Playoff paths: Ranking the difficulty of every Super Bowl path

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Two jaw-dropping finishes and two comfortable blowouts later and the NFL playoffs are down to eight teams. After the wreckage of Cincinnati's emotional meltdown and Blair Walsh's stunning miss, what we're left with is a very compelling eight-team playoff in which virtually every team has a serious chance of making a run to the Super Bowl.

Take a look at the regular-season DVOA rankings and you'll see what I mean. Each of the eight teams left ranked among the 10 best teams in football. The two teams from the regular-season top 10 who are missing are the Bengals (second) and Jets (ninth). The other three teams that lost this weekend were all outside the top 10. There are years when the variance that comes with a 16-game schedule and the brutality of a single-elimination playoff leaves us with a bunch of above-average teams duking it out while the league's best teams are already at home.

That's not the case this year. The best of the best remain. Even more thrillingly, it looks as though this could be a playoffs when we have eight teams that are relatively evenly matched. The Seahawks are comfortably the best team left in the postseason by DVOA, but they narrowly squeaked out a win over the Vikings. And the Packers are simultaneously the worst team left in the postseason based on their regular-season performance but finally got their running game going in the second half of an impressive victory over Washington. Anybody could beat anybody.

And yet, it's almost always too easy to overreact to the opening round of the NFL playoffs. We often give too much credit to the teams that show up and produce impressive performances while forgetting about the teams that spent the week on bye, getting a little healthier. What we saw this weekend matters, but it's only one week. Take 2013, when three of four wild-card road teams won their games and the Colts required a massive comeback against the Chiefs to avoid making it the same clean sweep we saw this weekend. The next week, three of those four road teams lost by an average of 12 points.

With that in mind, let's reset and look forward at the next two weekends of football. It might feel as if we're dealing with eight equal teams, but even if we incorporate what amounts to Week 18 into our estimates of how good each team actually is at this point, there are some clear conclusions. The three best teams left in the playoffs reside in the NFC. Injuries and roster decisions might wildly swing our projections of who actually looks best in the AFC. You probably would rather play the Packers than the Seahawks.

In the postseason, where everybody's good, those advantages get magnified. To advance to the Super Bowl, it can be less about the quality of your own given team and more about the teams you avoid and the ease of the path you have to take. So let's sort through those paths and figure out who has the easiest -- and toughest -- road to Super Bowl 50.

Let's start with the toughest slate, which belongs to the team that arguably had the most impressive win of wild-card weekend.

8. Green Bay Packers

Divisional round: at Arizona
Conference championship: at Carolina or vs. Seattle
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 8.0 percent

If you're a Packers fan, you're going to hold on to the hope that Sunday's 35-18 win over Washington resembled the way Green Bay caught fire in the 2010 playoffs and won the Super Bowl. That year, the Packers lost starting running back Ryan Grant to a season-ending injury in the opener and struggled to run the football all season before finally getting James Starks going in the playoffs. Running to win is often an overvalued concept, but the balance of steady yardage from Starks closed out wins for the Packers throughout their postseason run.

It had to have been heartening on Sunday, then, to see Starks and Eddie Lacy get going. Green Bay's one-two punch carried the ball 24 times for 116 yards, imposing their will during a pair of consecutive touchdown drives that broke things open. That included a fourth-and-1 Lacy conversion in no man's land that produced a touchdown two plays later, which itself creates hope that Mike McCarthy has learned from the hyper-conservative mistakes of 2014.

The problem? Well, Green Bay wasn't playing a great football team. Washington might have been on a four-game winning streak, but it finished the year 15th in DVOA and had the worst run defense ( 22nd) of any team in the postseason. The three other teams left in the NFC side of the bracket are among the league's six best run defenses. They're also the three best teams left in the postseason. The Packers can hope to get a home game against a team they beat by 10 points in Week 2 if the Seahawks upset Carolina, but even then, they'll be playing what might be the best team in football. There's no easy path for the Packers to make it to the Super Bowl.

7. Seattle Seahawks

Divisional round: at Carolina
Conference championship: at Arizona or at Green Bay
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 17.9 percent

It would be foolish to take Seattle's narrow, desperate victory in awful weather conditions over Minnesota and use it as proof that the Seahawks are not all they're cracked up to be. Remember that the 2013 Seahawks struggled to put away the Saints at home amid awful weather conditions in their playoff opener before winning the Super Bowl. Or how the aforementioned 2010 Packers required a game-ending interception of Michael Vick in the end zone to hold off the Eagles in the wild-card round before comfortably rolling their way to the Super Bowl. One game, even one playoff game, means a lot less than 16 regular-season games.

