By Chris Burke
January 02, 2014
The Seahawks enter the playoffs with homefield advantage, but the 49ers are riding a 6-game win streak.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
NFL Playoff Power Rankings
1 Seattle Seahawks
Was the Week 16 home loss to Arizona merely a blip on the radar or a sign of this team being vulnerable? A bounceback win over St. Louis would point to the former.

Home-field advantage, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch ... sure, sure. The real reason this might be the team to beat is that it led the league in points allowed (14.4 per game), yards allowed (273.6) and turnovers forced (39). Even protecting the football might not be enough to beat the Seahawks -- Seattle won the only game in which it failed to force a turnover, 27-24 over Tampa Bay.
2 San Francisco 49ers
The beauty of the NFL playoffs (and, also, the frustration for a 12-4 wild-card team like San Francisco) is that a season-ending hot streak could unravel on the road at anytime.

If the 49ers sidestep that landmine in Green Bay this weekend, it likely will be on the strength of their Colin Kaepernick-led offense, which has shredded the Packers in two prior chances. But here's something to keep in mind: San Francisco went just 2-4 against this season's playoff field.
3 Denver Broncos
Getting Wes Welker medically cleared for the playoffs was a major development given how much Peyton Manning's come to rely on him. Losing Von Miller for the year could be just as critical, particularly for a Denver team already with questions on defense.

For all their record-setting success on offense, there's going to come a point when the Miller-less D must come up with a key stop. Can it get it this year after failing in 2012?
4 Carolina Panthers
The Panthers, along with the Packers, drew the NFL's earliest bye week this season: Week 4. When that rolled around they were sitting at 1-2, then lost coming out of it to fall to 1-3. From there, they rolled off 11 wins in their final 12 games to capture the NFC South.

How they deal with another, long-awaited week off could determine their fate. Maintaining momentum may be a difficult task for a rather inexperienced playoff team.
5 New England Patriots
Bill Belichick will not win Coach of the Year this season, but he might have a case. The Patriots are no longer built like a juggernaut and dealt with significant injuries all over the field, only to win 12 games, take the AFC East and grab a first-round bye.

Having Tom Brady naturally provides this team with a little bit of an edge come playoff time, almost regardless of matchup. Though he's had his rough moments in the postseason, no QB in NFL history has more wins there.
6 Philadelphia Eagles
Even after 16 games, there's still an element of mystery surrounding the Eagles. They demolished Chicago in Week 16 with one of the most impressive showings from any team all season, then showed their mettle with a Week 17 win at Dallas. But they also let Minnesota hang 48 points on them and have allowed 350 or more yards in six of their last eight games.

Inexperience could be a factor here, too. This will be the first playoff go-round for Chip Kelly and his quarterback, Nick Foles. Their opening matchup pits them against a coach-QB combo -- Sean Payton and Drew Brees -- that's seen it all.
7 Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Flacco proved rather emphatically last playoff season that a QB only needs to strike it hot at the right time. So Andy Dalton's playoff struggles in 2011 and '12 -- not to mention the four picks he threw last Sunday against Flacco's Ravens -- would be moot if he settles into a January groove.

Surrounding Dalton is the type of talent to make Cincinnati a real AFC threat. The defense finished top five in both scoring and yards, while the offense established a needed run-pass balance. The Bengals could run the table ... or just as easily lose to San Diego in Round 1.
8 New Orleans Saints
The only playoff game the Saints have ever won outside of New Orleans was Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. So history tells us that running off three straight away from home to reach the final is a bleak proposition for the Saints.

And yet, there's that Drew Brees guy. As with Manning or Brady, it's hard to really bet against Brees, knowing what he's capable of when he really locks in. He's coming off a 381-yard, four-touchdown showing in Week 17, so Philadelphia's 32nd-ranked pass defense could be sitting directly in the crosshairs.
9 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts played to the level of their opponents in 2013, to some extent. That's not a terrible stigma to carry into the playoffs, when every foe is a Super Bowl contender.

In just two NFL seasons, we've come to expect great things from Andrew Luck each week. If his defense plays as it did in Weeks 15-17, when it allowed all of 20 points total, there may be no stopping this team en route to the Meadowlands.
10 Kansas City Chiefs
It's pretty clear that the Chiefs need to force turnovers to win. Their defense actually allowed the 24th-most yards in all of football this season, but their 36 turnovers forced fell shy of only Seattle.

Kansas City came up with one or zero turnovers in six games this season, finishing those games with a 2-4 record. Their wild-card weekend opponent, Indianapolis, committed a league-low 14 turnovers all season long. If the Chiefs can't pop the ball loose, can Alex Smith step up and win on the road?
11 Green Bay Packers
If you buy into the whole "Team of Destiny" thing, Green Bay might deserve the No. 1 spot. The Packers made the playoffs after Chicago and Detroit collapsed just enough to allow Aaron Rodgers to return for a division-clinching game. They also took the lead in said game on an apparent incompletion-turned-touchdown off a fumble recovery.

Rodgers ought to be better Sunday than he was at Chicago. The only way it will matter, though, is if Green Bay's defense comes up with some way to counter San Francisco's offense after three straight losses in head-to-head matchups.
12 San Diego Chargers
Do the Chargers deserve to be here? A four-game win streak to close the year suggests that they do, but that finish versus Kansas City in Week 17 ...

Regardless, now that they are here, don't discount them. Philip Rivers finished the season just shy of a 70 percent completion rate, and this team has won at Denver, Kansas City and Philadelphia.

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