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Evaluating the chances of success for NFL playoff hopefuls

The Times' Sam Farmer examines the strengths and weaknesses of the NFL teams that have qualified, or hope to qualify, for the playoffs.

December 28, 2012|By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times
  • The Atlanta Falcons rebounded from a bad loss to the Panthers by trouncing the Giants and Lions by a combined 65-18.
The Atlanta Falcons rebounded from a bad loss to the Panthers by trouncing… (Rick Osentoski / Associated…)

The NFL playoffs are just around the corner, and all of the participants (or potential participants) have reason for hope and reasons to wring their hands.

The AFC field is set; Sunday's games will settle the AFC seedings. In the NFC, Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco and Seattle have qualified; Washington, Dallas, Minnesota, Chicago and the New York Giants are still in the running.

A glance at the teams:

Houston

One and done: The Texans have been out of sync in two of the last three games, particularly on offense. Matt Schaub has one touchdown pass in the last 15 quarters.

Going all the way: This team has shown amazing resiliency after losses. After losing to Green Bay, the Texans blew out Baltimore by 30. After losing to the Patriots, Houston beat Indianapolis by 12. The Texans might be in a down cycle at the moment, but they're the best bounce-back team in football.

Denver

One and done: A likely scenario for the Broncos has them taking an 11-game winning streak into the bye, then facing New England in the divisional round. No one game-plans better against Peyton Manning than Bill Belichick — the Patriots handed the Broncos their most recent defeat — so that would be a daunting challenge.

Going all the way: When people think Broncos they think Manning. But he's actually playing on the weaker side of the ball for them. Denver's defense has been phenomenal and has scored six touchdowns and two safeties. The Broncos lead the league with an average of 3.2 sacks per game, and they rank third against the run.

New England

One and done: The offensive line has had big problems protecting Tom Brady in the last two games, and that unit is really hurting with injuries. If the Patriots were to face Cincinnati in the first round — the most likely outcome — they could have problems with the fierce pass rush of the Bengals, who are second to Denver in sacks with 47.

Going all the way: The Patriots average an NFL-best 35.3 points per game, nearly a touchdown more than second-place Denver. They're wickedly effective with their no-huddle attack and they now have a ground game that gives them balance. They're putting points on the board the way they did in 2007, when they averaged 36.8 and came oh so close to a perfect season.

Baltimore

One and done: Yes, they are coming off a commanding victory over the nose-diving Giants, but the Ravens lost three in a row before that. They backed into their division title, and it's unclear whether last Sunday's win was simply a fleeting positive surge or real momentum.

Going all the way: The Ravens are rich in playoff experience and know how to win at this time of year. They came within an eyelash of reaching the Super Bowl last season, and they have the seasoned personnel to make another run, especially in a muddled AFC that lacks a truly dominant team.

Indianapolis

One and done: It's easy to forget that the Colts are loaded with rookies on offense. Andrew Luck hasn't played especially well in two of the last three games, and he hasn't gotten a lot of protection from his line. What's more, they'll be hitting the road in the postseason.

Going all the way: Can anyone top the Colts' Hollywood feel-good story? Overall, Luck has been spectacular, and Bruce Arians deserves to be the first fill-in to win coach of the year. This team wins just about every close game, and for added inspiration now has Chuck Pagano back. It may sound crazy to say the Colts will reach the Super Bowl but no crazier than it would have sounded in August to say they'd make the playoffs.

Cincinnati

One and done: A.J. Green is phenomenal, but the Bengals don't have a second receiver to siphon some of the pressure off him. Since Mohamed Sanu suffered a season-ending foot injury in early December, Cincinnati has waited for someone else to step up. That hasn't happened.

Going all the way: It all starts on the defensive front for the Bengals, and their front four are stifling against the run and the pass. Geno Atkins leads all defensive tackles with 121/2 sacks, and defensive end Michael Johnson has a career-best 91/2.

Atlanta

One and done: The Falcons have perfected the one-and-done postseason, bowing out after one game in 2008, 2010 and 2011. That's a huge psychological burden, just as it was for Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers.

Going all the way: Atlanta is hitting its stride at the right time. The Falcons rebounded from a demoralizing loss to Carolina by trouncing the Giants and Lions by a combined 65-18.

Green Bay

One and done: All teams have injuries, but the Packers have been hit particularly hard by them. Among the star players who are either injured or just coming back from injuries are Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. That would make any coach nervous.

Going all the way: Aaron Rodgers isn't getting as much most-valuable-player mention as he deserves this season. The Packers look to be peaking at the right time, and they might even have some semblance of a running game.

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