback is confident that his squad can avenge an earlier loss to Carolina, per the Niners' official Twitter account:
Kap on playing Carolina: "We owe them." #QuestForSix— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 6, 2014
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has guided his team to the NFC Championship Game in each of his previous two seasons, but this will be an instance where the third time isn't a charm.
Green Bay is one team Kaepernick has absolutely owned in three total games, and the Packers field a defense not athletic enough to stop him from escaping the pocket and ripping off big gains. The Panthers have the athletes across their elite front seven to spy, contain and stymie Kaepernick and confine him in the pocket.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are excellent pass-rushers at defensive end, and at the heart of the defense is precocious linebacker Luke Kuechly, along with Thomas Davis.
Carolina beat the Niners 10-9 in Week 10 and has its own dynamic QB in Cam Newton to keep San Francisco off balance. Doubts have lingered about the Panthers all season, yet they've continued to pull through. That won't change at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 12.
Prediction: 49ers eliminated in divisional round by Panthers, 20-17
Denver Broncos (13-5)
Which favorite will win Super Bowl XLVIII?
Manning does have one Super Bowl—something all-time greats such as, say, Dan Marino can't boast—but after throwing for a record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, it's on The Sheriff to take care of business with a Lombardi Trophy.
An immediate test looms in a divisional matchup with the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers, who went into Denver and beat the Broncos 27-20 in Week 15.
Also heightening the scrutiny is the fact that Manning has an ominous history of one-and-done efforts in the playoffs, including last season, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Peyton Manning: lost first game of playoffs 8 times (twice as many as any other QB in Super Bowl era)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 6, 2014
The good news is that the Broncos will have vengeance playing as a factor in their favor and that they should be able to handle the winner of the Indianapolis-New England divisional matchup assuming they push past San Diego.
It will be tough, but Manning has too many weapons and has a capable No. 1 running back in Knowshon Moreno who will be fresh after a week off. Selling Denver short of a Super Bowl berth seems unrealistic at this point.
Prediction: Super Bowl XLVIII finalist
Seattle Seahawks (5-2)
As might be inferred from the above prediction concerning Denver, the Seahawks will do enough to win both prospective games on their home CenturyLink Field, clinch a trip to East Rutherford and win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Simply put, head coach Pete Carroll and the front office have assembled and groomed the most complete, balanced team in football. Seattle is sound against the run and the pass, can pound it with Marshawn Lynch and has a playmaker at the quarterback position in Russell Wilson.
In the modern NFL, not much more can be asked for—except perhaps an additional playmaker at Wilson's disposal.
Help should be arriving in that regard because the electric Percy Harvin is expected to join the receiving corps and likely boost the return game when the Seahawks take on the New Orleans Saints.
Wilson is optimistic that Harvin will be available, per 710 ESPN's Liz Mathews:
Russell Wilson said of WR Percy Harvin: "He's ready to go, I think." #Seahawks— Liz Mathews 710 ESPN (@Liz_Mathews) January 2, 2014
Whether Harvin is his usual self or not, though, the Seahawks have an amazing secondary headlined by All-Pro defensive backs Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The team has pass-rushers, but being able to cover so well on the back end helped the Seahawks create a league-best 39 turnovers.
Seattle also beat the Saints 34-7 in Week 13 and have beaten the Niners in their previous home matchup and the Panthers in Week 1 on the road.
In a potential tangle with the Broncos for pro football's ultimate prize, the probable cold-weather elements of MetLife Stadium heavily favor Seattle. Sherman summed up Manning's current skill set best, and Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller agreed with the assessment:
Richard Sherman on Peyton Manning's arm, "His passes will be accurate and on time, but he throws ducks." This is very, very true.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 3, 2014
The combination of inclement weather and a rare defensive backfield that can create decent one-on-one matchups with the Broncos' loaded supporting cast will result in a Super Bowl parade through Seattle.
Prediction: Super Bowl XLVIII champions