AFC playoff teams: Biggest strengths and weaknesses

With postseason play beginning this weekend, Chris Wesseling takes a straightforward look at the defining traits of each AFC playoff team.

1) New England Patriots

Biggest strength: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the most successful coach-quarterback combination of the modern era, earning twice as many No. 1 seeds as any other tandem since 1975. Since Brady overtook Drew Bledsoe for the starting job in 2001, the Patriots boast a 63-13 record (.829) in December and January -- easily the league's highest mark over that span. Brady has started 31 career playoff games, 14 more than any other quarterback in this year's postseason field. It's not just Brady's experience and past history of success that have New England sitting in the catbird seat. He actually has improved in completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD-to-INT ratio and passer rating in each of the past three seasons as he approaches age 40. An extension of Belichick on the field, Brady is the greatest quarterback in history reaching the height of his powers entering January of his 17th season.

Biggest weakness: If New England has a weakness, it's the lack of a dynamic edge rusher on the steadily improving defensive front seven. This seems like a quibble after the Patriots held the Dolphins to 14 points last week, but those two touchdowns occurred because Matt Moore had too much time to sit back and dissect the secondary. More of an interior pocket pusher, emerging force Trey Flowers leads the team with seven sacks. Although Jabaal Sheard has picked up his play since his Week 11 benching, he has managed just five sacks this season. The Patriots might lead the league in scoring defense, but the last bona fide star quarterback they faced (Russell Wilson) beat them in Week 10.

2) Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest strength: The Chiefs are an NFL-best 22-4 over their last 26 regular-season games because they don't beat themselves. They are a well-coached team that manufactures scoring opportunities with a swarming defense and a dangerous special teams unit. Led by the ballhawking tandem of safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters, the defense has forced a league-high 33 takeaways this season. The defense and special teams have accounted for eight touchdowns and 46.5 percent of Kansas City's points -- a figure equal to that of the famed 2000 Ravens defense and superior to the percentages posted by the 1985 Bears and 2015 Broncos.

Biggest weakness: The flip side of that reliance on defense and special teams is an offense that is constricted by the quarterback's inability or unwillingness to attack downfield. Although electric rookie Tyreek Hill and superstar tight end Travis Kelce have injected a much-needed playmaking element in the second half of the season, Alex Smith remains one of the most conservative passers in the league. Since the start of the 2014 season, he has the same number of touchdown passes over 20 air yards as Johnny Manziel and Mike Glennon -- and two fewer than Geno Smith.

3) Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest strength: In a down season for Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, Pittsburgh's offensive "triplets" reign supreme. Quarterbacks are ultimately judged on third-down success, red-zone prowess and their ability to lead the offense down the field with the game on the line. As Ben Roethlisberger showed in the clutch Week 16 victory over Baltimore, he's as scary as any quarterback in those situations. Le'Veon Bell's 157 yards per game are the third-most in NFL history. Antonio Brown owns the league record for most receptions (481) over a four-year span. Superstars tip the field in pro football. The Steelers have the collective power of three field-tippers on offense.

Biggest weakness: The Steelers lead the league with 25 sacks since Week 11, allowing just 17.3 points per game during their seven-game winning streak. That defensive improvement has been triggered by the rookie trio of nose tackle Javon Hargrave, cornerback Artie Burns and strong safety Sean Davis -- along with the return of 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree. Was that youth movement truly tested, though? The best offense Pittsburgh faced over the past seven weeks was a one-dimensional Buffalo attack in the snow. Will that inexperience show if the Steelers have to square off against the Chiefs or Patriots?

4) Houston Texans

Biggest strength: Even without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans finished atop the league in total defense. Jadeveon Clowney finally realized his monstrous potential as a pocket-crashing demon against the run. Whitney Mercilus is one of football's most underrated edge rushers. A.J. Bouye came out of nowhere to emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. The defense is especially frightening in Houston, limiting offenses to 16.6 points per game while posting a 7-1 home record.

Biggest weakness: The Texans enter the postseason with the fourth-worst point differential (minus-49) since divisional realignment in 2002. The reason for that disparity can be laid at the feet of Brock Osweiler, the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL this season. Houston's 25 touchdowns are the fewest by any playoff team in a non-strike-shortened season since the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978. Lacking accuracy, field vision, a streamlined delivery and the ability to attack defenses outside the numbers and down the field, Osweiler has been benched on the brink of the playoffs for two consecutive years by two different coaching staffs. Though he will be starting again on Sunday vs. the Raiders, with Tom Savage recovering from a concussion.

5) Oakland Raiders

Biggest strength: For all of the praise lavished on Dallas' offensive line, Oakland's was just as dominant in 2016, allowing the fewest sacks (18) of any team. Beyond that stellar work in the passing game, the line paved the way for a diverse, unsung backfield. The rookie tandem of Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington combined to average a gaudy 5.64 yards per carry, while Latavius Murray became the first Oakland back with double-digit rushing touchdowns since Marcus Allen in 1990. When the Raiders beat the Texans in Mexico City, running backs accounted for 199 of Derek Carr's 295 passing yards. The offensive line and backfield will have to do the heavy lifting in January.

Biggest weaknesses: Carr, an MVP candidate who broke his fibula in Week 16, will become the first quarterback in history to win 12 or more games in a season and not start in the playoffs, per NFL Media Research. With backup Matt McGloin banged up, rookie third-stringer Connor Cook will become just the second quarterback this century to start his first game of the season in the playoffs (joining Joe Webb, who did so with Minnesota back in the 2012 postseason). In Cook's case, it doubles as the first start of his NFL career. While Cook showed a live arm and made a couple of "wow" throws in relief of McGloin last week, he also fumbled twice and threw an interception in just over two quarters of action.

6) Miami Dolphins

Biggest strength: The Dolphins' most consistent strength has been a stout defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh and explosive pass rusher Cameron Wake. At the peak of his powers, though, running back Jay Ajayi has carried the team to victory -- just as he did with a 204-yard performance versus the Steelers in Week 6. If the Dolphins are going to pull off the upset against an improved Steelers squad, they need the offensive line to win the battle at the line of scrimmage while Ajayi repeats his tackle-breaking heroics in Pittsburgh.

Biggest weakness: Ryan Tannehill will not be medically cleared for Wild Card Weekend, leaving veteran signal-caller Matt Moore as the Dolphins' starter. Although Moore earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors on 18 passes exploiting a generous Jets secondary in his first start, his limitations have been apparent the past two weeks. He misfired on a series of throws just before halftime in Buffalo, costing the Dolphins a pair of field goals in the two-minute drill. His inability to stretch the field was evident in last week's loss to the Patriots, resulting in just two scores on 10 possessions. Can he stand toe-to-toe with Roethlisberger?

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