Well, football fans, we made it—it is almost time for the playoffs.
With several parts still moving in terms of seeding, the only real certainty comes towards the top of the food chain and the teams that have already clinched a playoff spot. The Denver Broncos are the first of those teams to clinch a first-round bye, and they'll need it to get their team healthy and ready to make a push for a championship.
The New England Patriots are another team that has had an injury-riddled season but still succeeded. Despite their double-digit win totals, both of these teams have weaknesses that must be corrected in time for the playoffs or else they run the risk of an early exit.
The Broncos have been a tremendous team on offense all year, but their defense hasn't been nearly as effective. That's not to say that there isn't a load of talent on that side of the ball, but injuries have plagued them for a large part of the season.
They've returned guys like Rahim Moore and Kevin Vickerson, but Champ Bailey has still missed time, and now they've lost pass-rush specialist Von Miller, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
This defense will stand to be much improved when Bailey officially returns to the lineup; however, the loss of Miller on the edge is a definite hindrance. The Broncos may be able to make up for Miller's absence with his backup Nate Irving.
John Fox: "Nate Irving stepped in yesterday (for Von Miller) and did a real good job.." Next man up..— Lionel Bienvenu (@lionelbienvenu) December 23, 2013
He's certainly no Miller Time and isn't quite the same caliber of pass-rusher, but as a stopgap solution for the playoffs he should be just fine. It's a tall order, but Irving's experience in the defense should make him a worthy Band-Aid.
The Seattle Seahawks are arguably the most Super Bowl-ready team in the NFL, but there are some weak links. While the Seahawks' issues aren't nearly as bad as other teams', they could still end up possibly costing them.
The offensive line has played well when healthy, but with starters Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy listed as questionable on their injury report, it could really damage their offensive output if they end up missing more time.
Seattle will be facing some of the league's premier pass-rushers in the playoffs and will need their quarterback to be upright and protected.
What will be of most help to Seattle is resting those two guys in Week 17 and during their first-round bye. It will be of great importance for the Seahawks to be as healthy as possible on the offensive line during the playoffs, and they will need Okung to be Wilson's blindside protection.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have had a much more impressive season than many give them credit for. They've been able to string together 11 wins despite copious injuries on both sides of the ball, and they find themselves in a great spot seed-wise entering the playoffs. Tom Brady has been making a lot happen with very few pieces, but he will be especially hurting without Rob Gronkowski.
What would make Gronk's absence much less crucial would be if Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman proved themselves to be the dependable receivers the Patriots had hoped for.
Brady simply has a generally inconsistent group of receivers, and for a team that likes to pass a lot, that's not good. It was especially apparent against the Miami Dolphins a few weeks back that neither Edelman nor Amendola can be depended upon as No. 1 receivers, as they dropped key passes that would've won the game.
New England needs to focus on running the ball. They've put together a pretty impressive stable of runners with a combination of speed and power that rivals most any team's runners.
LeGarrette Blount is coming off of a 76-yard, two-touchdown performance against the stout Baltimore Ravens defense and is definitely someone they can build around offensively going forward. Add Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley to that mix, and you get a three-headed monster that can terrorize defenses.
The Carolina Panthers have been one of the most impressive teams this year, largely because of the maturation of Cam Newton. He's another player who hasn't had a great group of receivers to work with, but has still won games for his team.
Outside of Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, there isn't a whole lot of talent for Newton to throw to, which makes the running game all the more important for Carolina.
Similar to New England, the Panthers are very good at running the ball, but have the luxury of a 6'5", 250-pound dual-threat quarterback who can run the option.
If they show up to the divisional round of the playoffs trying to win by throwing the ball, then they'll more than likely lose; utilizing the run will be key for Carolina.