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 team in the NFC field, listed according to playoff seeding.
1) Carolina Panthers
Biggest strengths: The Panthers' defensive front seven (defensive line and linebackers) are arguably the best unit in the NFL. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly command the headlines with their spectacular play and sideline-to-sideline dominance, but Carolina's defensive line also routinely owns the line of scrimmage behind Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. The Panthersrank fourth in run defense (allowing 88.4 rushing yards per game) and sixth in sacks (44). Given the importance of creating chaos at the point of attack, the Panthers' defense is capable of sparking a deep postseason run.
Biggest weaknesses: Despite Cam Newton's MVP-caliber campaign, the Panthers' passing game remains the biggest weakness on a squad that finished the regular season with a 15-1 record and led the NFL in scoring (31.2 points per game). The team lacks a true WR1; opponents will make a concerted effort to neutralize tight end Greg Olsen (the only player who cracked 1,000 receiving yards this season) with brackets and double coverage down the field. Although Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Corey Brown have produced a handful of splash plays throughout the season, the jury is still out as to whether they can produce in a pressurized environment with a potential title on the line.
2) Arizona Cardinals
Biggest strengths: The Cardinals' high-powered offense is problematic for opponents due to their talent and depth on the perimeter. The WR corps, in particular, is full of versatile athletes capable of working between the hashes on a variety of intermediate routes (Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd) or stretching the field on an assortment of vertical routes (John Brown and J.J. Nelson). With quarterback Carson Palmer thriving as a pinpoint passer in Bruce Arians' scheme, the Cardinals' "bombs away" attack has all of the necessary components to attack defenses at every level.
Biggest weaknesses: The Cardinals' offensive line woes haven't prevented Arians' troops from lighting up scoreboards around the NFL, but the unit remains a huge question mark heading into the playoffs. Despite surrendering just 27 sacks during the regular season, the Cardinals' front line has been pummeled by ultra-athletic pass rushers off the edges. Thus, Arians could be forced to abandon his vertical passing game when facing a defense with multiple disruptors at the point of attack.
3) Minnesota Vikings
Biggest strengths: At a time when most offenses are building around their quarterbacks and dynamic passing games, the Vikings have the luxury of utilizing an old-school approach headed by workhorse runner Adrian Peterson. The three-time rushing leader remains the most dominant playmaker at the position at age 30, exhibiting a hard-hitting running style that makes him nearly impossible to contain with an eight- or nine-man front. Given the Vikings' sterling record when Peterson notches 20-plus carries (8-1) or surpasses the 100-yard mark (7-0), Peterson is the key to the team's playoff hopes.
Biggest weaknesses: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the X-factor for the Vikings heading into the tournament. The second-year pro has been an efficient game manager for the team, but he needs to become more of a playmaker for the Vikings to advance. Bridgewater needs to push the ball down the field effectively to prevent opponents from condensing the field with loaded boxes and tight coverage. If Bridgewater is unable to find a way to utilize Mike Wallace and Stefon Diggs as vertical threats, the Vikings' playoff journey could be short.
4) Washington Redskins
Biggest strengths: It is no coincidence quarterback Kirk Cousins has played well since DeSean Jackson returned to the lineup after a first half interrupted by a hamstring injury. The spectacular playmaker is the most explosive big-play receiver in the NFL, and his presence gives the Redskins one of the most dynamic WR corps in the game. With Jackson joining tight end Jordan Reed and receivers Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon on the perimeter, Cousins has a plethora of options to target to exploit the most vulnerable defender in the back end. This is a huge advantage for a team that's beginning to steamroll opponents with an electric "dink-and-dunk" passing game.
Biggest weaknesses: The Redskins' opportunistic defense has keyed their surprising playoff run by getting timely stops in key moments, but opposing coaches will attack the front line to see how well it holds up against a punishing ground attack. The Redskins surrender 4.8 rush yards per attempt, tied for 30th in the NFL, which is significant in a conference defined by physicality and toughness. Given the number of top rushing offenses (Carolina, Seattle, Minnesota and Arizona) in the NFC bracket, the Redskins' front seven will need to show opponents they can stop the run to move on in the tournament.
5) Green Bay Packers
Biggest strengths: Despite his subpar performance for most of the regular season, Aaron Rodgers remains the driving force of the Packers' playoff future. The former MVP is not only capable of getting red hot from the pocket, but he is a magical playmaker capable of helping Green Bay score points in bunches. If he can achieve synergy with an underperforming receiver corps that desperately misses Jordy Nelson, Rodgers could spark a playoff run on the heels of a pass-first offense that's a threat to find the end zone from anywhere on the field.
Biggest weaknesses: The Packers' injury-riddled offensive line has struggled against premier pass rushers. The unit surrendered 51 sacks during the regular season (fifth-most in the NFL), and the lack of solid pass protection has disrupted Rodgers' timing and rhythm from the pocket. Most importantly, the leaky pocket has forced Rodgers to quickly abandon his reads and grounded the potent aerial attack. If the Packers are unable to fix their offensive line heading into the playoffs, Green Bay could be one and done.
6) Seattle Seahawks
Biggest strengths: For all of the questions regarding the Seahawks' defense in the middle of the season, the unit remains the stingiest in the NFL. The Seahawks not only have the top scoring defense (17.3 points allowed per game), but they have the top run defense (81.5 rushing yards allowed per game) and the second-ranked pass defense (210.2 passing yards allowed per game). While the numbers certainly jump off the stat sheet, it has been the complementary play of the front seven and secondary that makes the Seahawks' defense a destructive force heading into the playoffs. From Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin wreaking havoc off the edges to Bobby Wagner pummeling opponents venturing over the middle to the "Legion of Boom" suffocating pass catchers down the field, the Seahawks trot out a dynamic defense that ranks as the best in the NFL.
Biggest weaknesses: Offensive line coach Tom Cable has worked miracles reshaping the Seahawks' line on the fly, but the unit remains a weakness on a team loaded with all-stars. The front line has struggled creating a consistent push on the ground, and its inconsistent pass protection has forced quarterback Russell Wilson to run around like a madman on the perimeter. Although the unit has shown significant improvement down the stretch, the Seahawks will have to work around the front line's flaws to make a sustained run in the postseason.