Just eight teams remain in the 2013-14 NFL playoffs, with only two teams ultimately making the trip to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. for Super Bowl XLVIII.
In the Wild Card Round, the Indianapolis Colts needed a late charge to down the Kansas City Chiefs. The New Orleans Saints won their first road playoff game. Then dominating defensive performances by the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers helped them move forward.
Suffice it to say, predicting the rest of the playoffs doesn't appear to be easy.
Whether it's being a great offensive team, a powerful defense or both, every team heading into the divisional round of the playoffs has a legitimate chance to make it to the Super Bowl. Here is a breakdown of each team's strengths and how they can make it to football's biggest stage.
No. 1 Seed: Seattle Seahawks
Following a season in which they lost just one game at home, the Seattle Seahawks have the easiest path to the Super Bowl with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
As if they didn't already have an advantage just two wins away from playing in the Super Bowl, it appears the Seahawks could add another offensive weapon in the divisional round, according to their official Twitter account:
But if Seattle can find a way to get past the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, they will face two teams that played them well. While the San Francisco 49ers have the lone victory over Seattle of the remaining teams in the NFC, the Carolina Panthers were one mistake away from a statement win back in Week 1 of the regular season.
After the defense held the Seahawks to just 12 points throughout the entire game, the Panthers offense faltered in the final moments of the game as DeAngelo Williams fumbled away their chance in the red zone.
With a defense that can stop nearly any team and an offense that can explode at any time due to its balance, the Seahawks are by far the favorite in the NFC to make the Super Bowl.
No. 2 Seed: Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers completely turned their fortunes in the 2013 season. After going 7-9 in 2012, they not only made the playoffs but also won their division and finished as the No. 2 seed heading into the postseason.
For Carolina, the most crucial component that needs to hold up is the defense. After already defeating both the 49ers and Saints at home, the daunting task of repeating that is difficult with both possessing incredible quarterbacks in their own right.
Then there's the Seahawks. If the Panthers ultimately have to travel to Seattle in the NFC Championship, they would face a team that is nearly identical to them.
Looking at just remaining playoff teams, here is a full breakdown of how the two defenses measure up against one another:
|Team||YPG||Rush YPG||Pass YPG||PPG|
The Panthers have Cam Newton. The 49ers have Colin Kaepernick. Putting it simply, whichever quarterback can crack the other team's defense in the divisional round will advance to play the Seahawks. If Carolina can pull it off, facing Drew Brees or Wilson is not exactly the easiest task either.
No. 5 Seed: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers look like every team's favorite dark-horse team to emerge from the Wild Card Round and lift the Lombardi Trophy. But up next for San Francisco lies a trio of teams that handed them three of their four losses during the regular season and did so by shutting down their dynamic quarterback.
Against Carolina back in Week 10, Kaepernick finished 11-of-22 with 91 passing yards and 16 rushing yards. The 49ers only put up nine total points and lost 10-9 at home. Kaepernick clearly hasn't forgotten about the game, according to ESPN:
"We owe them for the last time they came to our house." Colin Kaepernick on the Panthers— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 6, 2014
Kaepernick didn't fare much better against both Seattle (Week 2) and New Orleans (Week 11). On the road in both games, the second-year quarterback finished with exactly 127 passing yards in both games, an average of 56 rushing yards and a total of two touchdowns and four interceptions.
While the 49ers are a different team now during their current seven-game winning streak and their franchise quarterback has played well in all four playoff games he's been a part of, the issues for Kaepernick can't resurface against either opponent they face if they plan to get back to the Super Bowl.
No. 6 Seed: New Orleans Saints
Doubters beware: The New Orleans Saints once again look like a team that could contend for a Super Bowl. Now, they just have to exact some revenge against the Seahawks, who just so happen to be the No. 1 seed playing at home.
Following their first meeting—a 34-7 beatdown in the Seahawks' favor—Brees predicted that the two teams would meet up again, via to Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com.
