NFL Playoff Preview: Why any team could win

Will the top seeds roll through, or will there be surprises in this year's NFL playoff bracket?
WASHINGTON — The NFL Playoffs begin this weekend, with perhaps the most wide open field we’ve seen in quite some time. While many of the usual suspects are here — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson to name a few — each come with additional questions and injury baggage. It’s hard to pin any team as a prohibitive favorite, even within their own conference. So in that spirit, George Wallace, Rob Woodfork and I have compiled a case for each of the 12 teams with a chance to potentially win Super Bowl 50. (AP, Getty)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) out runs Baltimore Ravens defensive back Shareece Wright (35) during the first half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Pittsburgh Steelers — AFC #6 seed The rest of the AFC (especially Cincinnati) should be pissed at the Jets for allowing Pittsburgh into the tournament. The third-ranked Steelers offense is explosive and (for every team outside Baltimore) unstoppable, surely capable of racking up more than their 26.4 points-per-game average. They may need to, given their struggles on defense. Player to watch: DeAngelo Williams The 32 year-old running back has filled in admirably for Le’Veon Bell, tallying 907 yards and 11 TDs in his stead. Williams suffered a foot sprain in the season finale so his status for Saturday — and the playoffs — will be key to Pittsburgh’s ability to make a run to the Super Bowl (pun intended). Path to glory: Drawing the Bengals in the wild card is everything Pittsburgh could ask for: a third crack at a division opponent you own, with a backup QB and a huge monkey on their back (no playoff wins since 1990). From there, they’ll see a Denver team with a broken (Manning) or inexperienced (Osweiler) QB, and either the injury-riddled Patriots or the solid-yet-unspectacular Chiefs. This is one of the rare instances in which a 6-seed is actually a Super Bowl favorite. — Rob Woodfork (AP Photo/Gail Burton) (AP/Gail Burton)
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) catches a pass for a touchdown in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Jimmie Ward during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Seattle Seahawks — NFC #6 seed This is a team that knows what it takes to win. They have been to the last two Super Bowls and are playing at a real high level right now. They blasted division rival Arizona on the road last week and enter the playoffs on a roll. This is a team nobody wants to play, and that has the best Vegas odds of any Wild Card team to win it all at 7-1. Marshawn Lynch is “full go” at practice and is expected to start Sunday. He hasn’t played since Nov. 15 and underwent abdomen surgery on Nov. 25. The Seattle defense is still number one in points against, at just 17.3 a game. Player to watch: Tyler Lockett The rookie wide receiver has had pretty good inaugural season with 51 receptions and 664 yards along with six touchdowns. The air attack is led by Doug Baldwin, but Lockett is a great compliment and another weapon for Russell Wilson. He has had a decent December, but had a season-high seven catches in the first meeting between the two teams this year, a 38-7 win in Minnesota. Look for him to have an impact on Sunday. Path to glory: The Seahawks will have to be on the road for the entire NFC Playoffs being the sixth seed. This team has been long known for its great home field advantage, but with the confidence it has, they don’t fear anything. They have a very realistic shot of making the Super Bowl for a third straight year. — George Wallace (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws against the Oakland Raiders during the first half of their NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Jan, 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs — AFC #5 seed This is the hottest team in the league, entering the postseason on an epic 10-game win streak on the heels of a deflating 1-5 start. The defense has been stout, ranking seventh in the league, and has given up just 12.8 points per game over the streak. If the offense holds up its end of the bargain, it could be a deep run for the Chiefs in a wide open AFC. Player to watch: Alex Smith Smith has seldom led us to believe he’s anything more than a “game manager.” He’s good but not great. But we said the same thing about Joe Flacco in 2012 before he had an MVP-level postseason run to carry Baltimore to a Super Bowl. Smith has a 108.6 QB rating in three career postseason appearances but will need to do better than his 57.6 completion percentage if he’s going to elevate the Chiefs offense to championship heights. Path to glory: Of the Wild Card teams, KC has perhaps the easiest path; they should easily beat Houston and then they’ll go to either New England or Denver to face a team 1) coming off a bye and 2) limping into the playoffs. Even better if it’s the Broncos, since they’re a division rival with questions at QB. There’s a chance the Chiefs not only get to the AFC title game — they might even host it. — Rob Woodfork (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann) (AP/Reed Hoffmann)
