It should come as no surprise that the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots are the odds-on early favorites to win Super Bowl XLIX. However, there are 10 other teams with Lombardi Trophy aspirations as the 2014-15 NFL playoffs commence Saturday.
Seattle has the unique opportunity to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Patriots did it following the 2004 campaign. Having home-field advantage will help, but the target on the Seahawks' backs will be as big as ever.
There are certain scenarios that could test the NFL's elite, even resulting in an upset or two along the way to shake up the established order.
Below is a look at the updated Super Bowl odds for all 12 playoff teams, along with predictions as to how all the action will unfold.
|Super Bowl XLIX Odds|
|New England Patriots||+300|
|Green Bay Packers||+600|
|Wild Card Round||Prediction|
|Baltimore Ravens (6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (3)||Steelers 31, Ravens 18|
|Cincinnati Bengals (5) vs. Indianapolis Colts (4)||Colts 41, Bengals 24|
|Pittsburgh Steelers (3) vs. Denver Broncos (2)||Broncos 28, Steelers 25|
|Indianapolis Colts (4) vs. New England Patriots (1)||Patriots 31, Colts 20|
|AFC Championship Game||Prediction|
|Denver Broncos (2) vs. New England Patriots (1)||Patriots 34, Broncos 21|
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field, the AFC North champions dominated in a 43-23 victory. A similar result should be expected, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can carve up a shabby Ravens secondary. Antonio Brown may do most of the damage himself.
Stud running back Le'Veon Bell hyperextended his right knee in Week 17, so Pittsburgh's hopes of advancing any further rest largely on his health. Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter offered a discouraging update on Monday:
Dale Lolley @dlolleyor
Just saw Lev Bell at #Steelers facility. Can barely walk2014-12-29 17:11:24
Due to their own defensive issues—the Steelers ranked 30th in defensive efficiency entering Week 17, per Football Outsiders—coach Mike Tomlin's team won't be able to get past Denver in the Divisional Round.
It's hard to take the Cincinnati Bengals seriously given Andy Dalton's horrendous playoff resume, featuring putrid play and three losses in as many starts.
In his lengthy tenure, coach Marvin Lewis ultimately hasn't delivered any success beyond the regular season. ESPN Stats & Info specifies Lewis' glaring flaw at the helm:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in postseason. Per @EliasSports, the only other coach to lose 1st 5 postseason starts was Jim Mora (0-6).2014-12-29 21:56:42
Cincinnati also can't rush the passer with a league-low 20 sacks, which is its only chance of stopping Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round.
If a trip to Foxborough wasn't on deck, Luck may have been able to carry the Colts all the way to the AFC title game. That just isn't feasible against New England, whose defensive backfield, starring Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty, will force him into multiple interceptions and leave Indianapolis still seeking to take the next step in 2015.
So that gives way to another epic QB duel between New England's Tom Brady and Broncos legend Peyton Manning. The latter got the best of Brady the last time around, but believe that the Patriots will exact revenge in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke does a nice job articulating how Manning isn't quite done yet despite diminishing physical faculties:
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Nevertheless, Brady hasn't dropped off and can challenge the Broncos defensive backs better than Manning can, especially on the road and in the cold.
That will be enough to get New England to the Super Bowl, with a chance at a fourth ring for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.
NFC, Super Bowl Predictions
Chris Burke @ChrisBurke_SI
Manning doesn't have the same arm strength so has less margin for error. He also needs less margin for error than pretty much any QB ever.2014-12-23 03:56:29
Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have reignited the Carolina Panthers offense. The NFC South champions will advance in the postseason because of that, and due to the fact that Arizona will either start Ryan Lindley or rookie Logan Thomas.
Look no further than this stat from The NFL on ESPN to get an idea of what the Cardinals are dealing with:
|Wild Card Round||Prediction|
|Arizona Cardinals (5) vs. Carolina Panthers (4)||Panthers 21, Cardinals 10|
|Detroit Lions (6) vs. Dallas Cowboys (3)||Cowboys 27, Lions 17|
|Dallas Cowboys (3) vs. Green Bay Packers (2)||Cowboys 38, Packers 35|
|Carolina Panthers (4) vs. Seattle Seahawks (1)||Seahawks 17, Panthers 13|
|NFC Championship Game||Prediction|
|Dallas Cowboys (3) vs. Seattle Seahawks (1)||Seahawks 31, Cowboys 23|
|Seattle Seahawks (1) vs. New England Patriots (1)||Seahawks 24, Patriots 20|
In the past three meetings with Seattle, Carolina has played host and lost by one possession in each contest.
Traveling to CenturyLink Field is enough adversity to deal with, but the Panthers' playmakers will be too severely outmatched by the Seahawks' Legion of Boom secondary to go any further.
NFL on ESPN @ESPNNFL
The streak is over!!! Ryan Lindley snaps his NFL-record touchdown drought, throws his first career TD pass in 229 attempts2014-12-28 21:32:49
Should the Dallas Cowboys, owners of an 8-0 road record, defeat the Detroit Lions in the opening round, they'll need to go away from home to face Green Bay and then roll on to Seattle thereafter in all likelihood.
As shaky as Dallas has been at AT&T Stadium this year, not having to face Ndamukong Suh should make the league's best offensive line clear out plenty of room for DeMarco Murray to rumble.
Winning at Lambeau Field seems feasible based on the Packers' shaky defense and Aaron Rodgers' questionable health. Doing enough to pull off that daunting double seems borderline impossible.
The Seahawks have managed to position themselves for another championship in an era of great parity as so many have tried their best to dethrone them. Head coach Pete Carroll made sure the team's detractors were addressed after Week 17's win over St. Louis:
Adam Caplan @caplannfl
#NFL announced that Ndamukong Suh has been suspended for this week's game without pay for a violation of safety-related playing rules.2014-12-29 19:55:56
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch lead a run-heavy Seattle offense that can get the better of Dallas in a tight contest. With Murray being shut down by the Seahawks' elite defense, Tony Romo can make enough plays to keep the Cowboys close, but it won't be enough to get to the Super Bowl.
Unforeseen developments can still transpire, but based on the early forecast, it's hard to pick against New England and Seattle right now. All the foes in New England's way have too many flaws, while home-field advantage may be a bigger deal for the reigning NFL champions than anyone else.
The Seahawks' superiority on defense, commitment to the running game and Wilson's improvisational genius will allow them to lift the Lombardi Trophy for a second straight time.