There are only four teams in the NFL playoffs still alive for Super Bowl XLVIII. There are many likable qualities among those still alive, but some are built better than others to lift the Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks.
In the AFC, a conference title matchup looms between the conference's top two seeds in the No. 1 Denver Broncos and an indomitable postseason fixture in the New England Patriots.
A third showdown between NFC West rivals in the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will decide who goes to MetLife Stadium to compete for pro football's ultimate prize.
Below is a closer analysis of each squad, bearing in mind that East Rutherford, N.J., is likely to foster difficult weather in hosting the grand finale outdoors.
4. New England Patriots
Putting the Patriots here seems ridiculous considering how well they have run the ball with LeGarrette Blount over the past two games. But is Blount a blip or a trend? He could slip back into his bad habit of running high, because even he's said he only recently started lowering his pad level, per Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel.
A strong rushing attack and stopping the run are often staples of championship-winning teams. What sets New England back is its decimated front seven, which is missing linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, along with the anchor in the trenches in Vince Wilfork.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, the Pats capitalized on a weak Colts defense that ranked 26th against the run in the regular season. In the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos present a stiffer test and will likely ask quarterback Tom Brady to air it out more often.
Brady's band of receiving targets isn't what it's been in years past—part of the reason why New England has relied so much on Blount lately.
In the team's last encounter with the Broncos, running back Knowshon Moreno piled up 224 yards on the ground, and it took an epic comeback by Brady—who had the services of now-injured superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Although there is heavy pressure on Brady's counterpart, Peyton Manning, to enhance his playoff legacy, Moreno may very well gash the third-worst rush defense in the NFL come Sunday, Jan. 19.
Even with the Patriots' shortcomings, though, don't count them out. They are embracing the underdog role and have a head coach in Bill Belichick who finds a way to get it done so often, regardless of circumstances.
3. Denver Broncos
The quarterback duel will garner a ton of hype—and deservedly so. Moreno could be the difference, though, with his running and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
It's worth noting that Manning, facing the 29th-ranked pass defense of the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, had his second-lowest yards-per-attempt average of the season (6.39) in Denver's 24-17 win. But with the weapons the 37-year-old has in Demaryius and Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, there is no reason the Broncos shouldn't be able to put up more points.
Blowing a 24-point lead in the last matchup with New England is a concerning trend on an otherwise peerless resume for John Fox's team. Denver also let the Chargers back into the game after building a 17-0 lead entering the fourth quarter last week.
It's something Decker didn't shy away from in discussing the upcoming clash with the Pats and how the Broncos must not make unforced errors—even when victory appears certain—per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones:
That was a hard lesson learned throughout the year. I thought we've had a couple of those this year. We faced a lot of adversity, and when you look at this week, you have to capitalize and make sure you minimize all mistakes throughout the game. We had a couple (against San Diego) — a couple myself. I think those things you have to take a hard look at and make sure you don't let that happen against a good team like New England.
Shaun Phillips has served as a stellar pass-rusher in lieu of injured star Von Miller, and Denver has played the run better all season than Indianapolis had. That should give the Patriots a challenge, but again, all the pressure is on Manning, catalyzing the top seed to hold court at Mile High.
One big blow to Denver's cause is that top cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL against the Chargers, likely leaving the secondary susceptible to Brady and Co.
ESPN's Adam Schefter had a particularly strong opinion about the ramifications of Harris' absence, per the NFL on ESPN's official Twitter account:
The Broncos have to rally around Manning as he continues his quest for a second Lombardi Trophy.
If Moreno can continue to provide balance and rookie Montee Ball can step up as he did last week with 10 carries and 52 yards, Denver has a great shot at advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson has to give the offense more balance to complement the beastliness of running back Marshawn Lynch. The bruising ball-carrier put the team on his back for 140 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns in the 23-15 divisional playoff triumph over the New Orleans Saints.
For all of his outlandish opinions, ESPN personality Skip Bayless brings up a great point about the quiet decline Wilson has experienced despite solid overall numbers in his second season as a starter:
As stout as Seattle's defense is—led by a physical secondary that should be able to match up with San Francisco's big targets, most notably Anquan Boldin—there is a dearth of playmakers in the passing game.
Wilson hasn't looked good as of late, but his top receivers are also Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin. Percy Harvin is a question mark for Sunday after suffering a concussion in last week's win and sitting out Wednesday's practice, per 710 ESPN Seattle:
If Harvin is able to go, he might give the Seahawks offense that added ingredient he was supposed to provide when he arrived in exchange for a first-round pick this past offseason. Injuries have prevented him from making his mark, and it could cost Seattle a shot at Super Bowl glory. Nevertheless, defense gives the Seahawks this gaudy of a ranking, despite the QB brilliance of the AFC teams.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Making a third consecutive NFC Championship Game is no accident, and it's a testament to the job head coach Jim Harbaugh has done.
An elite defense, coupled with an overwhelming, physical ground-and-pound offense driven by 30-year-old running back Frank Gore, has gotten the Niners to the precipice of a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
Standing in their way is a very similar and familiar foe in the Seahawks, though. Traveling to CenturyLink Field and emerging victorious is a task just one team has managed to do in the past two seasons.
Even though San Francisco won't be favored in this game, there is almost more weighing on the Niners since they have come up empty at the end of the postseason after two deep prior runs.
As well as the team has played in recent weeks, there is also the fact that Seattle has had its number at home:
One edge the Niners might have is QB Colin Kaepernick. In his young career, the dual-threat dynamo has won three road playoff games, and he played well yet again in the 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers last week in a hostile environment.
Kaepernick endured a bit of a slump throughout the regular season, but since he's gotten Michael Crabtree back, he's has been a different player.
Check out how Kaepernick stacks up with his rival signal-caller in Wilson, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Between the experience this San Francisco nucleus has accrued, the desire to get back to the Super Bowl after last year's disappointment and Kaepernick's form, the Niners are best built to win it all.
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