There are four teams riding particularly hot into the NFL postseason, whose chances at Super Bowl glory have been bolstered by consistently brilliant play throughout 2012—particularly down the stretch.
But two of those teams—the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins—play each other on Wild Card Weekend, which makes the NFC picture quite complicated. The AFC however has two prohibitive favorites to meet in the conference championship, rekindling a rivalry between two of the game's best-ever QBs.
Find out which team will emerge victorious in the critical showdown at FedEx Field on Sunday, and how their odds to hoist the Lombardi Trophy stack up with those of this year's AFC powerhouses.
1. Denver Broncos
Winning 11 straight games in pro football is a staggering achievement—regardless of opposition, circumstances or other confounding variables.
But that's what happens when Peyton Manning is on your team, and the Broncos are certainly glad they took the risk after Manning's multiple neck surgeries to acquire him this past offseason.
The arm may not be as poppy as it used to be, but the four-time NFL MVP still flat out gets it done.
Check out Manning's numbers down the stretch, which garnered him Player of the Month honors in December (h/t ESPN): four games, 1399 yards, 70.7 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and just three INTs.
The development of receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker under Manning has been staggering, as the pair have emerged as one of the most dynamic combos in the league. Here's the scary thing: they're both in just their third seasons as pros.
Not to be overlooked, though, is the job that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has done. The Broncos are now a top-five defense, and Del Rio's background as a linebacker has undoubtedly helped immensely talented, 2011 No. 2 overall pick Von Miller.
An upgraded secondary is also to thank, particularly the heady play of veteran safety Mike Adams, who is one of the most underrated and versatile DBs.
With Knowshon Moreno picking up the slack in the running game in lieu of the injured Willis McGahee, it's hard to poke any holes in this Denver team. Manning and Co. have the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and that home-field advantage should make the road to New Orleans much easier.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The bookmakers in Vegas are right in line with those Broncos odds, yet they only have the Seahawks at 9/1 in their latest projections (h/t USA TODAY).
What precisely is the reasoning behind that, though? If there were any doubts about rookie QB Russell Wilson, those were put to rest long ago. Marshawn Lynch, put simply, is a beast, and on defense Seattle has the most athletic front seven and best secondary in all of football.
That being said, the Washington Redskins are on a roll, winning seven straight games after starting out 3-6 to capture the NFC East title in Week 17—their first division crown of the millennium.
Now, they are rewarded with hosting a playoff game on Sunday afternoon. It will likely be the biggest draw of the weekend, with Wilson and Lynch trying to outpace their counterparts in transcendent rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.
Seattle is the last opponent anyone in the NFC wants to face at the moment, even the red-hot Redskins.
The Seahawks gutted out a 20-13 victory over their West rival, the St. Louis Rams, who were previously undefeated in the division. It was an intensely physical game, but that's precisely what the Skins endured at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys in their 28-18 triumph.
Plain and simple, Pete Carroll's bunch is the more talented, more complete football team. It should be too much for the home team to overcome, as the Redskins will get knocked out for the third time in a row by Seattle in the playoffs.
From there, the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons likely await in the divisional round, and the Seahawks will be able to control time of possession thanks to a huge advantage in the running game. Not to mention, CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are just about the only ones that can match up with the Falcons' Roddy White and Julio Jones with any sort of hope.
They may be a No. 5 seed, but the Seahawks should be considered among the heavy favorites to win it all despite a perceptibly tough path to the Superdome.
3. New England Patriots
Courtesy of a prior loss to the Seahawks—albeit on the road in the impossibly loud environment of CenturyLink Field—New England ranks down here.
There is no question about how explosive the offense is, especially with the return of superstar TE Rob Gronkowski.
Anything that Gronk can provide—his typical production, or even a decoy—will help the Pats' cause. Obviously, Tom Brady would love to have him healthy for the duration of the team's playoff run unlike in 2011. The bye week as the AFC's No. 2 seed will help.
Defense is still the concern for the Patriots, although the unit is coming in with a shutout to its credit in the season-ending 28-0 thrashing of the Miami Dolphins in Foxboro.
The good news is that CB Aquib Talib has not been a problem despite his past with off-field issues, and has provided the New England defensive backfield with a solid No. 1 corner. Another week to catch up on the scheme should serve him and the defense as a whole very well.
Bill Belichick and Brady are determined to capture that fourth Super Bowl ring, and as long as they take care of business at home in just over two weeks from now, they will get their chance. It may have to go through Denver, but doubting this coach-QB duo would be a mistake.
Odds are a little lower than Vegas has them (5/2), but that's because the Seahawks are a tough matchup for New England, and due to a potential road test against the Broncos.
Here's to hoping for another Manning vs. Brady duel.