NFL Playoff Scenarios: How Each Postseason Contender Can Reach the Super Bowl

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2013

NFL Playoff Scenarios: How Each Postseason Contender Can Reach the Super Bowl

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    Playoff bracket courtesy of
    Playoff bracket courtesy of

    It's amazing how quickly the NFL season comes and goes. We have already blown through 17 weeks. Doesn't it seem like yesterday when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was just beginning his assault on the record books against the Baltimore Ravens?

    At any rate, the playoff field is set, though apparently nobody wanted that No. 6 seed in the AFC. The drama only gets better from here, with the Wild Card Round getting started this Saturday.

    What's it going to take for each team to make it to the Big Game? Click through to find out.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Wild-Card Matchup: Bye

    The road to the Super Bowl winds through the Emerald City.

    The Seahawks will have the easiest road to the Super Bowl, assuming there is such a thing. Seattle will be at home for the entirety of the NFC playoffs, buoyed by the 12th Man.

    But merely playing at home is no guarantee of success.

    Sure, the Seahawks are 7-1 this season, but that once-improbable loss came recently, at the hands of the Cardinals, invoking memories of when Rocky Balboa drew Ivan Drago's blood.

    It's rather simple—to get to the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have to continue playing their incredible brand of defense and quarterback Russell Wilson has to continue doing his thing. 

Denver Broncos

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: Bye

    Getting to the Super Bowl is an impossibility for quarterback Peyton Manning, at least if you believe the playoff narrative recently woven into NFL lore.

    Manning has had a tough time making it back, and his postseason woes have been well documented. 

    Like the Seahawks, the Broncos will be home for the duration of the playoffs. Unlike Seattle, however, Denver is not exactly an impregnable fortress. Manning couldn't win one home playoff game last season, though he has safety Rahim Moore to thank for that. 

    Still, a first-round bye and home-field advantage is a better fate than a wild-card road game.

    Unfortunately for Denver, that defense has been suspect all year, ranking 22nd in both total and scoring defense heading into Week 17. To make matters worse, it will be without studly linebacker Von Miller for the playoffs.

    That puts the onus squarely on likely league MVP Manning, who will have to carry the Broncos to the Super Bowl if they are going to get there. He is clearly good enough to do it, but he has been snakebitten in recent playoff runs.

    Quite simply, Manning is going to have to continue his torrid season throughout the playoffs if the Broncos are going to get to New York.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: at Green Bay

    4:30 p.m. ET

    Sunday, January 5

    What better way to enter the postseason than on a roll? The 49ers are currently gathering no moss as they hit the playoffs, having won five in a row to close out the season.

    After struggling at times this season, San Francisco has rediscovered its identity—a hard-nosed defense paired with a high-ceiling offense. The 49ers are scoring 26.5 points and allowing just 15.7 during their current win streak, including victories against the Seahawks and hard-luck Cardinals.

    Unfortunately for them, the division belongs to the hated Seahawks. That means the 49ers will open the playoffs on the road.

    The good news is San Francisco gets to play a Green Bay team it has dominated twice over the past year. Those were home games for the 49ers, but the offense has exerted its will against the Packers defense in those matchups.

    The Seahawks likely lie in wait, though, and it was a bloodbath the last time those two teams met in Seattle, where the 49ers mustered just three points. San Francisco has improved on offense since then, but that would be a huge obstacle, barring an upset on the other side of the NFC bracket.

    To get past the Seahawks, Kaepernick needs to find and stick to that edge he played with all last postseason. The defense should take care of itself. 

New England Patriots

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Wild-Card Matchup: Bye

    The Patriots have dodged more bullets than Neo in The Matrix this season.

    Injuries have ravaged this year's Patriots squad. Yet here they sit, No. 2 in the AFC with a bye week in hand. Head coach Bill Belichick really is a Sith Lord. New England is going to have to pull some more magic to get to the Super Bowl, though.

    Plugging all the leaks has been a feat for the Patriots, but they seem to be the most vulnerable of all the top seeds. The offense is a shadow of its former self, with quarterback Tom Brady seemingly feeling the effects of age, personnel turnover and the aforementioned injuries.

    That is not to say he has been bad—he threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns, and he did lead several come-from-behind victories this year, after all—but Brady has not been his godlike self this year.