at Lambeau Field on January 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Green Bay Packers — NFC #5 seed The Pack are one of the many teams in this postseason that has experience, and that counts for a lot. They also have a guy named Aaron Rogers. This team stumbled into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak and has struggled as of late. They cannot protect Rogers and the defense has struggled, outside of Julius Peppers and Clay Mathews. Head coach Mike McCarthy says his team’s confidence is “high” and they are embracing the underdog mentality, something that has rarely been the case for this team. The Packers are, as of now, the only road playoff team that is not favored this week. Player to watch: Aaron Rogers You can never count him out. He’s a winner and a Super Bowl Champion. Yes, Green Bay has struggled as of late, but Rogers’ ability to extend plays makes him and this offense very dangerous. If he is on and able to use his feet to create, the Redskins could be in trouble. Path to glory: The Packers’ only chance to host a playoff game would be against Seattle, since Green Bay is the fifth seed. If they beat the Redskins, they will have to go on the road to Arizona or Carolina. That’s a tough road ahead, but if you can get home for a late January game at Lambeau, my money is on Green Bay. — George Wallace (Getty Images/Wesley Hitt) (Getty Images/Wesley Hitt)
HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Alfred Blue #28 of the Houston Texans breaks the tackle of Dan Skuta #55 of the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 3, 2016 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Houston Texans — AFC #4 seed What if I told you there was a team that had won seven of its last nine, including three of four on the road, and had not given up a single touchdown in five of those wins? Would that sound like a team built for the playoffs? Houston may feel like the darkest of horses in this year’s field, but the Texans come in playing some of their best football of the season. For a team that is often thought of as having a permanent quarterback carousel, they are actually 15th in passing touchdowns and have one of the most dynamic receivers in the game in DeAndre Hopkins. Player to watch: Alfred Blue Ever since Arian Foster got hurt, Houston has been looking for consistency in its running game to help keep the safeties honest and open up the passing game. They may have finally found their feature back in Blue, who reached 20 carries in two of the past three games and surpassed 100 yards in each. In fact, Houston in 4-0 when he gets at least 20 carries, and he’s gone for better than 100 in three of those games. Path to glory: It’s a tough road for Houston to hoe, but at least they’ll start at home. A defensive bloodbath with Denver could be anyone’s game, and if the Texans can avoid New England (who dealt them their worst loss of the year) in the AFC title game, they already know they can shut down Cincinnati, even with Dalton, after holding them to six points on the road. Like always, it will be up to that defense, led by J.J. Watt, to make it happen. — Noah Frank (Getty Images/Scott Halleran) (Getty Images/Scott Halleran)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 26: Jordan Reed #86 of the Washington Redskins runs past Walter Thurmond #26 of the Philadelphia Eagles on December 26, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Redskins defeated the Eagles 38-24. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jordan Reed;Walter Thurmond
Washington Redskins — NFC #4 seed You want to be playing your best football heading into the playoffs, and this team is doing just that. The offense continues to get better each week and Kirk Cousins continues to exceed expectations. He is throwing touchdowns and no interceptions. The quarterback broke the single-season franchise record for yards and completions this year. He also threw 29 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, only two of which came in the last eight games. The defense has been patchwork, especially in the secondary, but credit Scot McCloughan for finding the right mix of guys that can step in and help immediately. Player to watch: Jordan Reed Teams cannot cover him, plain and simple.  He had 11 touchdowns and 87 catches this season. Defenses chose to double DeSean Jackson, which left Reed with linebackers trying to cover him. He became a favorite target of Kirk Cousins down the stretch and teams found it very hard to stop him. Path to glory: They probably have the toughest road ahead. A win over Green Bay would send the Redskins to Carolina or Arizona. If somehow the Redskins get to the NFC Championship game against Seattle, it would be at FedEx Field since Seattle is the sixth seed and Washington the fourth. To me, Seattle is the scariest team out there right now, so being at home would help, but still would be very tough. — George Wallace (Getty Images/Mitchell Leff) (Getty Images/Mitchell Leff)
