As we head into the 2015 playoffs, which teams carry the highest expectations? The lowest? And who's capable of busting up the postseason bracket? Here are my thoughts on each conference:
AFC favorite: New England Patriots (12-4)
Yes, I'm completely aware that the Patriots have lost four of their last six and Tom Brady is literally limping into the playoffs. OK, but these are the Patriots and he's Tom Brady. Brady himself has three times as many Super Bowl MVPs as AJ McCarron/Andy Dalton, Brian Hoyer and Alex Smith have combined playoff wins (one victory in seven starts). Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have plenty of postseason experience, but with Manning's eroding body (combined with 17 interceptions on just 331 attempts) and Big Ben's streak of three straight games with multiple interceptions (with the season on the line), neither is anything close to a sure bet.
The Patriots started the season with 10 straight wins, but it was only a matter of time before all the injuries caught up with Bill Belichick's bunch. Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are just a few of the key players that missed significant time in a regular season during which New England secured its sixth straight first-round bye in the playoffs. And now, with the extra week of rest, the Pats will enter the playoffs healthier than they've been for most of the season (with the notable exception of the offensive line).
AFC team no one wants to play: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
When New England lost to the Jets in Week 16, I joked on Twitter that the Patriots actually might've done themselves a favor by helping to keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. That obviously didn't play out, thanks to the Jets' Week 17 collapse in Buffalo, and now teams will have to stop the Steelers' highly explosive -- albeit inconsistent -- offense.
Mike Tomlin recently said, "We're capable of beating anyone, but we're also capable of losing to anyone." They can beat anyone because Antonio Brown is the Steph Curry of the NFL in that he can beat you from anywhere on the field. You can try to double-team him, but it's almost like you are wasting a defender because he is just going to shake both of them anyway -- his NFL record 265 receptions in the past two seasons is evidence of that. And when you do try and bracket Brown, Big Ben can chuck it up to one of the best deep-ball receivers in the NFL today, Martavis Bryant. Bryant, Sammy Watkins' teammate at Clemson, is both taller and faster than the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Bryant has become the big-bodied receiver the Steelers have been looking for ever since drafting Limas Sweed with a second-round pick in 2008. As a whole, with no disrespect to the Cardinals and Bengals, the Steelers have the best group of receivers in the NFL.
But the Steelers can lose to anyone because, even with his elite group of pass catchers, Big Ben can't shake the turnover bug. He has thrown two interceptions in each of his last three games and might be asked to carry even more of a load with DeAngelo Williams nursing a sprained ankle. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers have the 30th-ranked pass defense and often times look lost and confused in the back half of the secondary. Any unit that allows Ryan Mallett to approach 300 yards passing (after being on the roster for less than two weeks) is a major concern. Fortunately, Pittsburgh has a top-five run defense, giving up just 91 yards per game on the ground. And overall, the Steelersjust missed the top-10 in the only defensive stat that really matters -- points allowed -- yielding fewer than 20 per game.
AFC team most likely to be one-and-done: Denver Broncos (12-4)
The easier answer would be the Kansas City Chiefs, who started the season at 1-5, but it's hard to overlook the 10-game win streak that secured the fifth seed, even though only two of those 10 wins came against fellow playoff teams. So if not the Chiefs, then their opponent, the Houston Texans, right? (If for no other reason than the simple fact that they got here by way of the lowly AFC South, and even that was a challenge.) Not in this case. Traditionally, one-and-done is reserved for a team that is actually playing in the opening round of the playoffs -- rather than watching from home after earning a bye and the No. 1 overall seed in the conference field -- but when I look at the Broncos' on-field production and situation as a whole, it paints a different picture.
First off, the Broncos lack an overall identity. They hired Gary Kubiak to run his style of offense, but it was clear from Day 1 that scheme wasn't going to gel with the aging Peyton Manning. Just when they were finally turning over the offensive reins to the Manning style we have grown accustomed to, he goes down with a foot injury and the team reverts back to Kubiak's system with Brock Osweiler under center. At one point, Denver looked like a team that could win big with a dominant defense, but the Broncos were missing the other part of the equation: a solid rushing attack.