Furthermore, it's not all that clear that the Seahawks played poorly. Were they lucky to win given that they were facing a chip-shot field goal attempt by Blair Walsh? Of course. Up to that point, though, Seattle had played reasonably well. Its offense had sprung receivers downfield for several big plays, only for the wind to hold passes up. Seattle's defense shut down Adrian Peterson completely and held the Vikings to nine points; the only time Minnesota realistically threatened to score a touchdown came after punter Jon Ryan took a bad snap, scrambled forward and broke a hurdle attempt with his nose.

The issue, instead, is that the Seahawks are probably going to require road victories over the Panthers and Cardinals to win the NFC. You can say that the Seahawks did manhandle the Cards in Arizona in Week 17, of course, but that's also just one game. And, in the other 15 home games those two teams combined to play this year, they went 14-1 and outscored their opposition by 15.2 points per contest. Even if the Packers upset Arizona, Seattle would still have to beat Green Bay atĀ Lambeau in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game. That's also a tall order.

6. Carolina Panthers

Divisional round: vs. Seattle
Conference championship: vs. Arizona or vs. Green Bay
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 32.3 percent

To keep things really simple, the Panthers haven't lost a home game in 421 days. Including last year's playoff win over Arizona, Carolina has won its past 11 home games dating back to Nov. 16, 2014, when it lost 19-17 to the Falcons. Regardless of how the Arizona-Green Bay matchup shakes out, Carolina stays home if it wins. If you never lose at home and you don't have to leave home to make the Super Bowl, your chances seem pretty good.

Teams that have been similarly dominant at home in the recent past, though, haven't been as effective in the playoffs. You might remember the 2014 Broncos, who went 8-0 at home and promptly lost to the Colts by 11 at Mile High. Panthers fans can go back to 2008, when a 12-4 Carolina team swept the table at home before losing in the divisional round to Kurt Warner's Cardinals 33-13. In all, teams that have gone undefeated in the regular season at home are just 16-12 in their subsequent home games in the postseason.

Home-field advantage is important, but what's even more valuable is getting to play a weaker team, and that's where Carolina falls just short. The best-case scenario for the Panthers is that the Cardinals lose and they get to play Green Bay. The Cardinals don't need a break to fall their way; they already are getting to play Green Bay. That's an enormous advantage with their respective schedules, and it's more valuable than the Panthers' getting to host Arizona in the most likely conference championship matchup.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

Divisional round: at Denver
Conference championship: at New England or at Kansas City
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 14.3 percent

Of course, FPI can't truly estimate those Super Bowl chances. Like us, it doesn't know whether the Pittsburgh roster will include Antonio Brown or anything resembling the usual Ben Roethlisberger after both were injured in Cincinnati. The Steelers without their two best players are a drastically different football team, and it'll be reflected in the strength of schedule for the AFC teams to come in a moment.

This is strictly a look at how easy each team's respective road is to the Super Bowl, though, not a measure of its specific chances of winning. And as far as No. 6 seeds go, the Steelers aren't in awful shape. The Broncos were closer to being out of the playoffs than they were to being the No. 1 seed as recently as the second half of Week 16, and, although results locked into place to get them atop the AFC, they still have an enormous question mark at the game's most important position.

Peyton Manning wasn't exactly throwing lasers during his brief stint replacing the deposed Brock Osweiler in Week 17, and, although the Broncos could go back to Osweiler if Manning struggles, well, then you have a fourth-year rookie back in during the playoffs. The Broncos are going to try to be a run-heavy team, but that plays into Pittsburgh's strengths, given that it hasĀ  the league's fifth-best run defense.

You beat the Steelers by throwing downfield, given that they're 30th in the league in QBR against throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air, but does that sound like the Broncos these days? Manning (28th) and Osweiler (33rd) were among the worst quarterbacks in the league by QBR on those same passes. Tom Brady hasn't been an effective deep passer in a long time, and the Chiefs are so reticent to throw the ball downfield that they sprang Albert Wilson open for a would-be touchdown in the first quarter, missed the throw and never took another shot downfield. Two road games would be tough, and the Patriots in New England would be a brutal matchup, but there's some hope to work with here if you're a Pittsburgh fan.

