Four teams watched their Super Bowl dreams come to an end in the opening round of the NFL playoffs. The emotions ranged from shocking (Kansas City Chiefs) to frustrating (Cincinnati Bengals), but the result was the same, and that's all that matters in the end.
It leaves eight teams left standing heading into the divisional round, including the two bye teams from each conference, which are set for a return to action. Every team now stands two victories away from earning a trip to MetLife Stadium and a shot at a championship.
Let's take a closer look at how each conference is shaping up heading into what amounts to the quarterfinal round. Given the excitement during last weekend's games and the league's parity throughout the season, it should be another intriguing week of matchups.
The Denver Broncos caught a break while they were getting some rest. The Bengals, which seemed like the team most prepared to seriously challenge Denver in a potential AFC title game on the road thanks to a top-five defense and solid running game, were knocked out by the San Diego Chargers.
It doesn't mean the Broncos get an easy divisional-round matchup, though. The wild-card results lead to the third meeting between the AFC West rivals, which split the season series with each side winning on the road. So San Diego has already proven it can win at Mile High.
For Denver to avoid the same fate this time around, it isn't as much about the game plan as matching the Chargers' intensity level, according to Eric Decker. Jeff Legwold of ESPN passed along comments from the wide receiver about the key to the game:
"They've been playing hungry. I think from our game on, it’s been playoff football for them," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. "They've been playing well as a team. For us, our biggest thing is we've got to match them physically. We've got to bring some energy. I think that is something we didn't do last time around. But again, that is in the past. We’re focused on the present and really our matchup this weekend at home."
As cliché as it may sound, it's also accurate. San Diego was the far more desperate team in the previous meeting as it fought for its postseason life, and it showed. It's allowed the Chargers to build some momentum, which the Broncos must overcome.
Denver is the more talented team overall, in large part because of Peyton Manning and his myriad weapons. But the legendary quarterback also has a history of quick exits in the playoffs, as highlighted by ESPN Stats and Info:
In Super Bowl era, Peyton Manning has had twice as many 'one-and-done' playoff games than any other QB. Manning has 8.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2014
Ultimately, the Broncos are still the favorites heading into the game, but the narrow margin between the top seed and the No. 6 seed in the conference illustrates the aforementioned parity.
The same goes for the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.
As interesting aspect of the game is how the Colts respond after their remarkable comeback to beat the Chiefs. It was an extremely emotional win considering they were seemingly toast in the third quarter before turning things around. It can be difficult to bounce back from that type of game.
Which team will win the AFC championship?
But an even bigger concern for Indianapolis is how it can generate offense if the Patriots are able to limit the damage done by T.Y. Hilton, which is undoubtedly the main defensive focus. The lack of other big playmakers is an issue.
On the flip side, the New England offense, which faced plenty of question marks when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season, has quietly regrouped. The Patriots racked up 75 points over the final two weeks with the rushing attack taking some pressure off Tom Brady.
If they can prevent Hilton from completely dominating like he did last week and establish the ground game against the 26th-ranked run defense, the Patriots could score a surprisingly comfortable win.
So that would leave the Broncos and Patriots in the battle for AFC supremacy, giving fans another chance to witness Manning against Brady. And while history points to the New England quarterback in those games, the supporting cast gives the Broncos an edge.
AFC Super Bowl Pick: Denver Broncos
The Seattle Seahawks were the best team in football during the regular season. It doesn't matter whether you rely on the old-school eye test or a statistically based approach like Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, the Seahawks were the top squad when taking in the entire résumé.
Still, they didn't look as dominant down the stretch. They lost two of their final four games, including a very rare home defeat against the Arizona Cardinals, to eliminate the aura of invincibility that was beginning to develop.
That hasn't stopped the oddsmakers from making them part of the most likely Super Bowl matchup, though, as pointed out by Darren Rovell of ESPN:
Odds @BovadaLV say most likely Super Bowl matchup is Broncos/Seahawks. Least likely is Chargers/Saints or Colts/Saints.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) January 6, 2014
The Seahawks start their playoff run with a matchup against the New Orleans Saints, whom they beat 34-7 just over a month ago. Although Drew Brees and Co. should be able to put up a better fight after learning from their mistakes in the first meeting, the clear edge still resides with Seattle.
With the league's best pass defense and Marshawn Lynch ready to attack a middling Saints run defense, the Seahawks should be in good shape.
The other matchup featuring the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers is more evenly matched.
In fact, the teams are almost like clones with strong ground games, terrific defenses and young quarterbacks with a lot of upside that are not called on to throw as much as the Manning, Brady and Brees group. Limiting the pressure on Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton has been key to their success.
Both teams also enter the game on quite a roll. San Francisco has won its last seven games, including the road win over the Green Bay Packers last week. Carolina won 11 of its last 12 games during the regular season to earn a bye.
Which team will win the NFC championship?
So the difference is probably going to be quite simple: Which quarterback is able to make more key conversions on third down and in the red zone? Given the trends in the second half of the season, the edge goes for Kaepernick.
The 49ers' signal-caller raised his quarterback rating by nearly eight points during the second half (95.2) as compared to the first eight games (87.6). By contrast, Newton's rating was nearly 10 points lower down the stretch after making it through the first half with a 93 rating.
Should it come down to the 49ers and Seahawks the biggest winner would be the fans because the would be a terrific battle. That said, with each passing week, it's starting to feel more and more like the 49ers are ready to make another run to the end.
NFC Super Bowl Pick: San Francisco 49ers