NFL Playoff Picture: The Achilles' Heel of Every Team in the Playoffs
As we look ahead to the NFL playoffs, we are faced with one of the most open contests for the Lombardi Trophy in recent years.
After a regular season of extremes, which elevated the era of pass-first dominance to record-setting heights, a number of explosive offenses will face off in the postseason.
On the flip side, we've seen a low tide for pass coverage, with top teams contesting shoot-outs on a weekly basis.
No team is perfect, so goes the old football adage. The difference being this season, the flaws are pronounced. One team will get away with theirs, but their Achilles' Heel will be on display, even in victory.
Let's take a close look at the top concern on each playoff roster.
Green Bay Packers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Pass Protection
The 15-1 Green Bay Packers head into the playoffs as favorites to repeat their 2010 Super Bowl victory, and deservedly so.
The performances of Aaron Rodgers this season have been as impressive as any quarterback in the modern era—on a par with Peyton Manning in 2004, and Tom Brady in 2007—and with a host of dangerous receivers, facing the Packers at Lambeau Field in January will be a tough assignment for any opponent.
It's not all sunshine and championships in Green Bay, however. The defense conceded an NFL-record 4,796 passing yards—nearly 1,700 more than in 2010—as the secondary struggled with the loss of Nick Collins at safety.
Yards allowed is a poor measuring stick of a team's success in isolation. Green Bay conceded more total yards (6,585) than they gained (6,482), but lost just one game in 2011. The "bend, but don't break" theory is finally gaining momentum outside of New England.
Of far more importance, are points allowed, where the Packers are a steady 19th in the league (22.4 points per game), and turnovers (a plus-22 differential, ranked second). Therefore protecting the football, and by extension, the quarterback, are a priority.
The Green Bay offensive line limped its way to a first-round bye, having allowed 41 sacks during the regular season (tied for 11th most), and with injuries to tackles Chad Clifton, Brian Bulaga and Derek Sherrod. Clifton has already returned, with Bulaga set to follow, but neither have taken many injury-free reps in recent weeks.
In the NFC, the New York Giants are a potential playoff opponent with the pass-rushing ability to wreak havoc, through Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. What's more, the 38-35 shoot-out between the two teams in Week 13 proved that Eli Manning has the firepower to strike back, if the Giants defense can force turnovers and three-and-outs.
I wouldn't like to bet against Green Bay reaching the Super Bowl, but if they don't, expect their protection issues to be a key reason why.
San Francisco 49ers
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Red Zone Offense
Credit must go to Jim Harbaugh for turning the San Francisco 49ers into a playoff team of some substance in his first NFL season.
The Niners are making their first postseason appearance since 2002, on the back of an old-school, run-stuffing defense, and a game manager at quarterback that refuses to turn the ball over in Alex Smith.
It took 16 weeks for San Francisco to allow its first rushing touchdown, or 100-yard rusher, and with an NFL-leading plus-26 turnover differential, it has found itself on the right side of some low-scoring slugfests.
Against the pyrotechnics offered by the likes of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers in the NFC playoffs however, the Niners' run-first approach may come unstuck, and a look at their red zone offense tells us why.
Ranked 30th in red zone touchdown percentage (40.74), the offense has settled for three on numerous occasions, making a record-breaker out of kicker David Akers in the process. What's more, neither Frank Gore nor his backup, Kendall Hunter, have rushed for 100 yards since Week 9.
As impressive as the Niners have been this season, their lack of explosiveness on offense could come back to bite them as they attempt to win three straight playoff games.
New Orleans Saints
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Lack of Big Plays on Defense
Is there a scarier offense in the NFL right now than New Orleans?
The old cliche of "defense wins championships" is about to be tested by a number of playoff teams who light up the scoreboard on offense, but none do it better than the Saints, who have put up over 40 points in four of their last five games.
If containing Drew Brees—the new single season passing yards record holder—and his battalion of receiving weapons wasn't enough, opponents are forced to respect the sixth-ranked running game, spearheaded by the dual threat of Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
Put simply, the offense makes plays when it wants, and how it wants. Just don't expect their defense to join the party.
Unlike the Packers, who concede yards but generate turnovers, the Saints' 30th-ranked pass defense has generated an NFL-low 14 takeaways on the season. Memories of Darren Sharper taking it to the house in 2009 feel more distant than ever.
In the red zone, it's more of the same story. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on 59 percent of all trips to the New Orleans 20—the fifth highest success rate in the league.
Were it not for the fact that the route to the Super Bowl runs through Green Bay, the Saints would likely go unpunished for their defensive frailties. But in a potential shoot-out with Aaron Rodgers in January, they will likely find themselves in a repeat of the Week 1 duel that produced 76 total points, and exposed the Saints' coverage issues early and often.
New York Giants
Al Bello/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Inconsistency
The New York Giants might be the most frustrating team to watch this season. Impressive one minute, calamitous the next, you never quite know which Giants will take the field on Sundays.
