The 2015 NFL playoffs are upon us. Beginning this weekend, the top teams in the NFC and AFC will fight for the right to meet in Super Bowl 50. Before the action kicks off with Wild Card Weekend, I thought I'd examine the strengths and weaknesses of all 12 playoff teams, in an effort to paint a more complete picture of the combatants about to square off for football's ultimate prize. Below, you'll find the strengths and weaknesses of each squad in the AFC field, listed according to playoff seeding.
1) Denver Broncos
Biggest strengths: The Broncos are one of the few teams in the NFL with a stable of premier pass rushers and cover corners. As a result, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' troops not only lead the NFL in sacks (52), but they've also surrendered the fewest passing yards (199.6 per game) in the league. With DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller wreaking havoc off the edges and Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby suffocating opponents down the field, opposing quarterbacks will face long odds moving the ball through the air.
Biggest weaknesses: Denver's offensive-line play has been spotty all season, due to constant reshuffling and inexperience up front. The offensive tackles, in particular, have struggled to keep pass rushers off the quarterback (see: Khalil Mack's five-sack performance in Week 14 and Carlos Dunlap's three-sack effort in Week 16). Especially if the relatively immobile Peyton Manning is the starter, the line's inability to protect the passer could ground the aerial attack.
2) New England Patriots
Biggest strengths: As long as the Patriots have Tom Brady in place, they have a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The three-time Super Bowl MVP not only has a knack for elevating the play of an unheralded receiving corps, but he is a clutch performer adept at winning big games, and he has a penchant for making key plays in critical moments. Considering Brady's unstoppable connection with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman (who could return to the field for the first time since breaking a bone in his footin Week 10), the Patriots' passing game could spark another deep postseason run. Of course, much depends on Brady being able to shake off a high ankle sprain suffered in the regular-season finale.
Biggest weaknesses: Brady took a pounding in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins -- remember, that ankle sprain came on a hit by Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- and there is no question the Patriots' offensive line is the team's biggest question mark heading into the tournament. Although Brady's ultra-quick release masks the leaky pass protection, the constant harassment could keep him from thriving in the pocket.
3) Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest strengths: The Bengals' diverse offense been a thorn in the side of defensive coordinators around the NFL. Hue Jackson's creativity has meshed with one of the most talented lineups in football to produce an electric unit that ranks seventh in scoring (26.2 points per game) behind one of the most efficient passing offenses in football (their passer rating of 104.1 ranks second in the NFL, behind only the Seattle Seahawks' 109.8). Yes, backup AJ McCarron has been thrust into a pivotal role by the broken thumb suffered by starter Andy Daltonin Week 14, but the presence of A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the perimeter will allow the Bengals' offense to roll, even with a relatively inexperienced triggerman at the helm.
Biggest weaknesses: The Bengals lack a glaring weakness from a personnel standpoint, but their emotional control and discipline could prevent them from moving on in the tournament. The defense, in particular, is loaded with temperamental playmakers (like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones) with high-revving emotions. While the unit plays on a string on each level, the occasional lack of discipline and emotional control has resulted in Cincinnati ranking near the top of the NFL in penalties. Given the significant impact of penalties, particularly personal fouls, the Bengals must keep their cool or run the risk of short-circuiting their playoff run via a lack of composure.
4) Houston Texans
Biggest strengths: The Texans have surged into the postseason on the strength of a championship-caliber defense loaded with eight former first-rounders. Although J.J. Watt commands most of the attention with his spectacular dominance along the front, it has been the solid contributions of an air-tight secondary that could test the mettle of quarterbacks throughout the playoffs. If cornerbacks Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson continue to prevent deep balls from flying over their heads, it is going to be hard to knock Houston off.
Biggest weaknesses: Credit coach Bill O'Brien for guiding the Texans to the AFC South title with one of the shakiest quarterback situations in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a decent game manager, but questions persist as to whether he has the goods to make the plays that count in the postseason. With defensive coordinators intent on taking away the easy throws in the playoffs, we will soon see if Hoyer can handle the pressure of acting as the primary playmaker.
5) Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest strengths: The Chiefs are streaking into the playoffs behind a defense led by a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate (cornerback Marcus Peters) on the verge of becoming a premier playmaker on the island. The rookie notched eight interceptions and 26 passes defensed as the NFL's most targeted defender. Most importantly, he teamed with Sean Smith to suffocate receivers with an ultra-aggressive style. Considering Justin Houston, who has been out since Week 12 with a hyperextended knee, plans to rejoin fellow disruptive edge rusher Tamba Hali in the lineup Saturday, Kansas City should be able to provide the kind of frenetic pressure that could force a few wayward passes in the rookie's direction.
Biggest weaknesses: Though the Chiefs boast one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL, their offensive line is a major concern heading into the tournament. Andy Reid's front line surrendered 46 sacks (tied for sixth most in the NFL) during the regular season and struggled mightily against ferocious pass rushers off the edges. Given those woes, the spotlight is squarely on offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Jah Reid to hold their own in one-on-one matchups. How well they fare could impact whether quarterback Alex Smith has a chance to make plays from the pocket.
6) Pittsburgh Steelers
Biggest strengths: The Steelers' explosive WR corps would pose a huge challenge for every defense in the tournament. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are not only polished route runners with explosive stop-start quickness, but they are legitimate vertical threats capable of taking the top off the defense from the slot or flanks in spread formations. The potential absence of veteran running back DeAngelo Williams -- who suffered a foot injury in Week 17 -- could prompt the Steelers to take a one-dimensional offensive approach, meaning the trio could routinely post "triple-triples" (each receiver surpasses the 100-yard mark in a game) in the postseason.
Biggest weaknesses: Mike Tomlin's decision to shift to a zone-heavy defense has helped the Steelers generate more takeaways, but the transition to a "see ball, get ball" set of coverages hasn't prevented quarterbacks from racking up big totals through the air. Although the Steelers have come up with key plays at critical moments, their inability to slow down prolific aerial attacks could prevent their otherwise scary team from advancing. With the onus falling on the shoulders of the back seven to shut down the passing lanes, Pittsburgh's playoff fate could hinge on Tomlin's ability to get his secondary to maintain discipline down the field.