Well, the playoff field is set, with 12 teams remaining in the race for the Lombardi Trophy. Who will make it to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX? Who will be abruptly eliminated from contention? Here are my initial thoughts on the 2014 postseason:
Favorite: New England Patriots (12-4)
While many people say NFL stands for "Not For Long," the Patriots have been the definition of consistency. They just won the AFC East for the sixth straight season -- and the 11th time in the past 12 years -- earning a fifth straight first-round bye in the process. Unfortunately, New England also has displayed some unwanted consistency in the playoffs: The Patriots have lost in the AFC title game in each of the last two seasons and they've lost to the Giants in each of their last two Super Bowl appearances. Luckily for them, the Giants won't be an obstacle -- but that certainly doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, as they look to win their fourth Super Bowl together (and first in a decade).
The AFC field is littered with contenders; you could make a legitimate argument for each of the six participants. That said, I favor the Patriots because of their ability to beat you in multiple ways. Offensively, Brady is as good as ever, throwing 33 touchdown passes (against just nine interceptions) with a youthful receiving corps that he broke in as the season progressed. One week, it's Tim Wright with five catches and two touchdowns; the next week, Brandon LaFell's the preferred red zone target with five catches and two touchdowns. Similarly, in the backfield, the Patriots can hit you with the physicality of LeGarrette Blount or the shiftiness of Shane Vereen. In fact, New England had a different rushing leader in each of the past three games. Defensively, the Pats shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 without missing a beat. My overall point: No NFL team is better at playing to the matchup and exposing the opponent's biggest weakness.
Team no one wants to play: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Steelers missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but one thing's pretty clear: When they do reach the postseason, they typically make the most of it. Pittsburgh has made the Super Bowl in three of its last five playoff appearances -- winning the whole enchilada in 2005 and '08.
This year's Steelers -- although somewhat inconsistent from week to week -- are capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. And as a coach, that type of team keeps me up at night more so than a team with a daunting defense and a "take what you give me" type of offense. The Steelersrank seventh in scoring and have eclipsed 40 points on three separate occasions this season -- including once against the Ravens, Pittsburgh's first-round opponent. The Ravens and Steelers split their head-to-head matchups this year, with the home team winning in lopsided fashion each time. Pittsburgh will have the home-field advantage on Saturday night and is a perfect 3-0 all-time against Baltimore in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger is 10-4 in his playoff career, and he has more weapons at his disposal this season than in any other. Antonio Brown led the NFL with a whopping 129 receptions -- the second-highest total in NFL history. And Martavis Bryant has emerged as a big-play threat, piling up the second-most touchdown receptions ever for a Steelers rookie with eight. And then there's Le'Veon Bell, who just set a franchise record with 2,215 yards from scrimmage -- but who also left Sunday's game with a knee injury. The star back's status will be closely monitored all week.
Bottom line: This team is littered with talent and has an elite quarterback at the helm. Don't be surprised if the Steelers run the table.
Most likely to be one-and-done: Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts have struggled with consistency this season, but they pulled the best draw they could have hoped for in the Wild Card Round. Indianapolis will host Cincinnati, one of the two playoff teams the Colts beat during the regular season. And Indy completely bludgeoned Cincy in that Week 7 game, outgaining the Bengals 506-135 in total yards and prevailing 27-0. Andrew Luck threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns, while the backs racked up 171 rushing yards.
Not so fast, though: There are two glaring differences between then and now. First, the Colts of mid-October still had Ahmad Bradshaw, arguably their most important player outside of Andrew Luck. Bradshaw had two touchdowns in that win over Cincinnati, but he landed on season-ending IR after breaking his leg three games later. On the flip side, A.J. Green missed the game with an injured toe. (Of course, Green reportedly entered the league's concussion protocol after taking a vicious hit on Sunday and could be inactive again this week.) Furthermore, the Bengals were still trying to figure out how to integrate Jeremy Hill into the backfield back in Week 7. Now Hill and Giovani Bernard arguably form the most talented RB tandem in the league.
