Buy into the fairytale ending, urges Romilly Evans in his Super Bowl preview, as Peyton Manning bids to show he's one more thing to do in Denver before he's dead...
"Denver have strength all over the field, so their old sheriff will never have a better chance to ride off into a stunning sunset"
Denver Broncos: AFC No.1 Seed
Super Bowl odds 7.613/2
Just a few weeks ago, the doom-and-gloomers were predicting that Denver might fall out of the postseason mixer altogether under the stand-in quarterback Brock Osweiler. Now here they are as the number-one seeds, with all-time great Peyton Manning back at the controls. Sure, Broncos fans would prefer to watch a mint condition 2005 Manning, rather than the banged-up current model. But Manning has had six weeks to rest (from foot, neck and ribcage injuries) and will now enjoy a further fortnight, with the bye week which accompanies top-dog status in the AFC.
His inspirational return got them out of a jam against San Diego, where he minimized the mistakes, and offloaded offensive duties to the dynamic duo of Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson, who have finally found some momentum ahead of the play-off push. Yet, at the end of the day, this fulcrum of this outfit is no longer at QB. Instead it resides with their dominant defense. No-one is perfect is this league, but Von Miller and Co can do the rest. And in the weaker conference with an easy schedule, the Broncos could be peaking at the right time to right the wrongs of their Super Bowl nightmare two years back.
New England Patriots: AFC No.2 Seed
Super Bowl odds 5.85/1
While Denver has confounded the critics and momentum to re-establish their claims, the New England Patriots have run aground after the good ship Tom Brady-Bill Belichick belatedly hit some stormy seas. Call it what you want - belated karma, or key injuries - but they still have a bye week to recover and reassess. And no-one does that better than Belichick. That said, this should be the season where the creative evolution of the Pats' roster ultimately runs out of successful genetic mutations.
Long story short, their defensive detail is not that deep, and as Miami surprisingly showed on Sunday, their secondary is progressively porous. Brady is still whirring as their key cog but a recent ankle strain and big blows to their offensive line (citing Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson) have left the All-American Anti-Hero looking increasingly exposed and running out of options. Even The Gronk has been up on the treatment table this term, and the overall feeling is that the Patriots are now a couple of aces short of a full deck.
Cincinnati Bengals: AFC No.3 Seed
Super Bowl odds 30.029/1
Andy Dalton has had his cast removed from his fractured right thumb. And while that's ostensibly a good piece of news, it may already have come too late for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis to win his first play-off game. For, in Dalton's continued absence, he must ready his charges under the guidance of AJ McCarron who looks ill-equipped to lead Cincy in the rarefied air of the postseason. Especially with Pittsburgh (granted a reprieve by the NY Jets at the weekend) the visiting team, keen to take advantage of their second life.
Put simply, the Steelers have perhaps the quickest-strike offense in the NFL, and the Bengals (although the more complete and balanced side) will struggle to keep pace with AJ under center.
Houston Texans: AFC No.4 Seed
Super Bowl odds 85.084/1
The Texans barely scrabbled out of the lowly AFC South, but will take hope from some recent momentum and the return of QB Brian Hoyer as a healthy starter. Their defense, led by the imperious JJ Watt, can overturn most offenses, given a fair wind and a few turnovers. Will always be clutching at straws against the juggernauts, though, and are priced accordingly.
Kansas City Chiefs: AFC No.5 Seed
Super Bowl odds 18.5
Andy Reid's avuncular, supportive management approach has seen the Chiefs rebound from a petulant 1-5 start, to a stellar maturation (11-5). Riding a hot defensive hand, they are one of the streaking teams in the league and their defense could prove a match for anyone. Nevertheless, their offense is limited or lacking ambition (code for missing superstar running man Jamaal Charles). And while they've papered over the cracks well so far, this deficiency will ultimately cost them.
AFC No.6 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowl odds 15.014/1
Like Kansas, Pittsburgh also lost their main offensive weapon for the current campaign in Le'Veon Bell. Unlike Kansas, however, they have surpassed and superseded his absence to move the chains with probably the best QB-receiving corps out there. As a result, they are the Wildcard nobody wants to draw over the coming weeks, and the Andy Dalton-less Cincy will be left wondering what might've been this Sunday. The Steelers (under two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger) can still dream of what might yet be - even though they're the road team. The NY Giants did it against the previously perfect Patriots in 2008.
