Based upon recent history, the race to Super Bowl 49 will truly be a crapshoot.
Only once in the past four years have the AFC and NFC top seeds both advanced. That was last season with Denver and Seattle, respectively.
The previous Super Bowl winners were two No. 4 seeds (2012 Baltimore Ravens and 2011 New York Giants) and a No. 6 seed that won all three of its playoff games on the road (2010 Green Bay Packers).
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So in the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas from "Dumb and Dumber", "So you’re telling me there’s a chance? Yeah!"
Here are three reasons for all 12 playoff teams to feel optimistic about their Super Bowl chances:
New England (12-4)
Home-field advantage: The Patriots are a far more formidable foe at Gillette Stadium than on the road, which is where three of the team’s four losses were suffered during the regular season. Thanks to being the AFC’s No. 1 seed, New England won’t be playing outside Foxboro again unless it’s in Super Bowl 49.
An upgraded secondary: The addition of Darrelle Revis has given New England a shutdown cornerback who can negate an opposing team’s top receiving threat. At 6-foot-4 with speed, cornerback Brandon Browner can physically handle tight ends as well as keep pace with fleet wideouts. Effectively mixing coverage schemes with Revis and Browner helped the Patriots post regular-season victories against three AFC quarterbacks (Denver’s Peyton Manning, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton) whom they may face again in the playoffs.
Gronk is healthy: Finally recovered from forearm and knee injuries that maligned him the previous two seasons, tight end Rob Gronkowski has once again become a matchup nightmare for defenses. He is so valuable that Patriots coach Bill Belichick wouldn’t risk Gronkowski getting hurt last Sunday against Buffalo. Gronkowski was the team’s only healthy scratch, being declared inactive even though he never appeared on pregame injury reports. Even in 15 games, Gronkowski still led all NFL tight ends with 1,124 yards on 82 receptions. His underrated blocking helps in the running game as well.
The "D" is back in Denver: The 2013 Broncos had defensive deficiencies beyond a slew of injuries, particularly with the pass rush and in the secondary. Denver has addressed those issues in fine fashion. Cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware became the first trio of free agents to reach the Pro Bowl in their first season together on a new team since 1996. Along with a return to prominence by outside linebacker Von Miller (14 sacks), the Broncos allowed almost 51 fewer yards and three points less per game than in 2013.
Offensive firepower: The Broncos set the bar so high for production in last year’s record-breaking campaign that anything less in 2014 would be considered a disappointment. Denver experienced some rough patches this season in road losses against New England and St. Louis, as well as Peyton Manning’s four-interception outing in a Week 16 loss at Cincinnati. Manning’s arm strength also has come into question. But most teams would love to have Denver’s problems. The Broncos ranked second in the NFL in points per game (30.4) and fourth in yardage (402.9). Manning can wreak havoc with a quartet of dangerous receiving targets — Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders — most opponents usually can’t account for.
C.J. Anderson: The Broncos hoped they could find a replacement for Knowshon Moreno when they let the 1,000-yard rusher leave via free agency during the 2014 offseason. They have — but it wasn’t either of the two leading candidates: Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Anderson, an undrafted college free agent signed in 2013, began making a splash in Week 10 against Oakland. He rushed for 767 yards in the season’s final eight games with two three-touchdown performances. The 5-foot-8, 224-pound Anderson is sturdy enough to carry a heavy workload — he accumulated 109 carries during one four-game stretch — and helps provide the balance that makes Denver’s offense even more effective.
B&B: As in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. No quarterback-wide receiver combination was more prolific in 2014. Roethlisberger tied with Drew Brees for the NFL passing title at 4,952 yards. Brown caught 129 of Roethlisberger’s passes — the second-highest reception total in league history — for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Teams know Roethlisberger is looking for Brown and still can’t stop the duo from connecting. Brown became the first receiver to ever record at least five catches for 50 yards for an entire 16-game season.
The rest of the offense: There are other reasons besides Roethlisberger and Brown that Pittsburgh finished with the highest scoring and yardage output in franchise history. The offensive line under the coaching of Mike Munchak is much improved. Now fully recovered from a 2012 knee injury, tight end Heath Miller (66 catches for 761 yards) is truly back as Roethlisberger’s security blanket. Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant add flash as complementary wideouts. The Steelers can afford to lean heavily on its receiving talent Saturday night against Baltimore if all-purpose running back Le’Veon Bell can’t play because of a hyper-extended knee.
Defensive improvement: The Steelers finished with their worst defensive rankings in yards and points allowed since 1991, but the unit has played better during Pittsburgh’s four-game December winning streak. The Steelers forced seven turnovers and recorded 12 sacks in that stretch while limiting the opposition to 17.5 points, compared to 24.8 in the first 12 games. The increased quarterback pressure is helping to compensate for an injury-riddled secondary.
Andrew Luck has come of age: Luck helped guide Indianapolis into the playoffs during his first two NFL seasons, but he was even better in Year 3. Luck broke Peyton Manning’s franchise single-season passing record with 4,761 yards and also tossed an NFL-best 40 touchdown passes.
