NFL Playoff Bracket 2015: Postseason Format and Super Bowl Odds for All 12 Teams

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2014

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) takes the field to warm up before an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

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.

 

Playoff Seeding

AFC Seeds
SeedTeamRecordSuper Bowl Odds
Division Champs
1New England Patriots12-411/4
2Denver Broncos12-413/2
3Pittsburgh Steelers11-533/1
4Indianapolis Colts11-525/1
Wild Card
5Cincinnati Bengals10-5-112/1
6Baltimore Ravens10-675/1
Odds courtesy of Odds Shark
NFC Seeds
SeedTeamRecordSuper Bowl Odds
Division Champs
1Seattle Seahawks12-413/5
2Green Bay Packers12-46/1
3Dallas Cowboys12-49/1
4Carolina Panthers7-8-175/1
Wild Card
5Arizona Cardinals11-550/1
6Detroit Lions11-522/1
Odds courtesy of Odds Shark

 

Playoff Schedule

DateTime (ET)MatchupTV Info
Wild Card Round
Sat., Jan. 34:35 p.m.Arizona Cardinals at Carolina PanthersESPN
Sat., Jan. 38:15 p.m.Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh SteelersNBC
Sun., Jan. 41:05 p.m.Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis ColtsCBS
Sun., Jan. 44:40 p.m.Detroit Lions at Dallas CowboysFOX
Divisional Round
Sat., Jan. 104:35 p.m.BAL/CIN/PIT/IND at New England PatriotsNBC
Sat., Jan. 108:15 p.m.DET/ARI/CAR at Seattle SeahawksFOX
Sun., Jan. 111:05 p.m.DAL/CAR/ARI at Green Bay PackersFOX
Sun., Jan. 114:40 p.m.CIN/PIT/IND at Denver BroncosCBS
NFL.com

 

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:

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

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Tre Boston #33 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates an interception return for a touchdown in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on December 28, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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:

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.

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:

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:

Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke made the point that Carolina's defense and Newton's style could cause problems in the postseason:

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.