4. Arizona Cardinals

Divisional round: vs. Green Bay
Conference championship: at Carolina or vs. Seattle
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 41.9 percent

Pick a metric -- DVOA, FPI, points differential -- and the Cardinals are hosting the worst team left in the postseason at home this week. On paper, that's the friendliest matchup left for any team in this year's postseason, and it's reflected in the Vegas line; the Cardinals are the first team in the playoffs to be favored by more than a touchdown. Arizona might be struggling without star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, but the Packers don't have the receivers to take advantage of Justin Bethel, and the serious-seeming injury suffered by Davante Adams on Sunday didn't help matters.

The Cardinals aren't any higher on this list, though, because their conference championship game promises to be tough. You would rather play any of the AFC teams than line up against the Panthers or Seahawks, even if the Cardinals get to play Seattle at home. We only have to look back at Week 17 to get a reminder of how good the Seahawks can look in Arizona. Poll most Cardinals fans and I suspect they might rather travel to Charlotte and face the Panthers than line up for a rubber match against Russell Wilson & Co.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Divisional round: at New England
Conference championship: at Denver or vs. Pittsburgh
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 18.3 percent

Chiefs fans, meanwhile, must be salivating for a third game against the Broncos. They grossly outplayed the Broncos in Week 2 and deserved to win, only to catastrophically blow the game in a horrific Reidian slip, before blowing out Denver in Week 10. The downside would be a home game against the Steelers, which isn't in itself particularly unappealing. All they have to do is get past the Patriots, which ... there's a reason they're third on this list and not any higher.

It's tempting to write off Kansas City's 30-0 win over Houston on Saturday as the product of a Brian Hoyer disaster movie, but that sells the Chiefs short. It would be fair to say they left a few plays on the field and didn't produce a perfect performance, but it wasn't as if Hoyer was Jay Cutler without a contact lens during the season. He threw seven picks on 369 attempts; Hoyer's 1.9 percent interception rate was better than the league average of 2.4 percent. Forcing him into four picks was a reminder that this is a truly great defense.

2. New England Patriots

Divisional round: vs. Kansas City
Conference championship: at Denver or vs. Pittsburgh
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 31.2 percent

Patriots fans were happy that they managed to finish with the No. 2 seed and avoid the Steelers in the second round; now, given how the Steelers are banged up and how good the Chiefs looked in the first round, the second seed might not seem quite as appealing. Quietly, the Chiefs were second in the league in DVOA and in yards per game allowed to tight ends; there's a possibility they'll slow down Rob Gronkowski on Saturday, and, if Julian Edelman isn't right, that could be enough to slow down the entire Pats offense.

If New England's injured come back resembling their old selves, though, the Patriots would rightly be favorites to advance to the AFC Championship Game. And there, neither of their opponents are quite as threatening as they once seemed. The final Brady-Manning game for a spot in the Super Bowl would be an enormous storyline, but unless Manning is better than he looked in Week 17, that game would lean New England's way. The Patriots led an Osweiler-led Broncos team 21-7 in the fourth quarter earlier this season before a muffed punt sparked a Denver comeback.

1. Denver Broncos

Divisional round: vs. Pittsburgh
Conference championship: vs. New England or vs. Kansas City
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 36.2 percent

Comfortably, though, the easiest path to the Super Bowl belongs to Denver. As dangerous as the Steelers can be when their offense is clicking and their defense is creating takeaways, there's a good chance this isn't the same Steelers team everybody feared heading into January. Roethlisberger might not have suffered a season-ending injury Saturday, but he was unable to fling the ball more than a few yards downfield once he returned to the game. Even if he plays this weekend, there's little guarantee Roethlisberger will be his usual self. And although Brown torched the Broncos in Week 15, he'll have to make it through the league's concussion protocol to suit up. It's hard to overstate the impact caused by the absence of one, much less both.

And then, although they're guaranteed a difficult contest against the Chiefs or Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos at least get the modest benefit of suiting up for that game at home. They would be likely to face the Patriots, and that might actually be the better matchup for them. The biggest concern with starting Manning revolves around his new propensity for interceptions, and that would be bigger against the Chiefs. They ended 12.3 percent of opposing possessions with picks this year, including six in two games against the Broncos. That was the second-best rate in football. The Patriots were 20th by the same measure, with 6.5 percent of opposing drives finishing up with a pick. The Manning/Osweiler conundrum might sink the Broncos, but if it does, no Denver fan could argue that the path wasn't an appealing one.