Only eight teams remain in the race for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and they all enter this weekend's divisional round playing at a high level. It's going to be fascinating to watch how it all plays out.
While the two No. 1 seeds, the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, have the best odds of reaching Super Bowl XLVIII, it's important to note that the last three Super Bowl champions emerged from Wild Card Weekend. One of the teams that won this past weekend, the San Francisco 49ers, actually has better odds than either the Carolina Panthers or the New England Patriots, who both earned first-round byes, to reach the Super Bowl.
According to Vegas, the AFC Championship Game will feature New England at Denver, while the NFC Championship Game will pit San Francisco at Seattle.
There's no doubt how awesome that would be, but if there's one thing the NFL has proved over the years, it's that the postseason is wildly unpredictable. Upsets can, and do, happen, so no one should be shocked if a titanic one occurs this weekend.
Here are the Super Bowl predictions and odds for the final eight teams.
Odds courtesy of Bovada.com
Next Game: at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET)
The San Diego Chargers extended their Cinderella season for at least another week with an upset of the Cincinnati Bengals on Wild Card Weekend. The win was the team's fifth in a row since a 5-7 start threatened to keep San Diego out of the postseason.
The Chargers looked unlikely to be playing in the divisional round a month ago, but here they are, arguably the hottest team in the NFL. Since their Week 13 loss to the Bengals dropped the Chargers' record to 5-7, coach Mike McCoy's team has flipped a switch and found another gear, doing so on the strength of its run game and defense.
The Chargers have averaged nearly 40 carries per game over their winning streak, including exactly 40 against Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round, as quarterback Philip Rivers only needed to attempt 16 passes. The combination of running backs Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown has proved effective in wearing down opposing defenses and controlling the clock. While San Diego's defense didn't perform at a high level for the majority of the season, coordinator John Pagano's unit is playing its best football when it matters the most.
Up next is a return trip to Denver, where the Chargers triumphed in Week 15 to improve to 7-7. In that game, the Chargers held the ball for nearly 39 minutes and won on the strength of their run game, defense and clutch throws from Rivers. If you've been paying attention over the past five weeks, that's how San Diego has been grinding out victories.
Yes, the Chargers are huge underdogs against the Broncos. But based on their recent run and style of play, it'd be foolish to count them out. Don't be surprised if this game goes down to the wire.
Next Game: at New England Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)
The Indianapolis Colts completed the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, rallying all the way back from a 28-point, second-half deficit to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in stunning fashion, 45-44, last Saturday.
We'll remember it as the game where the legend of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck truly began. While Luck will be a star regardless of whether the Colts had won or lost, he ascended into rarefied air with his epic performance, punctuated by his recovery of running back Donald Brown's fumble near the Chiefs' goal line and taking it in for a critical touchdown to cut the lead to 41-38.
But not everything is rosy concerning the Colts. The defense was abysmal for most of the game, allowing Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith to go well over 400 yards in total offense. It was a major step back for a unit that had only allowed 20 combined points during the team's three-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Next up for coach Chuck Pagano's team is a trip to Foxborough Saturday night to take on the favored Patriots. While Luck inspires a bevy of confidence and the idea that the Colts could beat any team at any time, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is likely licking his chops while watching tape of the Indianapolis defense.
There's little doubt that New England will put a ton of points on the board. The question will be if Luck can again rise to the occasion and match the opposition, score for score.
Next Game: at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET)
The critics said that the New Orleans Saints couldn't win on the road in the postseason and that playing outdoors in the cold was a recipe for disaster. They said the Saints couldn't win on the strength of their run game and defense.
The Saints told all their critics to shove it in one fell swoop last Saturday night, claiming a last-second victory in Philadelphia to advance to the NFC divisional round.
In a game where quarterback Drew Brees didn't play his best (20 completions for 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), the Saints triumphed because they dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Their punishing rushing attack ground out 36 carries for 185 yards, and coordinator Rob Ryan's defense kept the Eagles' high-octane offense in check.
The victory earned them a return trip to Seattle, where they were annihilated in Week 13 on Monday Night Football. It's difficult to conjure up a scenario where the Saints could pull off the upset, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. In order for that to happen, however, Brees will need to play better than he did in the first meeting, where he threw for just 147 yards and directed an offense that only managed 188 total yards.
If they do somehow manage to emerge victorious from the Pacific Northwest, a trip to either Carolina or San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game would await. Even the most ardent Saints fan would have to admit that the team's odds of winning two more extremely tough games on the road to reach the Super Bowl aren't great.
Next Game: vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET)
The Carolina Panthers were rewarded for claiming the NFC's No. 2 seed with a divisional-round matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
Some prize that is.
While it's true that the 49ers are red-hot, winners of seven straight games, the Panthers enter the postseason on quite a steak of their own, having gone 11-1 after a 1-3 start. Plus, the Panthers beat the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 10, 10-9.
Carolina receiver Steve Smith is set to play after missing a Week 17 win over the Atlanta Falcons with a knee injury.
Smith said on Monday, per Joseph Person of The News & Observer, "It’s not about can I go? It’s about how confident do I feel when I am going? I will play Sunday."
Smith caught a game-high six passes in the Panthers' Week 10 win over the 49ers and is a critical cog in the Carolina offense.
