Each of the dozen NFL teams still standing has reason to believe next month will bring a party and a parade.
Every one of them also has a potentially costly flaw that could have them dejectedly clearing out their lockers instead.
“The game gets a little faster and certainly everything’s on the line,” Denver quarterback Peyton Manning said of the playoffs, where he’s experienced plenty of pain — 12 losses — to go with lots of euphoria — 11 wins.
The key this time of year is pretty simple, he said.
“I think the more experience you have, the different types of games you’ve been through, those things can certainly help you,” Manning said. “But it usually comes down to kind of who executes better.”
As the dandy dozen prepare for the playoffs, here’s a look at the signature strength of each team along with their most worrisome weakness:
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS:
WEAKNESS: The O-line struggled early after LG Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay. The unit settled down when rookie center Bryan Stork took over in Week 4. With little depth, the Patriots need the O-linemen to stay healthy and protect the franchise, Tom Brady.
STRENGTH: With apologies to Rob Gronkowski, the addition of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gets the nod here. They have greatly improved New England’s pass defense. The emergence of second-year linebacker Jamie Collins also has been a big plus.
“He’s turned into a leader and a linebacker who is able to control the whole defense,” safety Devin McCourty said of Collins. “There’s not much he can’t do on the field.”
2. DENVER BRONCOS:
WEAKNESS: Manning often looks rushed even when he’s not. The O-line hasn’t done him many favors and must step up its play for Manning to be able to find Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who combined for 212 catches, 3,023 yards and 20 TDs this season.
STRENGTH: Defensive newcomers Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward came up big. So did Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe, who were sidelined a year ago. Add in Bradley Roby and Brandon Marshall and this unit atones for any offensive hiccups.
“I’ll just ask the fans this: Do you want Peyton to throw 70 million touchdowns and break 80 million records or do you all want a parade downtown?” running back C.J. Anderson said.
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS:
WEAKNESS: Pittsburgh’s defense is no longer the menacing group it was during three Super Bowl trips from 2005-11. The Steelers were 18th in total defense and 27th against the pass. Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were hurt and Cortez Allen failed to develop into a shutdown CB.
STRENGTH: Antonio Brown has become as big a part of the offense as Ben Roethlisberger. His 129 catches were the second-highest single season total in NFL history, and he led the league with 1,698 yards receiving to go with a team-record 13 TD catches.
“He needs no endorsement from me,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Brown. “He is who he is. I don’t think any of us are surprised when he delivers for us time and again.”
4. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS:
WEAKNESS: Over the last six weeks, the Colts have lost nine fumbles and thrown six interceptions. That’s a real concern for a team that had seven interceptions in two playoff games last year. After committing a league-low 66 penalties in 2013, Indy was called for 105.
STRENGTH: Even with all the blunders and bruises, Andrew Luck has an uncanny knack for winning. The Chiefs saw his genius in the playoffs last year, when he rallied the Colts from a 28-point deficit. Luck’s finishing touch means anything is possible this postseason.
“I don’t think the kid ever feels any pressure,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “I think he performs best when his back’s to the wall.”
5. CINCINNATI BENGALS:
WEAKNESS: Andy Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs and has played some of his worst games in the pressurized postseason. In those three games, two losses at Houston and one at home last year against San Diego, Dalton has one TD, six interceptions and a paltry passer rating of 56.2.
STRENGTH: Rookie RB Jeremy Hill has provided a spark. The Bengals’ commitment to the run takes pressure of Dalton. Fourteen of his 17 passes went to a tight end or running back in a big win over the Broncos, a low-risk approach that goes hand-in-hand with handing it off.
“We just have a new attitude. The running game has really sparked kind of a feistiness,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
6. BALTIMORE RAVENS:
WEAKNESS: The Ravens have five cornerbacks on injured reserve, most notably Jimmy Smith, along with safety Terrence Brooks. If the Ravens don’t get pressure from sack specialists Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, the heat is on a backfield that ranked 24th against the pass.
