At this point in the NFL playoffs, there are no more true underdogs. Unlike past seasons, the dark horses have largely been weeded out and four teams many thought would make deep postseason runs are the last teams standing.
The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots are all fully capable of lifting the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks. While these teams have significant strengths that have carried them thus far, their competition is stiff enough to exploit the few cracks that do exist.
Perhaps more than in any other recent season, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict who will win the Super Bowl. Although predictions may be a futile exercise, it is certainly worthwhile to consider how each team can reach the pinnacle.
Here, then, are the most crucial keys for each of the four squads if they are to garner two more wins.
49ers: Win the Trenches
San Francisco is a team built from the inside out. The 49ers have dominant offensive and defensive lines, and when they are at their best—see: second half against Carolina in the divisional round—they are an overpowering force that dictates the tone of the game.
The AFC offensive lines are stiffer than the Seattle unit they will face on Sunday, but neither Peyton Manning nor Tom Brady possess Russell Wilson's mobility or playmaking ability when moved outside the pocket.
Since returning from exile, Aldon Smith has gradually asserted himself and generated two sacks as well as three hits in the postseason.
Offensively, Colin Kaepernick and Co. are a throwback offense, using sets featuring multiple tight ends and running backs for their power running game. In turn, that has set up plenty of 3rd-and-short situations.
In two postseason games, Pro-Football-Reference.com indicates that the Niners have averaged just 5.85 yards to go on third down. That's a noticeable improvement over their 7.57 regular-season average.
By staying ahead of schedule on offense and throwing that schedule off on defense, the Niners are able to keep teams off-balance. The skill position talent is not overwhelming, but this is a team that is extremely difficult to overcome when it controls the line of scrimmage.
Seahawks: Establish Russell Wilson Early
Seattle's well-documented weakness headed into the postseason was its pass protection and Russell Wilson's struggles against the Saints were a manifestation of that. Coupled with an ultra-conservative game plan, the second-year quarterback completed just nine passes in his team's victory.
The Seahawks defense turned in a herculean effort to overcome those offensive struggles, but it would behoove Seattle to establish Wilson a little earlier rather than asking him to rescue the offense on obvious passing downs.
New Orleans thwarted numerous slant routes on third down simply by shrinking the window Wilson could throw into.
The screen game and quick timing patterns—a couple of ways to loosen up the opposition's defense—would be especially dangerous if Percy Harvin can go. As Nick Eaton of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes, however, the dynamic receiver's status will not be known until the middle of the week:
“Nothing yet,” Carroll said Monday on 710 ESPN Seattle radio’s “Brock and Danny Show.” “We’re fortunate to get an extra day (of rest), and it really helps in these kind of situations. And we’ll just see how he does. I won’t know, we won’t know, until Wednesday or Thursday, until we get all the tests run and the protocol taken care of and all of that.”
Regardless, the Niners in particular are likely to at least contain Marshawn Lynch on early downs. Seattle must have a viable changeup in its back pocket, and loosening Wilson's harness would make the offense less predictable and more dangerous.
Patriots: Control the Tempo
Of the four remaining teams, the Patriots have the weakest personnel on paper. That they are considered relatively equal to the remaining squads is a testament to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
In reality, Brady is more of a changeup in the New England offense now. The Rob Gronkowski-less Pats offense has attempted to shorten the game and control the rhythm, turning to LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley to churn out long drives and wear down the opposition.
As ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss notes, the running back committee keeps the Pats' backs fresh while the defense tries to catch its breath:
That’s about as close as it gets to a pure committee and Ridley, the former No. 1 back whose ball-security issues contributed to Blount’s late-season rise, touched on why that’s important at this time of year.
“We all bring so many different aspects to the game and nobody has to take too heavy of a load,” he told [Sirius XM NFL Radio] hosts Bruce Murray and Rich Gannon. “We’re a very unselfish group; we don’t care how it gets done, but when it comes to the running back room, we just want to make sure we get it done. I think that’s helped us going into this postseason, to be fresh and somewhat healthy.”
Even with a series of two- and three-yard runs early, the Patriots stuck to the ground game against Indianapolis. Their resolve paid dividends, as the Colts were gassed by game's end. New England ended the night averaging 5.1 yards per carry, as the constant hammering eventually broke Indy.
The NFC teams in particular will be tough to crack and the Broncos shut down a similar game plan from the Chargers last week. However, all the running has also opened up play-action passes for Brady—particularly seam routes to Julian Edelman.
The Patriots are a highly efficient offense which keeps the pressure on the opposition and sustaining that rhythm will make New England extremely difficult to defeat.
Broncos: Timely Defense
The Denver Broncos' record-shattering offense is a known commodity. Their inconsistent defense is another story, and the report from ESPN's Adam Schefter that Chris Harris Jr. has a torn ACL robs the Broncos of their best corner at an untimely moment:
Broncos CB Chris Harris, one of Denver's top defensive players, tore his ACL and is out for season, via me and @Jeff_Legwold.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 13, 2014
In 990 snaps with Chris Harris on the field, DEN allowed a 43.6 QBR. In 81 snaps with Harris on the sideline, DEN allowed a 93.0 QBR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
None of the teams left in the postseason have particularly frightening receiver corps, but they all possess quarterbacks with the intelligence to quickly process the defense and find the open man.
With Von Miller also out, the Broncos do not have a fearsome pass rush to speed up that decision-making, which could spell trouble for their thin secondary.
Denver will thus need to generate timely stops to limit points, even if it hemorrhages yardage at times. The good news? The Broncos have fared well on third-down situations. Pro Football Reference indicates that Denver held opponents to a 38.5 percent third-down conversion percentage, good for 15th in the league.
The Chargers went just 4-for-12 on third downs last week, a key to keeping Peyton Manning and the offense on the field.
Where the Broncos must improve is in the red zone. According to Team Rankings, Denver was just 25th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage and every remaining team was in the top half of the league in red-zone offense.
Field goals will not keep up with Denver's prolific offense, but Denver must come up with a handful of key stops to buy its offense enough time to win the game.