The arrangement of the NFL playoffs favors the top seeds in nearly every way possible, giving them first-round byes and home-field advantage against lower seeds. Yet, lower-seeded teams almost always seem to find ways to win; at least, that has been the case as of late.
Since 2004, only one No. 1 seed, the 2009 New Orleans Saints, has won the Super Bowl. Better yet for lower-seeded teams, each of the last three Super Bowl champions have played on Wild Card Weekend. Therefore, it would appear that the odds are against the NFL's top seeds.
Of the top seeds, the New England Patriots have the toughest road to the Super Bowl in 2014. First, they must get by a red-hot, battle-tested Indianapolis Colts team that has won four consecutive games, a streak capped off by the second-largest comeback in playoff history.
The matchup against the Colts will be particularly tough because Indianapolis is a team perfectly constructed to win close, gritty playoff games.
Quarterback Andrew Luck has led his team on 11 game-winning drives since the start of last season, per SBNation, and the Colts were fifth in the NFL in second-half scoring. Better yet, they were fourth in defense during that time as well, meaning they excel in both facets of the game when it matters most.
But what really gives the Colts an advantage is their mistake-free play. They committed the fewest turnovers in the AFC in 2013, ranking behind only the Kansas City Chiefs in turnover differential. In the playoffs, when one turnover can ruin a team's entire season, the importance of playing mistake-free football can hardly be overstated.
But the Patriots still hold the edge for a couple of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, they were 8-0 at home this season, while the Colts were an unimpressive 5-3 on the road.
The Patriots also have a rushing attack that has really exploded as of late thanks to contributions from their deadly backfield trio of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen (they've helped the Patriots compile 409 rushing yards in their last two games).
However, no matter how much this matchup gets broken down, the Patriots still have Tom Brady behind center and Bill Belichick as their coach. That combination has led to 17 wins in 24 tries and three Super Bowl victories. Nothing should give the Patriots as much confidence as having one of the best playoff quarterbacks in history as their leader.
If the Patriots can get past Luck and the Colts, they will have to deal with the Denver Broncos' explosive offense at Mile High Stadium. That is, assuming the Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers, who would be the NFL's hottest team if they were to win on Sunday.
The Chargers would give the Patriots all types of problems with their red-hot quarterback, Philip Rivers, and a suddenly high-performing Ryan Mathews (525 rushing yards in his last five games) as the key offensive weapons. But the Chargers defense has also stepped up, thanks to a scoreless second-half performance against the Bengals.
If the Broncos come out on top in that divisional-round matchup, the Patriots will have an even tougher opponent. But history has shown that Brady generally gets the better of Manning, winning 10 of their 14 matchups. Granted, many of those games featured completely different teams, but the most important constant, the two quarterbacks, remains the same.
Plus, the Patriots came out on top against the Broncos this season. New England's defense would have to do a better job of containing Knowshon Moreno this time around, however, after he rushed for 224 yards during the regular-season matchup.
But the Patriots defense has vastly improved since then. It had solid performances in each of the last two weeks of the regular season, including a 41-7 dismantling of the Ravens in which Baltimore scored zero points through the first three quarters.
Granted, Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense are far superior to the Ravens' attack, but holding the Broncos to a respectable scoring output (as the Pats have shown they can do) would give Brady all the opportunity he needs. And when Tom Brady gets his opportunities, he almost always takes advantage.