STRENGTH: Justin Forsett ran for a career-high 1,266 yards. He gives Joe Flacco time to pick from Torrey Smith, Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. That formula enabled the Ravens to score 17 fourth-quarter points against Cleveland when Forsett had runs of 27 and 26 yards.
“To open those runs up in the fourth quarter, to finish the game, that’s what you need to do,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Especially this time of year.”
1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS:
WEAKNESS: Seattle’s O-line remains shaky in pass protection. The front five are good at opening lanes for Marshawn Lynch, but too often Russell Wilson is asked to improvise out of sheer survival.
STRENGTH: The key to the Seahawks’ stout defense is its ability to stuff the run, led by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Opponents become one-dimensional and end up having to deal with a standout secondary featuring Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
“Right now we’re playing better than we have all of last year. Guys are putting their egos to the side, guys are buying in and playing for one another,” defensive end Bruce Irvin said.
2. GREEN BAY PACKERS:
WEAKNESS: The Packers don’t travel well. They were 4-4 on the road and 8-0 at Lambeau Field. If Seattle and Green Bay win in the divisional round, the Packers’ road to the Super Bowl would go through the Great Northwest, where they were thumped 36-16 in the opener.
STRENGTH: A limping Aaron Rodgers is better than most healthy QBs. His notorious grit was especially impressive last weekend when he fought through a left calf injury to help the Packers beat Detroit. At home, Rodgers threw 36 TD passes without a single interception.
“If there was a word of a greater magnitude than respect, that’s what I have for Aaron,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said.
3. DALLAS COWBOYS:
WEAKNESS: The Cowboys aren’t getting many difference-making plays from their cornerbacks. Orlando Scandrick picked off a pair of passes and high-priced veteran Brandon Carr went without an interception for the first time in his seven-year career.
STRENGTH: Long reliant on Tony Romo, Dallas committed to the run. NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray set franchise records for carries (392) and yards (1,845) and three first-round picks on the O(asterisk)–line got Pro Bowl nods: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
“This team is completely different than some of those teams in years past,” Romo said. “We’re much better up front.”
4. CAROLINA PANTHERS:
WEAKNESS: The O-line and secondary were big problems before Ron Rivera found the right mix. However, the Panthers are relying on so much youth at key positions. Seven rookies started the last two games, and that inexperience could prove costly in the playoffs.
STRENGTH: Behind Luke Kuechly, the Panthers’ defense was dominant during a 4-0 December run. Cam Newton tends to play much better when his defense is making stops and he’s not forced into making big plays. He has won both of his starts since his auto accident.
“Sometimes it’s good to be young and dumb,” veteran safety Roman Harper said of the team’s abundance of rookies.
5. ARIZONA CARDINALS:
WEAKNESS: Arizona’s problems at quarterback may finally be too much. Carson Palmer was 6-0 before his season-ending knee injury. Effective backup Drew Stanton sprained his right knee and an infection slowed his recovery. That means Ryan Lindley gets the nod.
STRENGTH: The defense was the backbone of the team for much of the year but it is coming off its two worst performances of the season. Todd Bowles loves the blitz and brings it from all sorts of angles, relying on man coverage from his secondary.
“We can’t have those mistakes next week, because everything is on the line,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
6. DETROIT LIONS:
WEAKNESS: Detroit’s O-line has been disappointing. Matthew Stafford was sacked 45 times. The Lions have a potentially dynamic passing game with receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but their blocking problems have held the team back.
STRENGTH: The Lions held opponents to an NFL-low 69 yards rushing per game, forcing teams — even Chicago and Matt Forte on Thanksgiving — to abandon the run. Ndamukong Suh anchors the D-line and the Lions and their fans exhaled when his suspension was overturned.
“This time of year you have to be able to control the line of scrimmage,” coach Jim Caldwell said.
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