    Perhaps more importantly, the New England defense has suffered several major losses that could be problematic in the playoffs. The Patriots rank in the bottom 10 in total defense, though they are in the top 10 in scoring defense.

    Still, the Patriots get a bye and a home game to start the playoffs. A trip to the AFC Championship Game seems rather attainable, and New England beat its likely opponent, Denver, earlier this season.

    To simplify matters, one does not simply count Belichick and Brady out in the playoffs.

Carolina Panthers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: Bye

    What a turnaround in Carolina.

    At 1-3, the Panthers seemed destined for another lost season. Head coach Ron Rivera was under fire once more, and catching the undefeated Saints seemed like a pipe dream at the time.

    Thirteen weeks later, the pipe dream has come true. 

    Carolina has gone 11-1 since that woeful start, taking the NFC South and garnering a No. 2 seed in the process. The Panthers have a bye and a home game to start their first playoff run since 2008.

    Of course, they won't be satisfied with just an appearance. This is all about championships.

    The Panthers have gotten to this point with a great defense, which ranks in the top three in total and scoring defense. The offense, led by quarterback Cam Newton, isn't too shabby either, though it hasn't been as explosive as the past couple of seasons.

    To get to the Super Bowl, they just have to keep doing what they're doing. They just have to take care of business at home to get things started.

    Beyond that, a trip to Seattle would likely loom, likely a defensive slugfest. It wouldn't be a pretty score, but the Panthers might just be the team that can beat Seattle at their own game on the road.

New Orleans Saints

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

    Wild-Card Matchup: at Eagles

    8 p.m. ET

    Saturday, January 4

    If only the Saints played every game at the Superdome.

    New Orleans is undefeated at home, a noticeably different team in the Crescent City than elsewhere. Drew Brees and that offense have struggled on the road, however, which is the biggest reason why the Saints are not NFC South champions.

    At 3-5 on the road, the fact that New Orleans will likely be on the road throughout the playoffs is foreboding.

    It all starts in Philadelphia, easily the best defensive matchup Brees and Co. could have gotten in the first round. 

    A win would mean a rematch in Seattle for the Saints, where they were annihilated earlier this year. They will have to break through the 12th Man and that tough defense to get to the Super Bowl.

    They might then have to travel to Carolina, where they managed just 13 points a couple of weeks ago. 

    The weather was a factor in that game, so the Saints would have to hope for a clear day to make things easier. It's hard to imagine that offense will be held to such a low output twice against the same team.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Wild-Card Matchup: vs. Kansas City

    4:35 p.m. ET

    Saturday, January 4

    It has been an interesting season in Indianapolis. 

    On the one hand, the Colts won the AFC South going away, beating the vaunted Broncos, Chiefs, 49ers and Seahawks along the way. On the other, they have looked pedestrian against bad teams at times.

    Indianapolis seems to have come out of that midseason funk just in time. 

    The Colts don't exactly have an explosive offense or dominant defense, so they will have to fire on all cylinders throughout the playoffs to have a serious shot at the Super Bowl. 

    Quarterback Andrew Luck has been inconsistent this season, running backs Trent Richardson and Donald Brown combine to form a halfway-decent tandem, and the receiving corps is problematic behind speedster T.Y. Hilton.

    Indianapolis has proven it can beat the top contenders, so it would not be a total shock to see the Colts in the Super Bowl. They have played great defense in many of those wins, and that is what it will take to get them there. 

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: vs. San Diego,

    1:00 p.m. ET

    Sunday, January 5

    The AFC North has a new champion. Now can the Bengals actually make some noise in the playoffs?

    Much like the early years with quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Cincinnati has had quick postseason exits during the Andy Dalton era.

    Quietly, the Bengals sport one of the league's best defenses. This is nothing new under Mike Zimmer, who has molded his unit to play at a high level on a consistent basis. 

    The defense might not quite be at Seattle's level, but it performs well at home and on the road. But defense isn't everything.

