Why your favorite team won't win Super Bowl XLIX
Two dozen teams already have packed their bags for the offseason, having come up short in their quests for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Another seven will take a disappointing walk off the field before a champion is crowned on Feb. 1.
So, odds are, your team is not going to win the title.
• New England Patriots: The offensive line isn't consistent enough.
Just three teams (Cincinnati, Baltimore and Denver) allowed fewer sacks than the Patriots' 26 this season, and Tom Brady was sacked on a paltry 3.5 percent of his dropbacks, right on pace with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco. So why the concern here?
Well, as Doug Farrar put it in his ranking of the remaining O-lines, "pass protection might be the Patriots' Achilles heel." When that front struggled -- and it did finish 21st in total pressures allowed -- there were issues. Seven of the 21 sacks registered against Brady this season came in early-season losses to the Dolphins and Chiefs.
The problems were less evident during a 10-1 roll through the middle of the season, though they did re-emerge in a hard-fought Week 16 matchup with the Jets. Brady took four sacks in that game, and the Patriots were left with a bit of a back-to-the-drawing-board feeling afterward.
"I think they give good protection. I just think our communication wasn’t great," Brady said. "We all just weren't on the same page. ... Our communication needs to be on point, and we just kind of sputtered. We need to do a better job of that, especially down the stretch."
Another hiccup now might be devastating, what with the Ravens' pass rush headed to town this week and the dangerous Denver and Seattle fronts lurking.
• Baltimore Ravens: The secondary can't keep it up for three more games.
Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and a relentless pass rush played a colossal role, but the Ravens' ability to keep Ben Roethlisberger in check last Saturday was one of the more surprising developments of wild-card weekend. While Roethlisberger finished with 344 yards passing, he had to work for all of them.
But was it a smoke-and-mirrors job by Baltimore? At first glance, the matchups are about as troublesome as could be -- Brady and his potent passing attack await this weekend, with either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to come should Baltimore reach the championship round.
Lardarius Webb and Rashaan Melvin are playing with a lot of confidence at the moment. However, let's not forget that Melvin only worked his way into the lineup as of Week 15, with the Ravens down a handful of other cornerbacks.
New England also has Rob Gronkowski, of course, meaning safeties Will Hill and Matt Elam will have their hands full in coverage. Neither can match Gronkowski's size and Elam has been particularly disappointing against the pass this season.
• Denver Broncos: They cannot withstand extended Peyton Manning struggles.
True, the Broncos in 2014 are better built to withstand a subpar game from Manning than they were in '13. The run game can lean on C.J. Anderson to keep the chains moving, while the defense finished top 10 against both the run and pass.
And yet ...
There were six games this season in which Manning fired multiple interceptions. The Broncos posted a 3-3 mark in those games, including a 22-point blowout loss at New England and an ugly 37-28 setback in Cincinnati. When push comes to shove, this remains a team -- as you might expect given Manning's Hall of Fame credentials -- built around the passing game. When that element provides a limited threat, the Broncos are a lesser team.
• Indianapolis Colts: They will not be able to rattle the league's best QBs.
Those Patriots' offensive-line issues mentioned above? Not really a problem against the Colts. In a 42-20 Week 11 win over Indianapolis, Tom Brady attempted 30 passes; the Colts registered zero sacks and, per Pro Football Focus, Brady was hurried on just four throws.
Way back in Week 1, a 31-24 Colts' loss in Denver, Indianapolis left Manning all but untouched (one sack, three hurries).
"It's really going to be an emphasis this week and especially in the playoffs," linebacker Erik Walden told the Indianapolis Star, ahead of an improved pass-rushing effort vs. Andy Dalton and the Bengals. "If we don't disrupt their passing games, we probably won't have a lot of success. And I'm quite sure everybody is aware of that."
• Seattle Seahawks: What if they're behind late?
The glass-half-full version of this talking point centers on the fact that Seattle has not needed to rally much of late. It cruised to victory in its final six games, with only the 49ers in Week 15 able to hold a second-half lead (7-3) on the defending champs. We've also seen the Seahawks rally back in the past, with a clutch drive to knock off Carolina in Week 8 and last season's NFC title-game comeback against those same 49ers.
What, though, if a team can replicate the ball-control game employed by Dallas (162 yards rushing, 37:39 time of possession) or San Diego (42:15 time of possession) in wins over Seattle this season? Who will be the go-to guys if the Seahawks need a scoring drive to stay in the playoff hunt?
We may not know the answer until (if?) it happens. When the Seahawks marched 80 yards in the final five minutes to knock off Carolina this season, Russell Wilson completed passes to Kevin Norwood, Paul Richardson, Cooper Helfet and then threw a TD to Luke Willson.
No offense to any of those guys or leading receiver Doug Baldwin, but the whole is greater than the sum of this passing game's parts. The Seahawks, with their incredible defense and pounding ground attack, are built to play with the lead.
• Carolina Panthers: There still are not enough playmakers on offense.
The resurgence of RB Jonathan Stewart over the season's second half has made the Panthers more dangerous offensively. Stewart alone will not be enough.
Hypothetically, let's say that Richard Sherman or Byron Maxwell can keep Kelvin Benjamin in check and Stewart struggles to get rolling vs. Seattle's front. Aside from Greg Olsen or creating with his feet, where would Cam Newton turn then? The options are limited: Jerricho Cotchery, Brenton Bersin, maybe DeAngelo Williams out of the backfield.
That's also assuming that Newton can hit the throws when they are there, which he did not do enough vs. Arizona last week.
"He missed a couple of opportunities," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He knows that. ... He had a couple of throws that I know he would like to have back because he missed a couple of guys."
• Green Bay Packers: The Super Bowl is not at Lambeau Field.
The Packers won in Chicago, Miami, Minnesota and Tampa Bay this season, and Aaron Rodgers led them to a Super Bowl XLV win in Arlington, Texas, so it's not as if the Packers curl up into the fetal position outside of Green Bay.
That said, the offense has not been the nearly flawless, well-oiled machine away from home that it is inside Lambeau. The reason might be simple: Rodgers and Co. thrive on their rapport in the passing game, the superstar QB often anticipating where his receivers will be when plays break down or adjusting calls at the line to pick on a defensive scheme. Those things are harder to accomplish away from home, when the crowd is roaring and communication is more difficult.
In their eight home games this season, the Packers averaged 39.8 points; on the road, that number dropped to 21.
Outside of Dallas, every team left in the NFL playoffs was worse as the visitor in 2014. But Green Bay endured the most drastic swing in fortunes.
• Dallas Cowboys: The defense won't make enough stops.
The first quarter against Detroit was the Cowboys' worst nightmare. As the offense floundered trying to kickstart DeMarco Murray (four carries for eight yards in that quarter), the defense was unable to get off the field. The Lions needed all of four plays to score their first touchdown, then with the help of a running-into-the-kicker penalty marched 99 yards on 14 plays for another TD.
For all of Rod Marinelli's wizardry this season, salvaging a respectable defense out of a scrap heap, opposing teams have at times been able to wear down Dallas.
Dealing with an Aaron Rodgers-led offense in Green Bay is a far cry from the roller-coaster ride of Detroit's attack. The Packers likely will not shoot themselves in the foot the way the Lions tended to all year, meaning Dallas has to take its defensive effort to another level.
Is that even possible? This was the 15th-ranked scoring defense, in spite of looking overmatched on paper most weeks. It's also playing sans key DL Henry Melton, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 17.