Improving health: Well aware that his club was likely locked into a first-round playoff game, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano rested ailing starters for the final two regular-season games. Key players like right tackle Gosder Cherilus, tight end Dwayne Allen and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton should be refreshed and good to go Sunday against Cincinnati.
Playoff savvy: The Colts have reached the postseason in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including nine times as AFC South champion since 2003. Pagano hopes that experience gives Colts players an edge to at least advance past the second round for the first time in his three years as head coach. "I love their mindset," Pagano told Colts media earlier this week. "They’re focused. They’re dialed in."
Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard: The Bengals field the best rushing duo of all 12 playoff teams. After a slow start to his rookie season, Hill plowed for 931 yards and six touchdowns in the final nine regular-season games. The shifty Bernard provides an excellent complement to the power brought by the 6-foot-1, 238 pound Hill. The pair also combined for 70 receptions out of the backfield.
More "Good Andy" than "Bad Andy": Andy Dalton is arguably the NFL’s streakiest quarterback. When he’s bad, Dalton is downright dreadful — like during a Week 10 loss to Cleveland in which he posted the NFL’s fifth-worst passer rating (2.0) since 1960. But when he’s good, Dalton ranks among the game’s best. It isn’t inconceivable that a red-hot Dalton – provided he catches fire after a tough Week 17 — could help the Bengals burn through AFC opposition.
The Bengals are due: Cincinnati has lost its opening playoff game for three straight seasons. Even more discouraging, the Bengals didn’t look anything like a team that was good enough to reach the postseason during those defeats. Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis and his veteran players should have the ability to learn from their mistakes and be better prepared to take advantage of the opportunity at hand. The Bengals also shouldn’t be daunted by having to win three straight road games to reach Super Bowl 49 since they accomplished that feat during the regular season for the first time in franchise history.
Deja vu all over again: It was two seasons ago when the Ravens limped into the playoffs at 10-6, caught fire and won Super Bowl 47. Baltimore has the talent to make that same type of run this postseason. All six of Baltimore’s losses came against teams that finished with winning records.
The defensive front seven: This group has helped cover for a leaky secondary. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combined for 29 sacks. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley became the first rookie to lead the Ravens in tackles since Ray Lewis in 1996. And defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will be returning from a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs to boost the run defense.
Joe Cool: Joe Flacco enjoyed one of the greatest postseasons of any quarterback in NFL history when the Ravens won Super Bowl 47. Though he hasn’t hit those same heights since, Flacco is capable of doing so. He has a solid group of receiving targets and is backed by the NFL’s eighth-ranked rushing attack. No team had more runs of 20-plus yards (24) than Baltimore during the regular season.
A crushing defense: Defensive end Michael Bennett has spoken about the 2014 Seahawks fielding the greatest defense in NFL history. He isn’t blowing smoke. Seattle led the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed. None of the Seahawks’ final six opponents scored more than 14 points or gained more than 245 yards. The November return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner from a toe injury shored what was a struggling run defense while the Legion of Boom remains the NFL’s best secondary.
Marshawn Lynch is still a beast: Despite a lingering back issue, Lynch steamrolled to 1,306 rushing yards and finished the regular season tied with Dallas’ DeMarco Murray for the league-lead in rushing touchdowns with 13. Lynch combines power with enough speed to score from anywhere on the field, which was evidenced by his 79-yard touchdown jaunt in Week 16 against Arizona. The attention Lynch receives from defenses makes it easier for quarterback Russell Wilson to roll outside the pocket, where he is most effective.
Swagger: The confidence Seattle built on its Super Bowl journey last season has carried over to this year’s team that returned the bulk of its championship roster. The Seahawks weathered the early-season turbulence that came with a 3-3 start and issues involving Percy Harvin, the fleet wide receiver who was traded to the New York Jets because he wasn’t fitting into Seattle’s team fabric. Having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in a stadium where the Seahawks have lost only two games in two seasons doesn’t hurt either.
Green Bay (12-4)
A first-round bye: Not only are the Packers guaranteed at least one home game at Lambeau Field as the NFC’s No. 2 seed, Aaron Rodgers has extra time to rest his injured calf. Without their star quarterback, Green Bay’s championship hopes are likely up in smoke.
Rodgers himself: He has posted gaudier statistics before, but Rodgers has never looked as comfortable as this season, when he passed for 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions. A power running game spearheaded by Eddie Lacy (1,139 rushing yards) serves as an excellent complement to Green Bay’s passing attack.
A two-headed pass rush: The addition of free agent Julius Peppers (seven sacks, two interceptions) and creative use of fellow linebacker Clay Matthews (11 sacks) has helped coordinator Dom Capers harass quarterbacks far more effectively than in recent seasons. Green Bay’s run defense also has improved throughout the season with the blossoming of younger players such as inside linebacker Sam Barrington and safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The new Triplets: Not since the days of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin have the Cowboys fielded a quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio like Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. Romo had an NFL-high passer rating of 113.2 and was red-hot during the Cowboys’ 4-0 December with 12 touchdowns and one interception. Murray broke Smith’s franchise rushing record with an NFL-best 1,845 yards. And Bryant led the NFL with 16 touchdown passes among his 88 receptions for 1,320 yards.
