NFL 2015 Playoffs: Who will win Super Bowl 50?
The Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots all secured first-round byes, but each have question marks against them.
In the NFC, the top-seeded Panthers looked unstoppable for much of the regular season, until their quest for a perfect 16-0 record came to a shuddering halt against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.
Quarterback Cam Newton is enjoying a stellar season with 45 touchdowns, leading an offense that topped the scoring charts with 31.2 points per game. The Panthers are strong on defense too, conceding 19.2 points per game for the sixth-best record in the NFL.
If Newton stays healthy and Panthers can get injured running back Jonathan Stewart and receiver Ted Ginn Jr back on the field, they could be the team to beat.
The second-seeded Cardinals ended their 2015 campaign with similar numbers to the Panthers ‒ scoring 30.6 and allowing 19.6 points per game, respectively - but their final mauling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday will have done nothing for their confidence.
Carson Palmer's performances at quarterback have been no less impressive than Newton's, posting a career-high 35 touchdowns and 4,671 passing yards. If the Cardinals can put the Seattle defeat behind them, a Super Bowl slot isn't beyond them.
The sixth-seeded Seahawks have played in the last two Super Bowls, and they reminded everyone why after demolishing the Cardinals 36-6 this weekend.
After starting the season 2-4, Seattle roared back to win eight of their last 10 games and have the talent and experience to go all the way. A wild-card match-up against a 3rd-seeded Minnesota Vikings team that they beat 38-7 in December should hold no fears, even though the results in the playoffs tend to be the opposite of that which occurred during the regular-season matchup.
The Green Bay Packers ended the season with two losses and they could find things tough against a Washington Redskins team who racked up four wins on the bounce to secure a playoff berth on the back of first-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins.
On the AFC side, the Broncos and the Patriots may have secured byes, but neither will be happy going into the playoffs.
The top-seeded Broncos' offense has been questioned throughout the season, and their 22.2 points per game placed them 19th overall in scoring. Peyton Manning's third-quarter return on Sunday after spending weeks injured on the bench inspired the Broncos to a final day win against the San Diego Chargers. The veteran quarterback’s experience could be invaluable during the playoffs.
The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots were a dominant force for most of the season, but injuries took their toll and they lost four of their last six games, handing the top seed in the AFC playoffs to Denver. The perennial playoff contenders snagged the second seed in their conference.
As AFC North foes, the 6th-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and 3rd-seeded Cincinnati Bengals split their two regular season meetings, and both will fancy their chances of success in the third game, while the Houston Texans' mean defense ‒ allowing only 19.6 points per game ‒ gives them a fighting chance against the 5th-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.
Match-ups for the 2015 NFL playoffs wildcard round:
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
Byes: Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots