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Judging by the odds from Vegas, a 49ers-Broncos Super Bowl matchup seems preordained. On paper, hard to debate this sentiment, as San Francisco returns the majority of its squad from 2012, one which was this close to winning the Big One last season, while the Broncos upgraded an already-explosive offense with the addition of Wes Welker.
Yet as we've seen in recent years, preseason bestowment does not necessarily translate to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. New Orleans' hopes to go back-to-back in 2010 were blown up by a Beast Mode sighting in Seattle. The Packers' title defense during the 2011 season came to a halt after running into a red-hot New York Giants team in the playoffs. Heck, the 2008 Patriots' aspirations were cut down immediately when Bernard Pollard took out Tom Brady in Week 1.
Therefore, while San Francisco and Denver are formidable contenders to travel to the Meadowlands in February, they are far from flawless constructions. The 49ers are a destitute bunch at receiver, and Von Miller's six-game suspension leaves a noticeable void in the Broncos' resistance.
But if not the Niners or Broncos, which teams will face off in the Big Dance? To erase this uncertainty, WhatIfSports.com is proud to present its annual NFL playoff and Super Bowl picks.
As always, all of our simulated NFL content is based on the statistical DNA of the league's 32 teams. The simulation process takes into account team depth charts, injuries, passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, turnovers, rush defense, pass defense, offensive philosophy (pass versus rush), the aptitude of the local PED dealer, etc.
The rosters and depth charts used were up-to-date and accurate as of September 2, 2013.
NFL Wild Card Simulations
|@ Houston Texans||44.6||22.0|
|San Diego Chargers||38.9||18.0|
|@ Pittsburgh Steelers||61.1||22.1|
|@ Washington Redskins||46.6||20.3|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||41.0||21.6|
|@ Green Bay Packers||59.0||24.5|
For pundits who want an alternative route from the Broncos or Patriots for their AFC champion, the Texans have been a popular pick. With a relatively easy schedule, stout defense and a veteran-laden club, Houston seems to have checked off the necessary components for a Super Bowl run. Alas, despite the acquisition of Ed Reed and a handful of playmakers, the inconsistent play of Matt Schaub dooms the Texans, as the defending champion Baltimore Ravens capitalize on their stifling defense to send Houston packing.
The Ravens' AFC North cohort Pittsburgh Steelers also took care of business in the Wild Card round, finishing off a surprising season by the San Diego Chargers. The Lightening Bolts' offense is a shell of its former self, and the play of Philip Rivers has taken a precipitous drop. Still, the Chargers have quietly built a sound defense, led by three-time All-Pro Eric Weddle. It would not be enough, however, as Big Ben and the Steelers nip the Chargers in the friendly confines of Heinz Field.
In the NFC, a rematch of last year's Wild Card battle between the Seahawks and Redskins renders the same result, as a combination of Seattle's high-pressure defense and resilient ground game gives the W to Pete Carroll's team. Though Robert Griffin III showed little residual effects from knee surgery, Washington struggled to brew any type of offensive charge on Seattle.
Also making a quick exit were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although their appearance in the playoffs after five previous years out of the postseason is victory enough. The Bucs faced their demised at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. The offensive brilliance of Aaron Rodgers was simply too much for a beleaguered Tampa defense, as the Cheeseheads found the end zone early and often.
NFL Divisional Playoffs Simulations
|@ Denver Broncos||61.9||25.0|
|@ New England Patriots||50.7||23.2|
|@ San Francisco 49ers||53.3||22.0|
|Green Bay Packers||49.9||23.7|
|@ Atlanta Falcons||50.1||23.8|
The championship belt will no longer reside in Baltimore, as a rematch last season's epic Mile High Miracle goes Denver's way. Peyton Manning had his way with a tough Baltimore defense, methodically dinking-and-dunking his way across the gridiron, swaying the time of possession favorably in the Broncos' corner. Von Miller, fresh off his league-sanctioned sabbatical, was vital in curbing the efforts of Ray Rice and Joe Flacco. The Broncos' win sends them to the AFC Championship Game, where they will face the New England Patriots. Even with a handful of rookie wideouts and injury-prone targets, Brady posted another statistical bonanza in 2013. Moreover, Stevan Ridley proved the perfect supplement for Brady and the airborne strike, keeping adversarial defenses honest. This duo's skill was on display against the Steelers, who couldn't keep New England from lighting up the scoreboard. Pittsburgh's offense did its share of damage against the Pats, but the Steel City's defense simply facilitated too many fireworks.
Speaking of rematches, the Falcons and 49ers will run back their highly-contested conference title game from a season ago, as Atlanta squeaked by the Packers and San Fran beat divisional foe Seattle. Rodgers and the Packers offense continued their domination, but the Green Bay defense failed to contain Matt Ryan. With a plethora of weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson and Tony Gonzalez, as well as the protection of a firm offensive line, the Falcons possess one of the more well-rounded onslaughts in the league, and, ultimately, proved too much for the Pack. In the other NFC game, Russell Wilson could never get comfortable against San Fran's front seven, forcing multiple turnovers and giving the Niners' offense great field position all day. Though they put up a fight, San Francisco simply had too much firepower.
NFL Conference Championships Simulations
|New England Patriots||43.2||22.9|
|@ Denver Broncos||56.8||24.9|
|@ San Francisco 49ers||51.5||22.5|
Defense might win championships, but to get to that precipice, a potent offense doesn't hurt one's chances. The Broncos used this recipe to defeat the New England Patriots and capture the conference's bid to the Super Bowl. Brady was strong in the loss, but Denver's bend-but-don't-break philosophy kept the Patriots from amounting much on the scoreboard. In the Broncos' win, the running game of Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball was the difference, helping Manning and the offense control the clock and keep Brady on the sidelines.
Sorry Atlanta, but Round 2 went San Francisco's way, as the Niners knocked off the Falcons for the second consecutive season to win the NFC Championship. Colin Kaepernick was able to offset a struggling running game with pinpoint accuracy and a few scrambles of his own. Also helping his cause was the Niners' D, which kept Atlanta's Ryan from mustering much under center.
Super Bowl XLVIII Simulation
|San Francisco 49ers||40.9||20.1|
|vs. Denver Broncos||59.1||22.9|
San Francisco has the familiarity, but the Broncos have Peyton Manning. The latter turned out to tip the scales in Denver's direction, as Manning topped a spectacular defense in giving the Colorado franchise its first Super Bowl since the 1998-99 season. Kaepernick wasn't too shabby himself, but did not have enough support to get the job done.
Turns out Vegas is right. But according to the WhatIfSports.com engine, San Fran is left out in the cold once again.
Throughout the 2013 NFL season, WhatIfSports.com will provide FOXSports.com its game predictions and fantasy projections on a weekly basis.
Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.