We started with 32 teams in September and now have only four remaining. Fortunately for NFL fans, the argument can be made that these are the four most talented teams across the league, so make sure your schedule is cleared on Jan. 19 for the league title contests.
The Seattle Seahawks will host the San Francisco 49ers in one of the most intimidating home-field advantages in all of American sports at CenturyLink Field with a spot at the Super Bowl on the line. There is plenty of bad blood between these two NFC West rivals, and crowd noise and hard-hitting defenses will be the name of the game.
As for the AFC title contest, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It will add yet another chapter to the storied history of showdowns between these two legendary quarterbacks as Manning attempts to close the gap in Super Bowl rings with Brady.
Let’s dig into a discussion about each remaining team’s biggest strength.
Seattle Seahawks: Pass Defense
Seattle has plenty of strengths (That’s how you end up at 13-3 during the regular season and with a home game for the right to make the Super Bowl.), but the one that stands out among the rest is its pass defense.
Richard Sherman is the household name in the Seahawks secondary, but he is far from the only weapon. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell have teamed up with Sherman to create perhaps the stoutest unit in the entire NFL. Just ask Elizabeth Merrill of ESPN.com:
None of the promotion seemed over the top. The secondary is Seattle's identity, and it is punishing, loud and yet somehow playful. It is intimidating, helping collect a league-high 28 interceptions and a wide array of bruised bodies and egos.It can be maddening, watching Sherman and his buddies flying around, gesturing wildly, congratulating each other like high school boys after every big play.
While the trash-talking may rub some people the wrong way, you have earned the right to tout your abilities when you are the best at what you do. Nobody allowed fewer passing yards per game in the entire NFL than the Seahawks.
San Francisco 49ers: Versatile Rushing Attack
Considering Seattle’s prowess in the secondary and the fact that San Francisco ranked an abysmal 30th in the league in passing yards per game, the best chance the 49ers have at making the Super Bowl is to rely on the rushing attack.
The 49ers finished third in the NFL in yards per game on the ground and have a vast arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Frank Gore leads the way, but Colin Kaepernick and Kendall Hunter give San Francisco some other options. LaMichael James is even on the roster as a potential change-of-pace back, but he rarely gets to carry the football.
The Seahawks are still a top-10 defense against the run, but they are more susceptible to giving up yards on the ground than through the air. Look for the 49ers to use read-option, draw plays and straight runs out of single-back formations to attempt to get an early lead and milk the clock.
It may be their only chance.
Denver Broncos: Offensive Explosiveness
No team in the history of the NFL scored as many points in a single season as this year’s Denver Broncos, so it’s safe to say offensive explosiveness is their No. 1 strength.
Manning broke the single-season touchdown pass record as well, but he is far from the only weapon in the Denver attack. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and even Montee Ball all have breakaway abilities and make Denver’s offense nearly impossible to stop.
The Patriots defense is particularly vulnerable against the run, so don’t be surprised if Manning gives Moreno and Ball plenty of early chances to set up late-game play action. As long as Denver’s defense keeps the Patriots somewhat in check, the offensive weapons the Broncos have at their disposal should be enough to carry Manning back to the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots: Mental Dominance and Resiliency
It may sound like a cliche to talk about how resilient and mentally prepared New England is, but there’s no other way to describe it when you consider the personal loss the Patriots have suffered this season.
Few teams in the league have been as decimated by injuries (or even departures, such as Welker’s to Denver) as New England, yet Brady and Co. continue to win somehow. Throw in plenty of first-half struggles setting up the need to come back and even fumbling issues in the backfield, and the Patriots have had plenty to overcome.
Christopher Price of WEEI Boston points out that resiliency and the ability to respond in key moments have been critical for the Patriots this season:
Being able to execute in key moments, with the game on the line, is a key habit of successful teams. Not being overwhelmed by the situation or the moment is absolutely paramount, particularly in the postseason. To this point in the year, New England can boast of showing the fortitude needed to fight through difficult situations.
New England already has a hard-fought victory over Denver this season on its resume (in which it overcame a 24-point halftime deficit), so it will certainly have something of a mental edge heading into the matchup.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.