The playoffs are nearly set, with Sunday night's clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals the last piece remaining before the postseason puzzle is complete.
Fans have spent weeks determining which teams deserve the label of "Super Bowl contender," but that discussion is always hard when you don't actually know the full playoff bracket. How can you say that a team will win its conference when you're not even sure who it will have to face to get there?
For the most part, that problem is gone. The 12-team field is set, with only the AFC North champion in doubt.
|Seed||Team||Record||Super Bowl Odds|
|1||New England Patriots||12-4||11/4|
|Odds courtesy of Odds Shark|
|Seed||Team||Record||Super Bowl Odds|
|2||Green Bay Packers||12-4||6/1|
|Odds courtesy of Odds Shark|
|Date||Time (ET)||Matchup||TV Info|
|Wild Card Round|
|Sat., Jan. 3||4:35 p.m.||Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers||ESPN|
|Sat., Jan. 3||8:15 p.m.||Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers||NBC|
|Sun., Jan. 4||1:05 p.m.||Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts||CBS|
|Sun., Jan. 4||4:40 p.m.||Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys||FOX|
|Sat., Jan. 10||4:35 p.m.||BAL/CIN/PIT/IND at New England Patriots||NBC|
|Sat., Jan. 10||8:15 p.m.||DET/ARI/CAR at Seattle Seahawks||FOX|
|Sun., Jan. 11||1:05 p.m.||DAL/CAR/ARI at Green Bay Packers||FOX|
|Sun., Jan. 11||4:40 p.m.||CIN/PIT/IND at Denver Broncos||CBS|
AFC Dark Horse: Cincinnati Bengals
Even though the Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to win their division and be seeded third in the AFC, they will likely still be considered distant Super Bowl outsiders no matter the outcome of Sunday's game.
They've lost in the Wild Card Round three years in a row and will have to go through one or both of the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. Cincinnati also lost to New England, Pittsburgh and the Indianapolis Colts by a combined score of 139-55.
That's all the bad.
The good is Jeremy Hill and a defense that can be extremely tough.
Hill has emerged in a big way over the last two weeks, rushing for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He's the first rookie in almost a decade to run for at least 140 yards in four different games, per NFL on ESPN:
NFL on ESPN @ESPNNFL
. @Bengals RB @JeremyHill33 is the 1st rookie with four 140 yd rush games since Curtis Martin in 1995. http://t.co/qTgua7NwYT2014-12-23 19:15:14
ESPN.com's Coley Harvey wrote about how offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had a long-term strategy in mind when it came to Hill's usage over the course of the year:
'I promised you guys at some point in time I would run the ball. That's who I am,' Jackson said. 'You guys are starting to see the fruits of the labor. I didn't have to tell the players, I didn't have to tell anybody when I think that time is. But I knew when it was coming.'
Jackson had a path mapped out for Hill following the draft in May. The former running backs coach leaned on benchmarks [Giovani] Bernard hit as a rookie last season when he wasn't the coordinator.
The Bengals aren't holding him back anymore, which has only strengthened the offense. The more productive Hill is in the backfield, the less the onus is on Andy Dalton, who is 0-3 in the playoffs and has thrown six interceptions with just one touchdown.
What will also help Dalton is a defense that's recorded six interceptions over the last two weeks entering Sunday night. According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals have the sixth-best pass defense in the league. Of course, Cincinnati's ranked 29th against the run, so that's a concern.
As long as the Bengals can build an early lead, though, the porous run defense doesn't have to become a factor, as evidenced during the Week 16 win over the Broncos.
Cincinnati shouldn't by any stretch of the imagination be considered Super Bowl favorites or even AFC favorites for that matter. But it would be premature to write the Bengals off already.
NFC Dark Horse: Carolina Panthers
The NFC is kind of weird in that you could almost consider everybody but the Seattle Seahawks an underdog, considering the reigning Super Bowl champions secured home-field advantage on Sunday. It's a bit of a problem when the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle.
A more conventional underdog/dark horse is the Carolina Panthers.
Everybody's had their fun with the NFC South, but the Panthers deserve some credit. They're the first team to win the division two years in a row, per NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano:
Andrew Siciliano @AndrewSiciliano
Panthers become the first team to win the NFC South in consecutive seasons.2014-12-29 00:10:02
Carolina also enters the playoffs on a healthy four-game winning streak, dispatching the Atlanta Falcons 34-3 to wrap up the regular season. The Panthers recorded two pick-sixes and held the Falcons to 63 yards on the ground.
Carolina Panthers @Panthers
How bout that Defense? @TreBos10 high steps into the end zone for the #Panthers second PICK 6 of the day! #CARvsATL http://t.co/wrs7ZarRlR2014-12-28 23:47:07
Now is a good time for a team's defense to start peaking. ESPN.com's David Newton thinks the unit showed shades of its 2013 self:
David Newton @DNewtonespn
Falcons have 121 yards total offense. #Panthers defense playing like it did a year ago when No. 2 in league. #CARvsATL2014-12-28 23:18:33
A good defense can take a team a long way. The offensive line is still a question mark, and Cam Newton doesn't have many weapons in the passing game. But when the Panthers defense is playing this well, Carolina is extremely tough to beat:
Mike Tanier 📎 @MikeTanier
I am beginning to believe that the #Panthers could win a playoff game.2014-12-29 00:03:09
Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke made the point that Carolina's defense and Newton's style could cause problems in the postseason:
Chris Burke @ChrisBurke_SI
@leMaraudeurNFL I think Carolina is dangerous right now. Defense playing well, tough to game plan for Cam.2014-12-29 00:44:37
Perhaps the biggest reason to feel positive about the Panthers is their prospective road to the Super Bowl. They'll get the Ryan Lindley-led Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round and could potentially avoid the Seahawks in the divisional round.
Momentum can count for a lot or absolutely nothing, depending on your perspective. At the very least, the Panthers' strong close to the regular season will have rebuilt the players' confidence after that six-game losing streak earlier in the year.
The Panthers are a team that could flame out early just as easily as they could make a deep run in the playoffs.
As most focus on which 12-4 or 11-5 team has the best chance to dethrone the Seahawks, don't be surprised if the Panthers sneak in through the back door.
Note: Super Bowl odds are courtesy of Odds Shark.