With just eight teams left, projections for Super Bowl XLVIII can be made in earnest. While doing so in the preseason and during midseason is always a fun exercise, the truth is that such predictions are essentially grounded in guesswork.
Now, however, every team is only two wins away from reaching New Jersey. There is really no more development to project, as every team's makeup and foundation is set in stone at this point. Injuries can always alter the picture, but we cannot anticipate how.
Thus, any team who reaches the Super Bowl from this point is not totally "unexpected." Sure, it would have been stunning in Week 15 to know that the Chargers would still be alive and well, but San Diego is on a tear and fully capable of throwing the AFC playoff field into chaos.
But which teams are most likely to upset the order of their conference?
Here are the three squads most likely to knock off co-favorites Denver and Seattle to reach the big game.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers might very well be the best team in the NFC at this point, regardless of what seeding says. San Francisco's offense, stagnant and frustrating for much of the season, has been reinvigorated since Michael Crabtree's Week 13 return.
Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Niners averaged 5.8 yards per play after Crabtree's return, eighth-best to close the regular season. That's a direct result of Crabtree's return opening up the passing game for Colin Kaepernick, who no longer sees opposing defenses blanket Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin.
What chance do you give the 49ers of making the Super Bowl?
Defensively, the Niners can go toe-to-toe with Seattle and Carolina's offenses.
Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are dual-threat quarterbacks who are also excellent passers. But San Francisco has an answer for that difficult matchup with roaming linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
Willis and Bowman give the Niners tremendous range to complement a fundamentally sound secondary and physical defensive line, making for a unit with almost no weakness.
In the past 10 Super Bowls, at least one participant has won multiple road games six times. The Niners face a more difficult task than most given the loaded NFC field, but San Francisco is certainly capable of adding to that list.
New England Patriots
The Patriots might as well be straight from The Walking Dead with all the injuries they have incurred this season. New England may not be the NFL's most-battered team, but with significant injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly, they have gotten the most bang for their buck.
New England has reshaped itself multiple times this season, and their new offensive identity revolves not around Tom Brady, but LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Patriots averaged 4.5 yards per carry from Week 11 on, bested only by the Broncos among current playoff teams.The distribution skewed even more heavily at the end of the season—in season-ending wins over Baltimore and Buffalo, the Pats attempted 77 runs and just 50 passes.
What chance do you give the Patriots of making the Super Bowl?
The Pats defense is a bit more questionable, as the losses have resulted in a loosening of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy. New England thrives upon turnovers, which might be a problem, given that the Chargers and Colts were both among the top-10 teams in fewest giveaways per game.
Nevertheless, the Patriots might possess the best and most versatile ground game among the four AFC teams, with the combination of power running from Blount and Ridley and a shifty passing back skill set from Shane Vereen.
If New England can dictate the rhythm to their opponent, it will be very difficult to overcome that.
New Orleans Saints
Even with Drew Brees, the Saints might have seemed like highly unlikely Super Bowl participants at the start of the postseason due to their well-documented road woes. But New Orleans largely silenced those fears, playing a solid all-around game in Philly.
The key for the Saints is avoiding turnovers. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, only the Broncos had more road turnovers among teams still alive in the postseason. As impressive as the final game-winning drive was, Brees threw two costly picks that torpedoed solid drives and necessitated the late-game heroics.
What chance do you give the Saints of making the Super Bowl?
The most encouraging sign for New Orleans' long-term sustainability revolves around its defense.
The Saints figured to be in significant trouble following rookie Kenny Vaccaro's season-ending injury. However, New Orleans was able to contain the Eagles' uber-efficient offense in check until a concussion sidelined top corner Keenan Lewis.
Lewis is indispensable, but if he returns, the Saints may have just enough to squeeze by in the secondary. Safety play (i.e. Roman Harper) is still a concern, but unlike past years, the Saints have enough defensive depth to at least be competitive.
New Orleans may be the longest shot of the three, but any team with Brees plus a solid defense has a puncher's chance.