Cincinnati Bengals — AFC #3 seed It all started so promisingly for Cincinnati, jumping out to an 8-0 start, including wins over three playoff teams. And though the season didn’t completely collapse, it’s been a struggle since Andy Dalton went down. But the defense has been steady, ranking third in interceptions and 10th in sacks to help keep them in games. Player to watch: Jeremy Hill While receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert get much of the attention, Hill has quietly emerged and surpassed Giovanni Bernard as the lead back in Cincinnati. He’s had 15 or more carries in five of the past six weeks and eight of the past 11. The Bengals are 7-1 in those eight games, and 6-0 this season when Hill finds paydirt. Path to glory: The Bengals have lost in the Wild Card game four straight and five out of the past six seasons. They get a chance to break through against the hated Steelers, and should get Dalton back for to face the Pats if they do. They were 10-2 with the Red Rifle as a starter before he got hurt against, you guessed it, the Steelers. Bolstered by the league’s second-leading scoring defense, if they can get over that first hump, the Bengals could sneak up on everyone. — Noah Frank (Getty Images/Andrew Weber) (Andrew Weber)
at Lambeau Field on January 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Minnesota Vikings — NFC #3 seed After dethroning the Packers from the top of the AFC North last week at Lambeau, Minnesota gets to go home and face the sixth seed in the NFC, the Seahawks. Not your average sixth seed, I might add. The Vikings have been up and down and despite playing well, Teddy Bridgewater is still a young quarterback with no playoff experience. Their run might be a short one. Player to watch: Adrian Peterson Despite the lack of playoff experience this team has, they do have the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. He has proved that he can put a team on his back and carry it. He might have to do that against a good Seattle defense. He really wants a Super Bowl title, and has said his career will be incomplete without one. Path to glory: The road for the Vikings isn’t an easy one at all. A win over Seattle would earn them a road game at #2 seed Arizona. The Vikings could host a championship game against the Redskins or Packers — and don’t think they wouldn’t love that, especially because they are still playing outdoors and this week’s high is going to be 1 degree! — George Wallace (Getty Images/Wesley Hitt) (Getty Images/Wesley Hitt)
during the second half of the NFL game at AT&T Stadium on October 11, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.
New England Patriots — AFC #2 seed After winning the first 10 games of the season, New England’s long litany of injuries finally caught up with them. The Pats were beaten by Denver in what proved to be the tiebreaker for home field advantage and lost four of their final six, including division defeats at the Jets and Dolphins to end the year. But they’ve still got Gronk and expect Julian Edelman back for the playoffs. No team needed the bye week more than the Pats, especially with Tom Brady suffering both a high ankle sprain and bruised ribs in the finale. Player to watch: Julian Edelman New England’s offense has survived multiple injuries to its running backs, but without Edelman, the passing game just simply isn’t the same. If he can return to the form he showed earlier this year, averaging better than seven catches on nearly nine targets and seven touchdowns, he should help open things up for everyone else. Path to glory: In a wide open AFC, the Pats will have a tough matchup with either a potent Pittsburgh team or potentially face the Bengals at full strength if Andy Dalton returns. Luckily, they’ll take on anyone but the Broncos at Foxborough, where they are an astounding 96-17 with Brady under center. If they can get to the Super Bowl, it won’t matter who they face. Never count out Touchdown Tom — just look at last year. — Noah Frank (Getty Images/Christian Petersen) (Christian Petersen)