As I mentioned earlier, the Colts only beat two playoff teams in the entire regular season. But more importantly, four of their five losses came against postseason clubs -- and Indy gave up at least 30 points in each defeat, including 42-plus in the last three. At first glance, you'd blame the defense. But this is an offense that routinely put the club in bad spots, ranking 29th in turnovers. The Colts' minus-5 turnover differential is the only negative ratio in the entire playoff field. All things considered, I think don't think Indianapolis' 2014 playoff run will last more than 60 game minutes.
Favorite: Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Defending Super Bowl champions haven't fared well in recent years, with four of the last eight teams not even making the playoffs in the following season and the other four losing their first postseason game. The Seahawks are breaking that trend.
Since starting 3-3, the Seahawks have won nine of their last 10, proving dominant at home yet again. They are 7-1 in Seattle this season and 24-2 at home since 2012. CenturyLink Field is the toughest place to play in the NFL and, once again, the NFC road to the Super Bowl will run through it. Not only that, but the Seahawks played five games against teams that qualified for the NFC playoffs in 2014 -- they won four of them. Seattle beat the Packers, Panthers and Cardinals (twice), with the loss coming against the Cowboys back in Week 6.
Pete Carroll and Co. will try and tell you that they limited Marshawn Lynch early in the season because they wanted him fresh for the playoff run, but I think they were trying to prove to themselves that they could do it without him. Then they sent Percy Harvin packing and it was almost as if they were trying to strip Russell Wilson of all the tools that made him so good last season. But Seattle has gotten the ball back in the hands of Lynch and adapted the passing system to get Wilson outside of the pocket with run/pass options, which is when he is at his best. Still, I firmly believe that to win the Super Bowl, as Wilson did last year, he must do it from within the pocket. So moving forward in this postseason, that will be the Seahawks' biggest challenge.
Team no one wants to play: Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
Just like in the AFC, the team that can score points in a variety of ways is the team that scares opposing coaches. Dallas wasn't too far away from claiming the No. 1 seed, and this is the only team in the entire playoff field with a win over Seattle in 2014. But it is the way this team is built that is more impressive than anything else. These Cowboys mimic Dallas' dynasty teams of the 1990s, with Tony Romo playing the part of Troy Aikman, DeMarco Murray as Emmitt Smith and Dez Bryant as Michael Irvin. In fact, this team might be even better on offense. Murray just broke Smith's single-season franchise rushing record and is much more dynamic as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Bryant, with his 15th and 16th touchdown receptions on Sunday, broke Terrell Owens' single-season mark in Dallas. Lastly, Romo is coming off a nearly-perfect month of December in which he threw 12 touchdown passes to just one interception, making himself a legitimate MVP candidate. The Cowboys have scored 30-plus points in six of their last seven games, topping 40 in three of the last four.
The defense turned in a historically bad season in 2013, allowing opponents to score 30-plus points in seven different games. The unit only yielded such point totals twice this season, incorporating more of a bend-but-don't-break mentality. I'll be shocked if the Cowboys don't make it out of the first round. After that, they'd potentially face back-to-back road games against Green Bay and Seattle. Not an easy route to the Super Bowl, but this team cannot be overlooked.
Most likely to be one-and-done: Detroit Lions (11-5)
It almost seems like a cop-out to pick the lowest NFC seed in this category, but when you consider Matthew Stafford is 0-16 in his career on the road against teams with winning records, it's hard to not pick the Lions. Detroit, of course, must travel to Dallas this weekend and play a team that is as hot as anyone right now. Oh, and did I mention that the most crucial defensive player, Ndamukong Suh, has been suspended for the game in the wake of another stomping incident? Yeah, that kinda puts a damper on the fact that the Lions enter the playoffs with the league's No. 1 rushing defense and No. 2 overall D.
Here's the other problem: To win with a great defense in the playoffs, you must also have a dominant running game. The Lions, simply put, are terrible on the ground, ranking 28th in the NFL with an average of just 88.9 yards per game.
With Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson, the Lions have the raw receiving talent to put up large sums of points -- but they have yet to actually do it. Detroit's averaging just 20.1 points per game. I just can't see this squad keeping up with a Cowboys team that is posting 29.2 points per game -- an average that seems far more attainable without Suh on the other side of the ball.