1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have simply dominated the second half of the season, winning 8 of their last 9 games (including 5 straight). They are really starting to look like last year’s Super Bowl team, which is hard for the rest of the league to hear, but it is accurate. Russell Wilson is impossible to defend with his mobility, and Marshawn Lynch seems to have reached a new gear. They are going to be very difficult to bring down especially with home field advantage.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots, like the Seahawks, are looking at home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not only have the Patriots gone unbeaten at home, but they have won nearly all of them (except against the Jets, for some odd reason) in blowout fashion. Not many teams have a chance when they go into Foxborough, and now that it’s the playoffs, even just an opportunity for victory will be much harder to come by for any team that has to venture North. The Broncos shakiness has further widened the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC.
3. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have given their fans a couple of panic attacks in the last few weeks, by losing a shocking game to the Buffalo Bills and with Aaron Rodgers suffering a calf injury against the Lions. He did come back and win the game, but he is not at 100%. Despite the fact that the Packers have jogged their home stretch of the regular season (by their standards), we can’t ignore what this team is made of. The four-headed monster of an offense (aka Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson) is capable of taking apart any defense, but lets just hope that Rodgers is ready to go.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Rather than crash and burn, the Cowboys have accelerated in the month of December. This is not something the rest of the League is accustomed to seeing, as the talent of this team has clearly molded. The beatdown of the Indianapolis Colts illustrated how dangerous they can be going forward, and what’s more is that they expect to be where they are, after many heartbreak seasons. An early round exit is not on the Cowboys agenda.
5. Denver Broncos
It might be time to worry about the Broncos, as Peyton Manning’s average play has continued. Against the Bengals, Peyton Manning got the ball back with under two minutes to play, down less than a touchdown. How would you think this story ends? I would jump to the conclusion that Peyton would march down the field and take the lead. Instead, he threw a Pick 6 in what would be his 4th interception of the day. His recent play is cause for concern, but don’t think that the Broncos are dead. We will see if the Broncos can ride their Week 17 blowout win over the Raiders into the playoffs.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
You can’t ignore the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are a darkhorse Super Bowl contender in this years playoffs. When you have a run game so well established AND Big Ben has weapons, there is no limit to how far the Steelers can go. Le’Veon Bell has become the workhorse on the ground, and Antonio Brown, one of the league’s top receivers, has been paired with a talented rookie receiver in Martavis Bryant to make Pitt’s passing game lethal.
7. Carolina Panthers
While analyzing each playoff team, we have to keep in mind one certain factor that can completely shake up how each team stacks up. That one factor is momentum. The Carolina Panthers are 15-3 in December under Ron Rivera, and have looked among the best in the League in the last few weeks by finding continuity in the offensive line and the run game, and young players emerging in a big way on Defense. Cam Newton has taken control of the game and has returned to Superman form. He and the Panthers have battled through injuries and adversity and have somehow won the NFC South after embarrassing the Falcons 34-3 in Atlanta. This team has a full head of steam at the right time and they will get a home playoff game against the stumbling Arizona Cardinals.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
This will be Andy Dalton’s fourth year as a starter in the NFL. It will also be his fourth straight trip to the playoffs, and he is one of only a handful of Quarterbacks to start his career in that fashion. But now it is time for Andy Dalton to find success in the postseason. With a late season win over the Denver Broncos, there is no excuse for this team to not beat the stumbling Indianapolis Colts and to finally find some playoff success.
9. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts don’t have a quality win since late October, which can be accredited to a very easy schedule but also to highly inconsistent play. Since October, the Colts have won the easy games and lost the tough games, which does not look like a solid formula for playoff success. Andrew Luck has to manage his turnovers better for this offense to be able to succeed. They got blown out by the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16 and had to pull Luck halfway through the game. The Colts enter the postseason with home field advantage, but looking like playoff pretenders.
10. Baltimore Ravens
As veteran Wide Receiver Steve Smith put it, the Ravens “expect to win the Super Bowl”. Once the Ravens get in, they are always dangerous. They have a top 10 Defense that can give a banged up Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh run game problems as well as a solid Offense led by a playoff-minded Joe Flacco. However, the Ravens haven’t beaten a good, playoff-caliber team since late September. Going to Pittsburgh to try to take down Big Ben and the Number 1 Offense in the League is going to be very difficult for this team.
11. Detroit Lions
The Lions have taken care of business by sealing a playoff spot for the first time since 2011. They have a lot of talent on offense, and it mostly runs well when Calvin Johnson is healthy. They have won 4 of their last 5, but their wins come against subpar teams and they have not been totally convincing. They are dealing with the drama surrounding Ndamukong Suh, who appeared to purposely step on Aaron Rodgers leg twice and was suspended for the playoff game. A loss to the Packers drops them to the 6th seed, and they will have to play the Cowboys in Dallas in the Wild Card Round. This matchup will feature the Cowboys impenetrable Offensive line against a stout Lions run defense.
12. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals started the season as the silent killers, but Carson Palmer’s injury and the complicated Quarterback situation has, to an extent, derailed this team. They have depth, but that depth is seriously being tested at Quarterback. After losing 4 of their last 6 including one to an emotionally checked out 49ers team in the final game of the regular season, they are not looking too good. The bright side for the Cardinals is that they are facing a team in the playoffs that has a losing record, but that team happens to be the Carolina Panthers who are among the hottest teams in the NFL.
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