NFC No.1 Seed: Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl odds 5.95/1
The Black Cats set new standards in over-achievement by posting the league's highest regular season mark at 15-1. And they deserve credit for adding up to more than the sum of their parts over such a long and varied course. However, a soft schedule and some last-gasp hurrahs, give the lie to Carolina's supposed dominance and they will be pressed to assert it over the NFC's outstanding outfits, despite homefield advantage throughout the play-offs.
NFC No.2 Seed: Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl odds 5.59/2
Arizona are the other side in receipt of a handy first-round bye, but they may need a week to get over their 26-6 humbling at home at the claws of the Seattle Seahawks. Of course, they could meet the Hawks (who always come on strong when the Lombardi's on the line) again before the Super Bowl, and a rematch would leave them exposed on personnel match-up across the park. However, consign that loss to the trashcan of memory, and the Cards look one of the most total teams in the league. Can you do that and entrust your fate to the King of Self-Doubt, Carson Palmer? His Heisman gong still weighs heavily for belated validation. And I expect Palmer and Arizona to wind up a fag paper shy of greatness once again.
NFC No.3 Seed: Minnesota Vikings
Super Bowl odds 42.041/1
Not exactly the feel-good story of the season - playmaker Adrian Peterson is a hard man for whom to root these days - but the emergence of Teddy Bridgewater (a youngster currently scaling the heights of his powers) allied to a miserly D means that Minny are no longer a one-man side. Perhaps, on reflection, they've done Green Bay a favour by taking the division and drawing a rampant Seattle. Home advantage is their one consolation, but the Vegas line suggests their postseason stay will be short-lived.
NFC No.4 Seed: Washington Redskins
Super Bowl odds 70.069/1
The Skins may seem resurgent now that they are trusting Kirk Cousins and DeSean Jackson, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. They have emerged from a division of self-demolition jobs (more commonly referred to as the NFC East) and have little to recommend them beyond their falsely high seeding and an opening game at home. As discussed below, to my jaundiced eye, they will struggle to land the odds-on in the Wildcard match-up with the Packers of Green Bay. But at least head coach Jay Gruden has kept the gig for another year.
NFC No.5 Seed: Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl odds 30.029/1
My main outright pick at the season's outset, and the Pack are still clinging to a thread of credibility (they drifted like a barge in the betting). Had they won their last two matches, they'd hold the second seed and a first-round bye. Yet they lost them, and didn't even win the division. Talisman Aaron Rodgers has demanded that they "relearn how to win big matches" and they'll have their chance this weekend with a very winnable game away to the Washington Redskins.
Rodgers can still galvanise any offense, while Eddie Lacy and the Green Bay rushers are fresher than most with a point to prove. If they can provide Rodgers' wide men with some balance, the great escape to victory could be on.
NFC No.6 Seed: Seattle Seahawks
Super Bowl odds 7.613/2
The Seattle Seahawks will rest this Wildcard opener on the shoulders of Russell Wilson and their defense, which will attempt to shut down Adrian Peterson (still not operating at full pelt after an ankle sprain) and put the Minnesota match on the inexperienced Teddy Bridgewater. Hot teams don't come much whiter than the Hawks in recent weeks (their nemeses in St Louis aside) and they know where the winning line is. Like their AFC counterparts Pittsburgh, this is a sixth side everyone wants to swerve.
But when all's said and done, at the current odds (fifth favourites) and the layers' collective willingness to take on the top seeds - and in particular Manning - Denver make plenty of appeal at their current mark. The Broncos have strength all over the field and on both sides of the ball, so the old sheriff will never have a better chance to ride off into a stunning sunset.
As we saw from his triumphant return on Sunday, his mere presence inspires his teammates and the Mile High faithful, and Denver can ride their historic homefield to the Super Bowl. Manning's mere reputation can still clear a saloon bar of ne'er-do-wells. Let's just hope the Seattle Sewhawks aren't there for last orders.
Back Denver Broncos to win the Super Bowl @ 7.613/2