Secondly, and most importantly, the Broncos are the worst team in the 12-team playoff field in a stat that I put a lot of weight in: toxic differential. In simple terms, the stat combines the team's ability to earn and stop explosion plays while also creating takeaways and limiting turnovers. The Broncos are one of just three teams to qualify for the playoffs with a negative toxic at -4 -- 39 points behind the playoff-leading Bengals at +35. This will haunt Denver, no matter who the opponent is in the Divisional Round.
NFC favorite: Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
I have been riding the Cardinals' bandwagon all season long, and while the Week 17 dismantling at the hands of the Seahawks gave me pause, I'm not going to bail on them now. Prior to Sunday, the Cardinals were enjoying a nine-game winning streak and they maintain an impressive 4-2 record against other teams in the playoff field. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Cardinals rank No. 1 in the NFL in total yards and No. 2 in points. And with the second-most passing yards and eighth-best rushing offense, Bruce Arians and the Cardinals have the most versatile and balanced attack in the postseason. Carson Palmer has a diverse group of wide receivers led by Larry Fitzgerald, who has caught more balls this season than any other in his illustrious, 12-year career. Opposite Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd have a combined 117 receptions while both averaging better than 15 yards per catch. And David Johnson is one of the most impressive young running backs in the NFL. Being as multiple as the Cards are offensively, it makes them very hard to prepare against because they can beat you in so many ways.
The season-ending injury to Tyrann Mathieu is surely a concern, but the Cardinals' defense has risen to the occasion all year long. They didn't skip a beat when changing over from Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator. And in Arizona, Dwight Freeney has resurrected his career with a team-high eight sacks.
The path to the Super Bowl is surely easier for the Cardinals if they can avoid having to play Seattle -- a team that's beat them in five of the last seven matchups. Bruce Arians has a .708 winning percentage as a head coach, but is just 2-4 against his rival Seahawks. Avoid them and the path is cleaner.
NFC team no one wants to play: Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
Russell Wilson is in the middle of a seven-game stretch like no other QB hot streak we've seen in NFL history. Only Steve Young has enjoyed a comparable run -- in 1994 -- and even that doesn't truly compare to Wilson's 24 touchdown passes against just one interception in those seven games. (And it should be noted that Young had Jerry Rice, while Wilson has Doug Baldwin -- not exactly the same.)
I've long believed that Wilson has the ability to win from the pocket, but I wanted to see him do it during a 500-throw season. While he fell 17 attempts shy of that benchmark with 483 pass attempts, he had 31 more throws -- basically, an entire game's worth -- than his previous single-season high. Even with the increased workload, he posted career bests in completion percentage (68.1), passing yards per game (251.5) and touchdown passes (34). Let's not forget that he also carried the ball more than 100 times this season for the second time in his career. In the previous two Super Bowl appearances, this was a team carried by Marshawn Lynch and the "Legion of Boom," but this year, it is clearly Russell Wilson's team. He has proven to be worth every penny of the large extension he signed just five months ago.
But just because the team turned over the reins to Wilson, it doesn't mean that the defense rode off into the sunset. The unit still led the NFL in scoring defense -- for the fourth straight season -- giving up just 17.3 points per game. And the defense has been even better than that in the past five games, yielding just 11 points per game -- with two of those five contests coming against playoff teams in which they didn't allow double-digit points.
NFC team most likely to be one-and-done: Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
I had this penciled in last night as "the team that has to play the Seahawks" -- Minnesota was the unlucky winner of the NFC North. Think about that: The winner of the division actually got a worse draw in the playoffs than the wild-card Packers, who got the much easier pull in Washington (yes, even though they have to hit the road). I've long been an advocate of reseeding the postseason -- not changing the structure, just reseeding the order of the field once it has been set. In my reseeding, the 9-7 Redskins would take the sixth seed and travel to Minnesota, while the Packers (who beat Seattle in Week 2) would become the fourth seed and host the No. 5 Seahawks. That seems much more appropriate in my opinion.