On Tuesday, I examined the biggest strengths and weaknesses for each NFC playoff team. Now it's time to take a look at the AFC field (with teams ordered by postseason seeding):
1) New England Patriots
Harrison: Power Rankings
What does the pecking order look like with the regular season behind us and the postseason on tap? Elliot Harrison weighs in. READ
Biggest strength: When Bill Belichick added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to the secondary in the offseason, he immediately transformed the Patriots' defense into a championship-caliber unit. New England can blanket opposing pass catchers with suffocating man-to-man coverage on the outside, allowing Belichick to devote more resources to stopping the run or getting after the passer with a variety of pressures. In addition, the Patriots can get back to playing the combination coverage that was a staple of the playbook during the early 2000s, helping the team win three Super Bowls in four years. With the defense capable of keeping opponents out of the end zone (New England allows just 19.6 points per game, ranking eighth in the NFL), Belichick can finally play the kind of well-rounded football that produces postseason wins.
Biggest weakness: Despite the Patriots' impressive offensive output, the lack of dangerous wide receivers on the perimeter remains an issue. While the numbers suggest that Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are capable pass catchers on the outside, their inability to stretch the field will allow defenses to employ bracket/double coverage on Rob Gronkowski while loading the box to the stop the run. Given the fact that most defensive coordinators aim to take away the offense's most explosive weapon in the playoffs, the Pats' postseason livelihood could depend on the ability of Edelman and LaFell to beat one-on-one coverage on the perimeter.
2) Denver Broncos
Biggest strength:Peyton Manning's presence on the roster routinely overshadows John Fox's coaching prowess, but the wily head man's decision to shape the Broncos into a more balanced outfit has made them a more dangerous postseason threat. Since an embarrassing loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 11, Denver has increasingly relied on the combination of a strong running game and stifling defense to overwhelm opponents. While the approach lacks sizzle and sex appeal, it is the type of formula teams have used for years to claim the Lombardi Trophy. Given the recent struggles of his veteran quarterback -- Manning threw four interceptions in a Week 16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals -- Fox's move to a more balanced approach could help the Broncos hold their own against the physical teams poised to challenge them in the AFC.
Biggest weakness: It's crazy to view Manning as a liability, considering his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but the five-time MVP has struggled down the stretch. He's looked jittery in the pocket and hasn't displayed the arm strength or velocity needed to make pinpoint throws down the field. With the veteran turning the ball over more than usual (Manning had a 3:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in December), it is possible that the Broncos' unquestioned leader has suddenly become their biggest liability.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
Biggest strength: The "Killer B's" (Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) make the Steelers' offense an explosive juggernaut under the direction of coordinator Todd Haley. No QB/RB/WR trio was more productive in the regular season: Roethlisberger finished tied for the most passing yards in the NFL, Bell ranked second in rushing yards and Brown led the league in receiving yards. Although Bell's knee injury threatens to rob the Steelers of their most versatile weapon, the Big Ben-Brown passing connection is still capable of fueling a Steelers run in January.
Biggest weakness: The Steelers' secondary is the only liability on a defense that's rounding into form. The unit has been victimized by the big play, allowing 15 receptions of 40-plus yards -- second-most in the NFL. The inability to keep the ball in front of the defense could be a problem against an elite quarterback and a dangerous receiving corps. While the injuries to Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu have contributed to Pittsburgh's woes, the aging veterans have struggled in coverage even when on the field. Factor in the Steelers' failure to generate a consistent pass rush, and it's clear that coordinator Dick LeBeau must hope his defensive backs can hold up against a barrage of throws on the perimeter.
4) Indianapolis Colts
Biggest strength: The Colts have unfairly placed the weight of the world on a third-year pro still adjusting to the NFL. But Andrew Luck has shown he's a borderline elite quarterback capable of carrying the offensive load on the strength of his right arm. Luck has engineered 12 game-winning drives during his brief career, and he's also shown he can take his game to another level in the postseason (see: the second half of last season's thrilling wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs). Given the importance of quarterback play in the postseason, the presence of a confident gunslinger gives the Colts a chance to prevail.
Biggest weakness: The individual brilliance of Luck has masked some of the Colts' offensive deficiencies, particularly the lack of a steady running game. The Pro Bowl quarterback has been able to single-handedly carry the offense over the last four months, but playoff success requires a balanced approach. While Trent Richardson and Boom Herron have occasionally produced, the Colts are missing the backfield stud who forces opponents to utilize eight-man fronts. Without a ground threat to take defenses out of coverage-heavy schemes, Luck and Co. might have a tough time moving the ball against the better defenses in the postseason.
5) Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest strength: The Bengals have an impressive collection of talent on the offensive side of the ball. The team boasts one of the top receivers in the NFL (A.J. Green) while also featuring a two-time Pro Bowl tight end (Jermaine Gresham) and a dynamic tandem in the backfield (Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard). The explosiveness and versatility of the lineup allows coordinator Hue Jackson to use a variety of schemes that make it nearly impossible to slow the offense when it's firing on all cylinders. With Jackson also willing to incorporate trick plays (reverses, double-passes and flea-flickers) into the game plan, opponents are forced to defend every inch of the field.
Biggest weakness: For all of the talent Marvin Lewis has acquired on offense, the biggest question mark remains at the quarterback position. While Andy Dalton must be given credit for guiding the Bengals to four straight playoff berths, he has underperformed in prime time, particularly in the postseason. From his errant tosses to his questionable decisions, Dalton's subpar play has kept Cincinnati from taking the next step and becoming a true AFC contender. If the Bengals are going to make a serious run at the conference crown this January, Dalton will have to play better.
6) Baltimore Ravens
Biggest strength: The clever scheming of coordinator Gary Kubiak allowed Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett to flourish throughout most of 2014. Kubiak's well-constructed game plan, which leans heavily on the outside zone and various bootlegs, has not only given opponents fits, but it has helped the Ravens' offense become an explosive unit capable of producing "chunk" plays through the air or on the ground. Of course, the attack waned some down the stretch, lacking rhythm and consistency over the past few weeks, but Baltimore has the personnel and coaching to get back on track in a hurry. Balance is essential to success in the postseason, and the Ravens' diverse offensive approach could give them a chance to make another deep run.
Biggest weakness: The Ravens' pass defense has been abysmal due to the revolving door at cornerback. The team has played most of the season without quality playmakers on the perimeter, and an inability to hold up in man coverage has prevented Baltimore from unleashing the kind of all-out pressure that disrupts the timing and rhythm of talented quarterbacks. Although the Ravens will attempt to mask their coverage deficiencies with various blitz-and-bluff tactics, the presence of several dangerous aerial combos (Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski, Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown and Peyton Manning-Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, to name a few) in the AFC playoffs could make it hard for Baltimore to advance without better play from a patchwork secondary.