    Quite simply, the Bengals are going to need Andy Dalton to have a Joe Flacco-esque playoff run in order to get to the Super Bowl. They could also use an upset in the divisional round to get another home game in the championship round.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: vs. Saints

    8 p.m. ET

    Saturday, January 4

    Like Kansas City, Philadelphia also saw a big turnaround. From last in the NFC East in 2012 to first this year, head coach Chip Kelly has his Eagles soaring heading into the playoffs.

    The going gets much tougher for Philadelphia, which has beaten just one playoff team—the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. They can't be held responsible for their schedule, but the playoff slate could be brutal for the Eagles.

    It starts with a home game against the Saints, which will really stress a much-improved defense. If the defense that allowed 48 points to the Vikings shows up, it will be an early exit for Philadelphia.

    But solid play from the defense would allow Kelly and his offense to work its magic. Quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy have been fantastic—among others on that offense—and the unit could do some serious damage in the playoffs.

    Lightning will have to strike to get the Eagles all the way through to the playoffs, but this is the NFL—anything could happen.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: at Indianapolis

    4:35 p.m. ET

    Saturday, January 4

    Their narrow Week 17 loss while playing their backups notwithstanding, the Chiefs finished the season 2-5 after starting 9-0. All those losses came to AFC playoff teams, including the one they will be facing in the Wild Card Round.

    Their loss to the Colts came at home, no less. 

    Indianapolis came to Kansas City while the Chiefs still had a shot at the top seed, and the results weren't pretty.

    The Chiefs will have to get back to playing championship-caliber defense if they want to wade their way to the Super Bowl. Once allowing just over 12 points per game, Kansas City is allowing 19 per game now. That number is nearly 28 over their past seven games.

    Defense no longer wins championships, however, so it will take more than that to overcome the obstacles that come with being a No. 5 seed. Thankfully, the Chiefs have the right man for the ob on offense.

    His name is Jamaal Charles, and he is here to chew gum and take names. 

    The MVP candidate at running back has been a catalyst for the Kansas City offense, which has come to life in the second half of the season. The Chiefs have averaged 29 points per game since Week 8, which would be an excellent complement if the defense returns to form.

    Put it all together and the Chiefs have a great shot to find themselves in New York come February.

Green Bay Packers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: vs. 49ers

    4:30 p.m. ET

    Sunday, January 5

    Fitting that the Packers and 49ers meet again. What has changed since the two teams met in last year's playoffs, or even Week 1, for that matter?

    Aside from some fresh legs for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who only just returned from a broken collarbone, not much.

    Green Bay is still having trouble stopping anything with a pulse on defense, and San Francisco's pulse is racing these days. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick bludgeoned the Green Bay defense for the second time in eight months when the 49ers beat the Packers in Week 1 this year.

    Of course, both of those games were on the road for Aaron Rodgers and Co. This time, the game is at Lambeau Field, where temperatures should hover in the teens this Sunday.

    Should the Packers manage to get past their nemesis, their reward will be a trip to Seattle, the scene of a Monday night crime better known as "Fail Mary." If any offense can overcome that Seahawks defense at CenturyLink, it's Green Bay's.

    Who knows where their path would take them after that, but one thing is for sure—the Packers will need Rodgers to get back to MVP levels and at least a somewhat competent defense to make it back to the Super Bowl.

San Diego Chargers

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Wild-Card Matchup: at Bengals

    1:00 p.m. ET

    Sunday, January 5

    Talk about a lucky break.

    Not only did the Chargers get the help they needed from the Ravens and Dolphins—who obliged with terrible losses with their playoff lives at stake—but Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop himself missed a game-winning kick in the waning moments of regulation that allowed for San Diego's overtime victory.

    Now that they're in the playoffs, do the Chargers have any hope?

    If they do, it largely rests on the arm of resurgent quarterback Philip Rivers.

    The Comeback Player of the Year candidate will likely have to shoulder the load on offense given San Diego's suspect defense. Rookie of the Year candidate Keenan Allen will certainly help at receiver, as will a solid running game with backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.

    San Diego did manage to hang tight with their wild-card opponent, Cincinnati, earlier this season. That game was at home, though, and the Chargers mustered just 10 points.

    As tough a road the Chargers will have, they have managed to beat three of their other potential opponents—the Broncos, Chiefs and Colts—in improbable fashion. 

    Perhaps the Super Bowl is not so far fetched for San Diego.