A brutal schedule is partly to blame, but the inconsistency of Eli Manning's play is the root cause. Handing Tom Brady a rare home defeat one week, turning the ball over in San Francisco the next, Manning has been elite, ordinary, and everything in between.
His performances in the clutch tell a different story. With the division on the line last Sunday, he dominated the Dallas Cowboys, completing 73 percent of his passes for 346 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. And with a 110.0 fourth quarter passer rating, he has maintained his cool when his teammates need him the most.
If Manning's temperament is suited to playoff football, the Giants' 32nd-ranked running game is anything but. As the mercury falls in January, establishing the run is a key ingredient to postseason success, and while Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are still capable of pounding the rock, they too lack the consistency to do it week in, week out.
It seems that each compliment paid to the Giants comes with a caveat. The strength of their pass-rush is offset by spotty coverage in an injury-depleted secondary. Flat performances are followed up by fiery, emotional responses a week later.
If the "good" Giants can piece all their qualities together for 60 minutes, they will trouble any playoff opponent. Equally, the "bad" Giants will sink without a trace. Which team will turn up in the Wild Card round? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Lack of Mental Toughness
The Atlanta Falcons are a curious team. Statistically speaking, they have been strong on both sides of the ball. All of the key pieces are in place—a franchise quarterback, a loaded receiving corps, a productive running back, and a solid defense that creates turnovers.
What then, caused Atlanta to drop six games en route to a Wild Card berth?
Against the NFL's elite, the Falcons have wilted. Losses to the Bears (the Week 1, injury-free Bears), Packers, Texans and the Saints (twice) are a by-product of a team that beats up on poor opposition, but struggles in key spots.
The now-infamous fourth down call by Mike Smith in the overtime loss to the Saints in Week 10 will be second-guessed for years. Was it a vote of confidence in the offense, or a lack of respect for the defense? Whatever your take, the Falcons couldn't get it done when it mattered most.
In the Week 16 rematch, they suffered a blowout loss, and in preferring to delve into "disrespect" territory over Drew Brees' record-setting day, instead of analyzing what went wrong, the Falcons showed signs that the pressure of performing on the big stage is getting to them.
Atlanta has an abundance of talent, but whether it can bring it to bear against quality teams in January remains to be seen.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Inexperience
For the 10-6 Detriot Lions, see the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons. The story for both franchises is remarkably similar. The Lions only lose to quality opposition, but here's the catch: The playoffs are loaded with quality opposition.
Whether it's Ndamukong Suh losing his head like a Thanksgiving turkey at a slaughterhouse, or Jim Schwartz's refusal to take defeat lying down, the Lions are a callow franchise, and it shows in their responses under pressure.
For all Matthew Stafford's qualities, it is worth remembering that he is still a year younger than rookie Andy Dalton. Jim Schwartz has never coached a playoff game. The team lacks discipline, being flagged for an average of eight penalties a game (third highest in the NFL).
Then there's the 29th-ranked rushing offense, where Jahvid Best led with 390 yards for the season. Even if Stafford shows up in the playoffs, it will be difficult to win with such a one-dimensional approach.
As fellow Featured Columnist Brad Ross states in his piece elsewhere on the site, the postseason is probably a bridge too far for the Lions this year. This is a team for the future.
New England Patriots
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Slow Starters
From the moment Chad Henne torched the New England Patriots for 400 yards in Week 1, their issues in pass coverage have been on show for all to see.
The training camp release of Brandon Meriweather came as no shock to fans tired of his poor angles and cheap shots, but doing so after cutting James Sanders was a head-scratcher. The cull didn't end there though, with Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite and Leigh Bodden all sent on go routes out of New England.
Factor in injuries to Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling, and the cupboard has never been more bare under Bill Belichick.
Previously a position of depth, Belichick the general manager forced Belichick the head coach to work with Julian Edelman at cornerback, and special teams talent at safety. The wounds are self-inflicted, and the results have been ugly.
A series of slow starts, and an insistence on deferring the ball on the coin toss, have left the Patriots digging themselves into a hole, before coaching adjustments, and the all-star cast on offense turn the ship around.
The trouble is, if teams like the Dolphins and Bills can jump out to three-score leads early on, what will the Ravens do? Or the Steelers?
In the 2009 Wild Card game at Gillette Stadium, we saw exactly what can happen. The Ravens put the game to bed early, scoring 21 points in the first quarter and forcing three quick turnovers. Against elite opposition, that's too much of a mountain to climb.
This year, the Patriots rank third in turnovers with a plus-17 differential, and force their fair share of field goals in red zone defense. And with the likes of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, opponents will need to light up the scoreboard to stand a chance in Foxborough.
But as Ben Roethlisberger showed in Week 8, good quarterbacks can make a mockery of this secondary, complete passes with ease, and control the clock. If you're a Patriots fan, you have to be concerned that the Steelers' blueprint is copied in the playoffs.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: The Passing Game
With a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens have a golden opportunity to return to the Super Bowl, 11 years on from their sole triumph in Florida.
