What started with 12 teams has now been trimmed to just eight. Wild Card Weekend wasn't all that wild, but it did feature four competitive games. Three of them were absolute nail-biters.
From the smoke, one team emerged not only as an even stronger candidate to make it to Super Bowl XLVIII but also as a growing favorite to win it all.
Who's Playing Better Than the San Francisco 49ers Right Now?
After their win in sub-zero conditions on the road at Lambeau Field, the 49ers have won seven straight games, including the final six in the regular season.
The 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was tight, but when you consider what the Niners had to overcome, you have to be impressed with their performance.
Having little to no experience practicing in extreme cold like the temperatures it faced in Green Bay, San Francisco stepped up to earn the win with solid play on both sides of the ball.
Colin Kaepernick proved to be a bigger factor than the cold weather. His scrambling and well-placed throws were the difference.
Kaepernick's scrambles of 24 and 11 yards in the fourth quarter were examples of plays that only he, and maybe three other quarterbacks in the NFL, could make. He said this after the game about playing in the cold conditions, per Fox Sports: "I've played in cold-weather games before. I feel like it's more mental than anything."
Apparently, it's mind over matter. In Kaepernick's mind, the cold doesn't matter.
If the Niners continue to turn him loose to use his legs, they are the team to beat in the NFL's second season.
Challengers for the Niners
The Carolina Panthers Are Lurking
As good as the Niners looked on Sunday, they have a huge game ahead of them en route to the Super Bowl. They will face the Carolina Panthers on the road in the divisional playoff round.
San Francisco lost the regular-season meeting 10-9 in Week 10, and the Panthers have won three straight games and 11 of their last 12. Carolina has every right to feel confident heading into this one.
With the way both teams have been playing, the winner of this game is a smart bet to win the Super Bowl.
Both have rock-solid defenses, mobile quarterbacks and weapons in the passing game that give their signal-callers options when plays break down. Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree combined for 10 receptions, 162 yards and a touchdown against the Packers.
Strong rushing attacks are also something the Niners and Panthers have in common.
It's going to be a great game.
What About the Seattle Seahawks?
Obviously, since the Seahawks had the best record in the NFC this season and have home-field advantage in the playoffs, they are a force to be reckoned with. They will host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.
How far will the Seahawks advance?
The Saints don't match up well with the Seahawks. This is evidenced by the 34-7 beatdown Seattle gave the Saints in Week 13. While Sean Payton and Drew Brees may cook up a better game plan in CenturyLink Field this go-round, it is almost impossible to bet against the Seahawks in this one.
That said, either Carolina or San Francisco will go into Seattle and win in the NFC Championship. The Seahawks narrowly defeated the Panthers in Week 1, and they split the season series with the Niners.
The Niners and Panthers are vastly improved teams since their losses to Seattle.
They are a combined 24-6 since falling to the Seahawks in the regular season. Both teams have vastly improved, and the Seahawks have dropped two of their last four games. One loss came at home to the Arizona Cardinals.
Seattle is vulnerable, and the Niners or Panthers will take advantage.
Denver Broncos and New England Patriots Should Still Be Front-Runners in AFC
The Chargers Are Hot but Not Hot Enough to Beat the Broncos Again
The San Diego Chargers handed the Cincinnati Bengals their first home loss in over a year on Sunday. The Chargers will travel to Denver to take on the Broncos. San Diego beat the Broncos at Sports Authority Field in Week 15, so their confidence should be high.
This one will be different than the first meeting and Sunday's game against the Bengals.
One big reason is the man under center. Sunday's win over the Bengals wasn't all on Andy Dalton. He did throw for 334 yards, but his receivers didn't do a good job getting separation.
That said, he also had three turnovers—including two interceptions. The game was there for the Bengals to take, but they didn't have the leadership presence at quarterback to build on a 10-7 halftime lead.
Instead, the Bengals were outscored 20-0 in the second half.
That won't happen to Peyton Manning and Co. Denver's offense is going to score points, and the Chargers will be pressed to match them. This game will be high-scoring, but there is no way the 'Bolts stare down Manning and the Broncos on the road again.
Both of the potential conference championship opponents for Manning and the Broncos would make for great games and storylines. Tim Ryan of The Big Lead thinks it's too good to be true, and Manning will fold.
Pats-Broncos or Colts-Broncos would be absolutely amazing. So because of that, this means Peyton is going to blow it against the Chargers.— Tim Ryan (@TheSportsHernia) January 6, 2014
The New England Patriots Will Handle the Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck led a thrilling comeback win on Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs, but let's face it: That victory never should have happened.
The Colts were down 28 points in the game, Luck got a lucky bounce inside the 5-yard line, and the Chiefs couldn't manage just one more scoring drive in the fourth quarter to hold on.
Without Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster, the Chiefs lacked the firepower to hold Indy off.
The Colts will be facing a far better offense in the divisional playoff round. The one constant this season with the Patriots has been offensive balance. It's the only thing that has allowed the Pats to survive injuries and absences in their passing game.
This is also something the Chiefs didn't have.
New England's future Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady said this to Gary Dzen of the Boston Globe when asked about handling Robert Mathis and the Colts' pass rush:
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
He [Mathis] wreaks a lot of havoc. We’ve got to be able to slow him down. We’ve got to be balanced on offense like we’ve been. We’ve got to run it. And when we throw it we’ve got to throw it good. We’ve got to put everything in. It’s the biggest week of our year.
New England was ranked in the top 10 in rushing and passing this season. Indianapolis will not have the home crowd to provide energy, and the Patriots running game will zap the Colts pass-rushers, leading to an easy win.
The Pats and Broncos Are a Tossup at This Point
Another Brady vs. Manning meeting would be epic, but it's too early to call this potential AFC Championship Game clash. How healthy both emerge from their initial playoff games will play a huge role in the outcome.
The Patriots won the regular-season meeting in a thrilling 34-31 overtime game in Week 12. The rematch would likely be just as tight.
This is getting really good.
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