at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Arizona Cardinals — NFC #2 seed Arizona is the most complete team in the league and that’s been evident for most of the season. Their offense and defense are both rank in the top five, they have playmakers in all three phases of the game, and they’re relatively healthy. The Cards are the team to beat in the NFC. Player to watch: David Johnson The rookie running back has 1,636 all-purpose yards and 13 total touchdowns this season, so he’ll need to continue to be an explosive X-factor for the offense to take pressure off Carson Palmer and the passing game. Path to glory: Arizona is clearly better than all three of their potential divisional round opponents (and already have a leg up on them). They’ll be the favorite in the NFC title game no matter who they face; their balance makes them better than Carolina and their thirst for vengeance (that 30-point drubbing Week 17 has them seething) will raise their level of play against the rival Seahawks. I doubt anyone in the AFC would be a match for them either. — Rob Woodfork (Getty Images/Elsa) (Getty Images/Elsa)
Denver Broncos — AFC #1 seed Have you ever felt less confident about a top seed entering the playoffs? Yes, their stellar defense has allowed the fewest yards in the league and the third-fewest points. And that’s the only reason they’re here. But despite a quarterback controversy brewing between injured veteran Peyton Manning and replacement Brock Osweiler, the Broncos managed 12 wins, nine by a single possession. They aren’t a juggernaut, but they’ve won close games on the back of their defense all year. Player to watch: Aqib Talib It’s tempting to just put the two quarterbacks here, but the three-time Pro Bowler Talib is the leader of the defense — both emotionally and with his three picks, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns. With the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman lurking in the AFC playoff tree, Talib’s ability to shut down the opponent’s top threat will be vital to Denver’s success. Path to glory: Denver would be best-served avoiding the Chiefs, who won at Mile High earlier this year and had the Broncos on the ropes in their first meeting. They’ve already proven they can beat Cincinnati and New England, but their last loss of the season came at Pittsburgh. If the team can ride its defense, the way that, say the 2000 Ravens did, perhaps they can even shut down the dynamic Seahawks or Panthers in the Super Bowl. — Noah Frank (Getty Images/Doug Pensinger) (Doug Pensinger)
during their game at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Carolina Panthers — NFC #1 seed I’ve been driving the Cam Newton-for-MVP bus all season and I have no reason to bail on him now. He’s been the best player in the league most of the year, and he’s had the league’s sixth-ranked defense (both in yards and scoring) backing him up. If those two entities continue to perform at a high level, and guys like Ted Ginn and Jonathan Stewart step up, this is a Super Bowl team. Player to watch: Robert McClain Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere are out for the season so McClain gets the nod at starting corner opposite Pro-Bowler Josh Norman. McClain has just 17 starts in his five-year career, so he’s the logical choice for opposing QBs to throw toward — how he responds could have a lot to do with how far the Panthers advance. Path to glory: Saying “just win your home games” is an oversimplification, so I’ll say this instead: Carolina really needs to hope Minnesota survives the Seahawks and then upsets the Cardinals. Hosting the Packers or Redskins in the divisional round and the Vikings in the NFC title game is probably the path of least resistance. — Rob Woodfork (Getty Images/Streeter Lecka) (Getty Images/Streeter Lecka)
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Will the top seeds roll through, or will there be surprises in this year's NFL playoff bracket?
Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) out runs Baltimore Ravens defensive back Shareece Wright (35) during the first half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) catches a pass for a touchdown in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Jimmie Ward during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws against the Oakland Raiders during the first half of their NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Jan, 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
at Lambeau Field on January 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Alfred Blue #28 of the Houston Texans breaks the tackle of Dan Skuta #55 of the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 3, 2016 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 26: Jordan Reed #86 of the Washington Redskins runs past Walter Thurmond #26 of the Philadelphia Eagles on December 26, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Redskins defeated the Eagles 38-24. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jordan Reed;Walter Thurmond
at Lambeau Field on January 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
during the second half of the NFL game at AT&T Stadium on October 11, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.
at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
during their game at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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