It's going to be fascinating to see how coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton perform in their first postseason game. While Rivera eschewed his conservative coaching approach for the "Riverboat Ron" persona, that was in the regular season. Will Rivera be as apt to gamble on fourth down in the postseason? And while Newton was stellar throughout the first 16 games, can he raise his level of play when it matters most?
The Panthers defense will also need to come up big, just as it did in Week 10, when it held the 49ers to 151 yards of total offense. The mission will be tougher this time around with receiver Michael Crabtree in the San Francisco lineup, but the Carolina defense has been fabulous all season and is difficult to bet against.
If the Panthers can beat the 49ers again, their confidence level will be at an all-time high heading into the NFC Championship Game.
Next Game: vs. Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)
One of the biggest losers of Wild Card Weekend was a team that didn't even play. That would be the New England Patriots, who drew the Colts in the AFC divisional round after Cincinnati lost at home to San Diego.
You can bet your bottom dollar that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would rather have faced the Bengals and quarterback Andy Dalton instead of the Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck, regular-season results be damned.
But the Patriots are the better team and favored by a touchdown over Indianapolis. The Colts defense was dreadful against Kansas City, so it's hard to imagine quarterback Tom Brady and company not putting up a ton of points.
Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton dominated against Kansas City, but it would be foolish to expect a repeat performance. In a chat with ESPN.com's Mike Wells, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi talked about Belichick's desire to take away what the opposing offense does best, and that's clearly Luck throwing the ball to Hilton.
A player to watch out for is Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 189 yards in the season finale against Buffalo.
If the Patriots emerge victorious, they'll likely be pulling very hard for the San Diego Chargers on Sunday afternoon. If the Chargers beat Denver, the Patriots would host San Diego in the AFC Championship Game. Otherwise, the Pats would have to travel to the Mile High City for a date with Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
I'll give you one guess as to which team Belichick would rather face.
Next Game: at Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET)
The San Francisco 49ers pulled off an epic victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, claiming their seventh consecutive win and earning a third straight trip to the divisional round of the postseason.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was electric throughout, especially on the game's final drive, where he converted several key third downs with his arm and legs. Receiver Michael Crabtree also stepped up in a major way, hauling in eight catches for 125 yards. Kaepernick and Crabtree have fantastic chemistry, and it showed in the win over the Packers.
Despite playing on the road this weekend, the 49ers have better Super Bowl odds than both the Patriots and Panthers, with the latter being their opponent on Sunday. While that will likely bother fans of both teams (especially Carolina), the 49ers are on a roll and have a bevy of postseason experience. Their 53-man roster is as good as any in the league, and coach Jim Harbaugh is a master of his craft.
Yes, the Panthers did beat them in San Francisco in Week 10, but Crabtree didn't play in that game. It's impossible to overstate just how important he is to Kaepernick and the offense.
Don't get it twisted: The 49ers might be the road team on Sunday in Carolina, but they are most certainly the favorite to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game. They loom large as the one team truly capable of knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle.
Next Game: vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET)
The Denver Broncos used their bye week to rest up and get ready for the challenge at hand—advancing to the Super Bowl and winning it all. Anything less will be a failure in Denver.
Peyton Manning just authored the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history, tossing an absurd 55 touchdown passes, but he will ultimately be measured by how he plays over the next month. Consequently, no player is under more pressure to play at an elite level in January than Manning.
The Broncos' first challenge on their road to MetLife Stadium comes against the rival Chargers, who beat them in Denver in Week 15. San Diego won that game with a punishing rushing attack and a bend-but-don't-break defense, which is certainly a formula to knock off the Broncos. If a team can keep the ball out of Manning's hands, it has a chance to win, and that will certainly be the Chargers' goal this Sunday.
Regardless of their loss in Week 15, the Broncos are the heavy favorite in this game, and it's because of Manning. The Chargers defense has played well over San Diego's five-game winning streak, but Manning is a different animal altogether. With two weeks to prepare and a major chip on his shoulder, expect Manning to come out firing. It'd be a total stunner if the Broncos didn't score at least 30 points.
The Broncos are certainly the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Next Game: vs. New Orleans Saints (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET)
The Seattle Seahawks were one of Wild Card Weekend's biggest winners because they avoided a divisional-round matchup against the 49ers by virtue of the Saints' win over the Eagles. Instead, Seattle will host New Orleans on Saturday, a team that it pasted in Week 13.
While the Seahawks' aura of home invincibility was dented with their Week 16 loss to Arizona, there's no doubt that CenturyLink Field remains a fortress. The team possesses the league's top-ranked defense and No. 4-ranked rushing offense for a lethal January combination.
In their Week 13 win over the Saints, the Seahawks absolutely smothered quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense, and Seattle will be looking for a repeat performance on Saturday. There's no chance the Saints will run the ball 36 times for 185 yards against the Seahawks like they did against the Eagles last week.
Another reason for Seahawks fans to be confident is the play of second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, who is so calm under pressure and saves his best for the biggest of moments. He's a difference-maker at the position and someone who inspires a ton of confidence.
Seattle should be able to get by the Saints, and if it does, it will host the NFC Championship Game in two weekends against either the 49ers or Panthers—each of whom Seattle beat during the regular season. That makes the Seahawks the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.