The Panthers, Cardinals, Broncos and Patriots secured the coveted first-round byes in the 2015 NFL playoffs.
Those teams have to win two games to get to the Super Bowl, the other eight playoff teams have to win three.
Theoretically, the top two seeds in each conference will have the easiest path to Super Bowl 50. Which one has the easiest? Here’s a look at each of them.
Broncos (12-4, No. 1 seed)
The Broncos will face the lowest surviving seed in the AFC divisional round. If the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) win at third-seeded Cincinnati (12-4), they’ll go to Denver. If not, the Broncos get the winner of the wild-card matchup between the fifth-seeded Chiefs (11-5) and fourth-seeded Texans (9-7).
And when all said and done #Broncos D finished No. 1 in total defense, pass defense & sacks; No. 3 in run defense, No. 4 in scoring defense.
— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) January 4, 2016
The Steelers almost blew their playoff berth when they lost at Baltimore in Week 16, but they rebounded with a win at Cleveland Sunday and the Jets choked away their shot at the playoffs in Buffalo.
The Steelers will cherish the second chance they’ve been given and won’t be an easy out in the playoffs. If they do go one-and-done, however, the Broncos could get a Chiefs team that’s won 10 in a row. If the Broncos face the Patriots or Bengals, it would be in the AFC championship game and they’ll have the upper hand because they’ve beaten both teams in Denver this season. But this isn’t the easiest path to the Super Bowl.
Patriots (12-4, No. 2 seed)
Unlike the Broncos, the Patriots could face the third-seeded Bengals (12-14) in the divisional round. There’s a strong possibility Andy Dalton could be back for that game if the Bengals get past the Steelers.
However, if the Bengals do go to Gillette Stadium, that means they won what’s likely to be a physical showdown against the Steelers. Tom Brady and the Patriots, meanwhile, will have had two weeks to heal up. The Bengals also would have breathed a collective sigh of relief after finally winning a playoff game. The Patriots won’t relax until they’re clutching another Super Bowl trophy. They’d be strong favorites against the Bengals.
Tom Brady underwent MRI on ankle that revealed a sprain but no breaks, no fractures, per league source. Expected to be ready for playoffs. — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 4, 2016
The Patriots could face the Steelers in the conference title game. Tom Brady hasn’t lost to the Steelers in Foxborough.
If the Patriots have to win at Denver in the conference championship game, that could be more of a problem.
The easiest path to Super Bowl 50 does not go through the AFC.
Panthers (15-1, No. 1 seed)
How can the team with the NFL’s best record have the most difficult path to the Super Bowl?
The Seahawks lurk as a possible divisional-round opponent. That’s how.
The Panthers became the 7th team to win 15 games in a regular season. pic.twitter.com/KCSHHF0IkU
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 4, 2016
Sixth-seeded Seattle (10-6) visits third-seeded Minnesota (11-5) on Sunday. The Seahawks won 38-7 there four weeks ago. They showed that their swagger is back when they annihilated the Cardinals 36-6 at Arizona Sunday. If they advance past the wild-card, they’d go to Carolina as the lowest remaining seed.
The Panthers’ divisional draw would be easier if the Vikings oust the Seahawks. They would then get either the struggling Packers (10-6) or the champions of the sad-sack NFC East, the Redskins (9-7). Fifth-seeded Green Bay visits fourth-seeded Washington Sunday.
If the Panthers advance to the NFC championship game, they could host Arizona. Unlike last year, the Cardinals figure to have a legitimate quarterback if and when they visit Carolina.
A playoff path that could include Seattle and Arizona is fraught with danger.
Arizona (No. 2 seed, 13-3)
The Cardinals’ 36-6 home loss to the Seahawks on Sunday might seem alarming to some, but it actually set them up with the easiest path to Super Bowl 50 among the 12 playoff teams.
For the Cardinals to earn the top seed in the NFC, they would have had to beat the Seahawks and the Panthers would have had to lose at home to the Buccaneers. The latter wasn’t going to happen. The Cardinals were likely to be the No. 2 seed regardless of what happened at University of Phoenix Stadium. As humiliating as it seemed on paper, the Cardinals’ 30-point loss wasn’t very costly.
Arizona still has a first-round bye and can’t face the sixth-seeded Seahawks until the NFC championship game. The Seahawks have to win two games to get there and the Cardinals only have to win one.
While the Panthers could face both Seattle and Arizona in the playoffs, the Cardinals can’t face both Seattle and Carolina. To get to the NFC title game, the Cardinals will have to beat either the Packers-Redskins survivor or the Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins are making their playoff debuts and while Aaron Rodgers is battle-tested the rest of his team is a mess.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) January 4, 2016
It would be a bad idea to sleep on the Cardinals just because of their Week 17 flop.