Biggest Threats to Each NFL Conference's Super Bowl Contenders
Seahawks and Patriots rank as top contenders
To this point in the season, the Seattle Seahawks have established that they have an advantage in the NFC as the defending Super Bowl Champions. In the American Football Conference the Patriots are the team that has a significant advantage going into the playoffs, based on their regular season performance. The Broncos are the other team in the AFC that has played consistently at a high level throughout the 2014 season. These two teams met up earlier in the season, and the Patriots victory at home over the Broncos, currently has them holding home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The other dominant team in the National Football Conference is the Green Bay Packers, who have been able to put themselves in position to clinch a first round by with a dominant midseason run. Of course the Cardinals still have the top record in the NFC, but with the team down to their third quarterback, they are no long favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Even though the top Super Bowl contenders in each conference have played at a very high level this season, there are some teams in the playoff hunt that present matchup problems for them. A further look at these teams and the potential problematic matchups, will give football fans a better idea of where and when these matchups could come into play.
The Seahawks have played dominant football lately to put themselves in great position in the standings. If they can defeat the Cardinals for a second time in week 16, they will have the inside track to take the NFC West division title. This does not mean they match up well with every team in the National Football Conference though. Earlier this season the Dallas Cowboys went into Seattle and ended the Seahawks long home winning streak in week six. The Seahawks have plenty of physicality and speed on their defense, but the size of the Cowboys offensive front as well as their skill players can present a matchup problem. Tony Romo has been able to take his game to the next level recently as a mature quarterback in the NFL.
While Richard Sherman may be able to slow down Dez Bryant, Tony Romo's ability to drive the ball downfield to his perimeter threats does not allow Earl Thomas to break up many passes in deep coverage. While the Seahawks have an athletic group of linebackers who have the ability to play good coverage on Jason Witten, their defensive line needs help in the form of extra attention from the linebackers, to slow down DeMarco Murray. In this matchup, the Cowboys have the opportunity to get Jason Witten the ball in the open field between the hash marks where he can work his way open against safety Kam Chancellor. Even though the Cowboys defense does not present a significant challenge to the Seahawks offense, they do have the size and physicality to slow down Marshawn Lynch. Overall it is the Cowboys who have the personnel to create matchup problems for the Seahawks in a potential playoff game between the two teams.
Green Bay Packers
When the Packers offense is at its best, the efficiency of Aaron Rodgers appears to be unstoppable. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the rest of the Packers' fantastic skill players present matchup problems for most of the teams that are going to be in the NFC playoffs this season. There is one team in the hunt for an NFC playoff berth that has the defensive line necessary to slow down the potent Green Bay offensive attack. The division rival Detroit Lions are the team that presents the Packers with the biggest matchup problems in a potential playoff meeting between the two teams. Earlier this season the Lions were able to win in blowout fashion over the Packers before Green Bay was playing at a high level, Detroit's secondary is not among the elite in the NFL this season, but they have gotten solid play from all of their defensive backs. Being able to cover the initial route by opposing receivers has allowed the Lions defensive line to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks. A matchup with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers should not prove to much different, even though the Packers do a solid job of protecting their star quarterback. Without having to bring extra defenders in order to create pressure, the Lions have those extra defenders in the secondary where they can disrupt passes along with making sure tackles to limit yardage after the catch. Even though the Lions have plenty of transcendent talent on their offense, it is their defense that makes them a tough matchup for the Packers in the postseason.
New England Patriots
The Patriots upgraded their pass defense last offseason in order to help complement their potent offensive attack. The Patriots cornerback combination of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner has allowed their defense to defend the pass at a very high level this season. Against an team that can employ a spread offense while making downfield throws to small, quicker receivers, the Patriots could have trouble in a postseason matchup. While the Broncos have this in Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who have been good in cold weather playoff games with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Antonio Brown's timing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is what presents the biggest matchup problem for the Patriots. However, if extra attention is given to bracket Brown in coverage, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant have become a huge part of the Steelers' game plans in the second half of the season.
With most of the Steelers' threat to a top contender coming from their offense, the playmakers go beyond just their wide receivers. While Heath Miller is not a huge part of the Steelers' game plan, he is always capable of making big plays against a defense that gives their attention to other playmakers. Le'Veon Bell is not just a threat on the ground, as the Steelers also use him to outrun linebackers on pass routes to turn short catches into huge gains. The Steelers weakness on defense this season is in the secondary, but with the Patriots not getting many perimeter threats involved in the passing game, it is Julian Edelman who the below average secondary for the Steelers will have to slow down. Rob Gronkowski being the Patriots primary weapon in the passing game plays into the Steelers strength, as both Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence have been very good in coverage on tight ends at the inside linebacker spots this season. While the Patriots have very few weaknesses as one of the best teams in football, the Steelers are the team that could exploit any weaknesses they have.
The defending AFC Champions have had another good season in the passing game, but as the weather has gotten cold, Peyton Manning's arm strength has been an issue. The Patriots geared their offseason towards matching up better with the Broncos, but with another team in the hunt being a poor matchup for Denver, the Patriots may not get to face them. The big physical defense for Baltimore could prove to be overwhelming to the Broncos offense that has tried to establish a running game in the recent cold weather. While Baltimore is without elite coverage from their cornerback positions, their hard hitting safeties could prove to be a disruptive force against the Broncos passing game.
With Peyton Manning's arm strength becoming an issue, defenses that play physical football can narrow the throwing windows enough that Manning does not have the space necessary to operate. Many of Manning's throws this year have been completions based on timing where he is able to anticipate when the receiver will reach a certain point on the field. Floated passes on timing patterns will not be nearly as effective against Baltimore as they are against some defenses, since Baltimore uses physical play from linebackers and corners to disrupt the timing of routes. All of this could lead to the Ravens forcing Manning to hold the ball while their elite pass rush is able to get home for some huge splash plays. Joe Flacco is currently having the best season of his career, and he has had success in cold weather playoff games, which means the Ravens could put up a significant number on the scoreboard in a playoff matchup with the Broncos.
With these four great teams all entering the playoffs while playing at a very high level, they will hope to avoid each of these matchups that could signal an early exit. Should these matchups happen in the postseason, they will provide the fans with something quite unpredictable to hold their attention on the storylines that unfold. With the two AFC matchups not happening previously in the regular season, suspense will be built up by the level of uncertainty for the favorites going into those games. Ultimately this is just a portrayal of how things could play out with everything still left to be decided on the field. After last season featured the preseason favorites meeting up in the Super Bowl, this year when the postseason rolls around, the fans should be ready for the unexpected.