The 2011 defense doesn't quite reach the heights of their fabled counterparts, but in Lardarius Webb and Haloti Ngata, the cornerstones of a second generation of dominance are in place. Add in the All-Pro talents of Ray Rice at running back, and you have a smash-mouth brand of football built for the cold-weather challenges that lie ahead.
Against the best teams in the league in January however, such ingredients may not be enough on their own. Some production from the passing game would be useful—Joe Flacco hasn't thrown for 250 yards in any of the past six games, and his talented receivers lack consistency.
If Tom Brady and the New England Patriots put up 35 points in the AFC Championship game for example, can the Ravens strike back with bombs of their own? In the Super Bowl, 35 points might be the minimum needed to take down the Packers or Saints. Can Flacco deliver with no true number one receiver?
As long as Rice remains healthy, the Ravens will ride him as far as he can take them. But in three straight playoff games, he'll need some support. The return of Anquan Boldin can't come soon enough.
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Injuries
Is there an unluckier franchise than the Houston Texans?
With Peyton Manning's neck surgery ruling him out of the 2011 season, the path to the AFC South crown—and with it, a first-ever playoff appearance—opened up like never before.
To then endure the loss of almost every key player at some point during the season must have been a punch in the gut to Gary Kubiak.
Mario Williams. Andre Johnson. Arian Foster. Matt Schaub. No team can cope with the loss of their most influential players, even if the defense, designed by Wade Phillips, has kept games close week in, week out.
And with injuries to backup quarterbacks Matt Leinart and rookie fifth-rounder T.J. Yates, the Texans leaned on Jake Delhomme, out of the league since December 2010, to nurse them into the playoffs in the New Year's Day loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate will undoubtedly carry the load in this Saturday's Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but even if they survive that, the path to Indianapolis only gets tougher. With a rookie quarterback under center, there may just be one challenge too many ahead.
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: The Offense
After the Denver Broncos lost 7-3 to the Kansas City Chiefs to close out the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers won't be losing too much sleep ahead of their Wild Card trip to Sports Authority Field this weekend.
Since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots put on a firework display at Mile High back in Week 15, Tim Tebow's performances have lost their magic. Whether opponents now have enough film and preparation time to deal with the option offense, or whether the Broncos' luck has simply run out, the production is vanishing at the worst time of the season.
The numbers have never been pretty, but recently, they've been downright ugly. Tebow threw for 60 yards on New Year's Day, and with four interceptions in the last two games, the clock management that allowed Denver to keep games close has disappeared.
Denver would need a miracle to avoid going one-and-out in the playoffs. There are too many opponents out there that can keep the scoreboard occupied, and quell the uprising of "Tebow Time" that provided one of the most entertaining stories of the 2011 season.
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Injuries
The loss of Rashard Mendenhall with a torn ACL in Week 17 has cast a heavy cloud over the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes. Although less reliant on their running game than in previous years, the pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and his high ankle sprain to deliver the goods just went up a notch.
The Steelers have the most underrated passing attack in the league. Mike Wallace gets his dues of course, but there are far more weapons in Roethlisberger's locker.
Rarely do players like Antonio Brown or Heath Miller receive a mention in the national media, but their route running is supreme, and have kept the possession receiving game alive following the slow decline of Hines Ward as he approaches retirement.
The Steelers are another team who have only lost to elite opponents, and with a third matchup with the Baltimore Ravens looming inevitably on the horizon, will have their work cut out once again.
With Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore the remaining options at running back, opponents will likely blitz Roethlisberger more frequently than before, and with depth issues at offensive tackle, the pressure on Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert to keep the quarterback clean will provide a fierce examination of the Steelers' hopes of progression.
The Ravens are tied for third in sacks, with 48 in 16 games. The Steelers have given up 42, tied for ninth highest. Statistics can be used to support any argument you like, but the injuries piling up in Pittsburgh can't be ignored forever.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Achilles' Heel: Inexperience
In any other season, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton would likely have been a contender for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The fact that Cam Newton exists shouldn't detract from what has been a solid debut for the Cincinnati Bengals' signal caller, but the playoffs might have come a bit too soon for him and his teammates.
Dalton has thrown for 200 yards just once in the last five games, and with rookie wideout A.J. Green yet to produce since a shoulder injury limited him two weeks' ago, the Bengals are left taking a knife into the gunfight that is the NFL postseason.
At least their Wild Card opponents, the Houston Texans, have far bigger concerns of their own on offense, but their Week 14 matchup saw rookie quarterback T.J. Yates score on a game-winning drive, giving the Bengals food for thought as they travel south this weekend.
Survive that, and the aerial examination of the Patriots in Foxborough awaits. Marvin Lewis has had a fantastic season in charge of the Bengals, but if his ride doesn't end on Saturday, it will at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round the following week. Like the Detroit Lions, this is an inexperienced team building for future tilts at Super Bowl glory.