"We know they are a team we are going to have to deal with in the future," Brees said. "We are going to have to find a way to play better against these guys when that time comes."
If playing better means putting together some semblance of an offense and a much better defensive performance, Brees was right on the money.
For the Saints, getting to the Super Bowl simply means fighting against old demons that have kept them out of contention in the past. If Brees can avenge the loss earlier in the season and Rob Ryan's defense can shut down some of the best quarterbacks that the NFC has to offer, the Super Bowl isn't out of the question for New Orleans.
No. 1 Seed: Denver Broncos
Much like the Seahawks in the NFC, the Denver Broncos are the favorite to make the Super Bowl out of the AFC—but for completely different reasons.
Peyton Manning has put together the best statistical season in the history of the NFL at the quarterback position. But surprisingly enough, the defense has been the component that has let Denver down this season.
Just a few years removed from their defense carrying the likes of Tim Tebow to the playoffs as one of the best in the NFL, the Broncos are now the 19th-ranked defense in the NFL and are allowing 24.9 points per game.
In order for the Broncos to make the Super Bowl, it will be the defense that needs to step up and carry the brunt of the load. Going against quarterbacks like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and/or Andrew Luck, there appears to be a lot of room for error.
No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are capable of a lot of things, but what they've done this season with the cast around him might be one of the more memorable feats of their careers together.
With two rookie wide receivers, two slot receivers under 6'0" and a defense that ranks last among remaining playoff teams, the Patriots are still the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and are two wins away from the Super Bowl.
But with yet another crucial injury to the Patriots defense with Brandon Spikes going on the injured reserve, as Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe reported, the task will be even more difficult against a Colts offense that posted 45 points against the Chiefs.
As for Brady, the only concern he has going into this weekend's matchup is the Colts defense, not their offense and Luck, according to Luke Hughes of NESN:
Truthfully, I’m not worried about the opposing quarterback. I’m thinking about the defense and what I need to do to play against them. I didn’t watch one snap of Indy’s offense, nor will I this week. I’ll be focused on the defense and what we need to do score points, because that’s what my job is.
If the Patriots offense can find a way to overcome its defense—similar to what the Colts had to do against the Chiefs—Brady might once again find himself making another attempt to win his fourth Super Bowl.
No. 4 Seed: Indianapolis Colts
Doubters of the Indianapolis Colts heading into the playoffs were silenced after their 28-point comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs, the second-largest playoff comeback in NFL history.
The Colts relied on second-year quarterback Andrew Luck in the second half, and he delivered. After going 29-of-45 with 443 yards, four touchdowns, Luck also registered an epic fumble recovery that kept the Colts in contention.
Offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus spoke about his confidence in the second-year quarterback with Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star via USA Today:
Andrew kept saying, "Stay with me, stay with me." He willed us to this win.
This is what I say about Andrew: There's a little piece of all of us in that kid. When he makes a tackle, he's got Robert Mathis in him. When he's recovering a fumble and diving into the end zone, he's Donald Brown. There's a little piece of all of us in him. We believe in this guy, and he believes in us. He's going to be a very special player for us for a long time. He already is.
Facing Brady and the Patriots is a tough task for any quarterback, but not one that Luck can't accomplish. After the challenges the Colts have conquered to this point, winning the Super Bowl doesn't seem that far away.
No. 6 Seed: San Diego Chargers
If it weren't for Manning, Rivers' 2013 season would be one of the best this year among quarterbacks. With that said, it was one of Rivers' best years, statistically speaking, and the Chargers still barely made the playoffs.
The defense was able to force four turnovers against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, but the Chargers pass defense still ranks as the worst in the AFC.
But in the past, the Chargers defense has had success against Peyton Manning in the Rivers era, as ESPN's Numbers Never Lie points out:
The @chargers will now face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning's career playoff record against San Diego? 0-2.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) January 5, 2014
With a win earlier this season over the Broncos and an outstanding quarterback under center, the Chargers might be a real contender. But realistically speaking, the Chargers look like the most far-fetched team to make the Super Bowl this season.