The offensive line: Just like with the original Triplets in the 1990s, the Cowboys have a fantastic offensive line to pave the way for the success of Romo, Murray and Bryant. All three of the Cowboys’ first-round picks used on linemen in the past four years (left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin) have paid big dividends.
These aren’t the same ol’ Cowboys: Jason Garrett deserves NFL Coach of the Year consideration for helping to change the culture in Dallas. The 2014 Cowboys have finally bought into his message of consistency. Players have remained focused and not gotten big-headed after key victories, which has helped prevent the letdowns that plagued previous squads. Dallas also has shown a resiliency sometimes lacking in the past. The Cowboys overcame deficits of 10-0 and 21-0 against Seattle and St. Louis, respectively, to win on the road. The NFL’s only perfect record in road games bodes well for at least one impending road game should the Cowboys defeat Detroit in Sunday’s first-round playoff matchup.
The respect factor: Opposing head coaches should worry about their players taking the Panthers lightly simply because of their record. That would be a big mistake. Just ask the 2010 New Orleans Saints, who lost in the first round against a division champion (Seattle) that entered the postseason with an even worse mark than Carolina. The Panthers did go 62 straight days without a victory at one point this season but have since won four straight games en route to winning the NFC South. Only Seattle (six) enters the playoffs with a longer winning streak.
Physical play: Carolina’s turnabout was spurred by the resurgence of its running game and stinginess on defense. The Panthers averaged almost 200 rushing yards in their four December victories, led by the oft-injured Jonathan Stewart. The defense finally adjusted to the absence of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is serving a de facto paid suspension following a domestic violence conviction, and are again fielding a strong pass rush. The Panthers haven’t surrendered more than 301 yards or 17 points in their current winning streak.
No fear of Seattle: Should the Panthers defeat Arizona on Saturday, a trip to Seattle looms for a second-round playoff matchup. Carolina won’t be intimidated. The Panthers hosted the Seahawks in each of the past two seasons and barely lost by scores of 12-7 (2013) and 13-9 (2014). Carolina is quite capable of winning another slugfest even on the road against the NFC’s top seed.
Experience overcoming adversity: Few teams have been plagued by more key injuries than the Cardinals. Arizona enters Saturday’s game against Carolina without its top two quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton), pass rusher (John Abraham), running back (Andre Ellington) and nastiest defender (end Darnell Dockett). Yet the Cardinals still managed to post the franchise’s highest win total since 1975. That speaks volumes about Arizona’s resiliency, which is a plus heading into such a high-pressure situation as the playoffs.
Superior coaching: Bruce Arians is a frontrunner to win his second NFL Coach of the Year award in the past three seasons. Besides the respect he has earned from Cardinals players for his honesty and frank demeanor, Arians is one of the league’s brilliant offensive minds. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is a strong candidate to win NFL Assistant Coach of the Year. Bowles has done such a good job covering for his unit’s deficiencies through creative scheming that he is in heavy demand for job interviews with every team that has a head coaching vacancy. A veteran coaching staff led by offensive guru Tom Moore will have Arizona well prepared for the playoffs.
Hope at quarterback: Yes, hope. Maybe it’s just his optimism, but Arians said his comfort level with Ryan Lindley has grown by leaps and bounds since the third-string quarterback started the past two games in place of Stanton (knee). Arians also said Lindley has earned the trust of his offensive teammates, which is equally significant. If the Cardinals can get past the Panthers, Arians has publically left open the possibility of Stanton returning later in the postseason.
A nasty defense: The Lions finished with their best record in 23 seasons largely because of this unit. Detroit was especially stout against the run. The opposition failed to gain 100 yards in 14 of 16 contests. Free safety Glover Quin became the first Lions player to lead the NFL in interceptions (seven) since future Pro Football Hall of Fame selection Lem Barney in 1967. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy finished second in the NFL in tackles (150) and is adept at sniffing out screen passes. And of course, Ndamukong Suh anchors the defensive line.
Suh isn’t suspended: The Lions breathed a huge sigh of relief when an arbitrator overturned the NFL’s one-game ban of Suh for his stomp of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers during last Sunday’s game. Suh was set to miss Sunday’s matchup against Dallas, which would have been an especially huge blow considering how thin the Lions have become at defensive tackle in the absence of Nick Fairley (knee). Suh is an intimidating presence who regularly draws double-teams, which helps free his teammates to make tackles.
Matthew Stafford is overdue: Stafford’s reputation as a big-game quarterback is mud. He is 0-16 as a starter against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record. Stafford latest failing came during last Sunday’s 30-20 loss to Green Bay. He threw for three touchdowns but also completed only 20 of 41 passes for 217 yards. That 5.3-yard completion average was Stafford’s lowest in 17 games dating to 2013. Stafford can rebound by getting his two top-flight wide receivers (Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate) more involved downfield. There would be no better place for Stafford to enjoy the biggest victory of his six-year NFL career than in Dallas, which is where he was a high school prodigy before heading to the University of Georgia.