The NFL playoffs open Saturday when Arizona visits Carolina. Before all the festivities begin, our final Power Rankings of the season sizes up the 12 remaining teams.
Pick just about any meaningful football measure and the Seahawks improved as the year progressed. Marshawn Lynch averaged 94.6 yards per game on the ground in the season's second half after posting a 68.6 clip in games 1-8. Seattle passed for 200-plus yards in its final five games, having done so just twice in its first 11 contests. The defense ... man ... well, the defense was incredible -- 39 points allowed total over the final six weeks.
"What I like about our team this year, it’s different circumstances than the year before," QB Russell Wilson said following a Week 17 win over St. Louis. "I think we were 8-1 at one point, or maybe 9-1 at one point; this year, I think it’s a little bit better, though, because you’re 3-3, and people are doubting, and there’s no doubt in our locker room. We believe in each other."
Any skeptics of the Seahawks' ability to repeat must be quiet, for now. The NFC playoff road again will roll through Seattle, where the home team is playing with at least as much swagger as last year's championship squad.
At least within the AFC realm, Blount may have a point. The Patriots' Week 17 loss to Buffalo was irrelevant for the standings and for this team's perception. Headed into the postseason, no team in the conference is as complete or performing as consistently well on both sides of the football as New England.
Motivation also won't be a problem. New England's last eight trips to the playoffs have ended without a Super Bowl win.
Maybe J.J. Watt wins the MVP award this season. Good luck convincing anyone in Green Bay that Aaron Rodgers is not the league's Most Valuable Player, though. Did you see the faces in the crowd when Rodgers had to be carted off last Sunday? It was like those reaction videos from the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones.
Rodgers is as important to his team as any player in the league, and he is the clearest reason Green Bay is a title threat. He also has an 1,100-yard back in Eddie Lacy alongside him and a defense that finished above average in points and yards allowed.
The Cowboys led the league in time of possession this season (32:25). On the other side of the ball, they forced 31 turnovers, including at least one in each of their final 15 games.
Sure, watching Jerry Jones chase the title is a bit like watching Mr. Burns coach the Springfield Power Plant softball team. But make no mistake: This is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Ever have to use, say, margarine instead of butter while baking? It's not ideal, but if you do everything else right, the final product still can be pretty good.
Same goes for the Broncos, even with a slightly less-than-perfect version of Peyton Manning. This team is constructed so it does not have to rely on Manning winging the ball around 50 times a game. Rather, the run game is strong thanks to C.J. Anderson and the defense held 10 opponents to 21 points or fewer this season. If Manning snaps out of his late-season malaise, great. If not, Denver's a Super Bowl threat anyway.
With Le'Veon Bell in the lineup, the Steelers -- not the Broncos -- might be the team most capable of knocking off the Patriots. Without him, the jury remains out. The last time Pittsburgh lined up sans Bell was Week 3 last season. He has almost 3,500 yards from scrimmage to his name since then.
An overlooked element of Pittsburgh's 4-0 close, however, is that its defense improved steadily as the year progressed. The Steelers allowed just 17.5 points per game during that closing stretch, while forcing seven turnovers.
The always vocal, occasionally belligerent members of Team Andrew Luck Is Overrated will point out the seven interceptions Luck tossed in two playoff games last season. True, Luck has to take much better care of the football this postseason if the Colts are to play on past Sunday.
The counter-argument is that the Colts are not going anywhere without Luck carrying them there. There is steady talent around him, but the third-year QB is the one guy capable of turning the 2014 Colts from a decent squad into a true contender.
In Week 7 of this season, the Bengals traveled to Indianapolis without an injured A.J. Green. They lost 27-0, a relevant outcome as Green awaits clearance out of the NFL's concussion protocol.
Even with him, the Bengals will have their hands full with the Colts. Or maybe they'll cruise to victory. Who can tell with this Jekyll-and-Hyde team? Cincinnati won 10 games (and tied another) this season, nearly enough to win the AFC North. It also lost five contests by an average of 21 points.
Just prior to halftime in Week 17, Matthew Stafford delivered an absolute dart to Calvin Johnson for a touchdown, threading the needle between two Green Bay defenders from 20 yards out. The Lions' possession before that scoring drive ended on four consecutive Stafford incompletions, including a WR screen he whipped about 10 yards over Golden Tate's head.
Not that the plot was anything new for this team. Detroit's offense constantly teases with brilliant plays, only to slip back into its usual, frustrating ways. Think of it like being Friend Zone'd by someone -- there's a little glimmer of hope here and there to keep you coming back, but it probably will not end well.
To say that a 7-8-1 team is entering the postseason red-hot makes as much sense as said 7-8-1 team hosting an 11-5 club in Round 1. And yet ...
"We were here last year, and there was no reason for us not to be here this year," head coach Ron Rivera said after his team wrapped up the NFC South last Sunday. "I’m not concerned with what the record is, because right now, everybody is even."
Say what you will about the Panthers' merits. With the wild-card round approaching, they are playing as free and easy as anyone else in the field. Could this be the year Cam Newton picks up his first playoff win?
The Ravens won 10 games and took care of business in Week 17 as San Diego faltered, so they deserve to be in the playoffs. Perhaps no more than someone who sneaks into a bar with a fake ID, but, hey, whatever works.
Bruce Arians is en route to Coach of the Year honors and teams are lining up to interview defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for his own head-coaching gig. Carrying the quarterback-starved Cardinals deep into the playoffs would be their greatest trick together.
"Obviously, we're all much more comfortable with Ryan [Lindley] after his performance today," Arians said last Sunday, following a three-interception showing from Lindley in a 20-17 loss.
The Lindley performance was, hard as it is to believe, a step forward -- he threw his first two career touchdown passes and Arizona had a shot to win the game. Moral victories don't help a whole lot in the playoffs, though.