They fought all season to make the NFL playoffs, but some teams are not positioned to succeed once they get there.
Not everyone will be playing their best football at the most important time of the year. After qualifying on the strength of a 16-game track record, the last squads standing will face the sudden-death format of the postseason. If they're not peaking now, everything they have won prior may have been for naught.
Then again, sometimes a team's inevitable playoff difficulties are not its own fault. The machinations of postseason scheduling can result in an especially unfavorable road to the Super Bowl, dashing hopes before January play has even begun.
New Orleans Saints
Here is Exhibit A on the subject of unfavorable draws.
For the sake of argument, let's say the New Orleans Saints take care of business against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, while the Atlanta Falcons upset the Carolina Panthers. In this hypothetical, the Saints sneak past the Panthers for the NFC South title, snagging the NFC second seed and home field in the divisional round in the process.
New Orleans would enter the postseason undefeated in the Superdome, with wins over Carolina, the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals, all of whom could finish with 11-plus wins. Giving the Saints a home playoff game is tantamount to allowing them to advance to the next round.
That's all moot, though, because New Orleans doesn't have a prayer against the Seattle Seahawks on the road.
All five of the Saints' defeats have come on the road, including a 34-7 drubbing at Seattle. In the past two weeks, the Panthers and the St. Louis Rams have hosted the vaunted New Orleans offense and held it to point totals in the teens.
As strong as the Saints are at home, they're as helpless away. Considering Seattle is also a juggernaut at CenturyLink Field, New Orleans is practically guaranteed to travel prior to the Super Bowl. At this level of competition, that's setting the Saints up for failure.
Of course, if the Panthers do win the division, the Saints can do no better than the fifth seed. In that case, it's unlikely they play a home postseason game at all; a season-long trend says they can't play the role of road warriors if they have to.
NFC East and North Champions
Then again, a wild card New Orleans team might still be able to unseat an inferior divisional champ.
The Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears all sport top-10 offenses—the Dallas Cowboys are 22nd—but they're also without Tony Romo, so don't pay them too much mind anyway. However, they also all have bottom-10 defenses; if you're not so quick to discount the Cowboys, they're dead last in this category.
Whichever teams emerge from head-to-head showdowns in Week 17, the two division-winners will face either the Saints, Niners, Panthers or Cardinals. Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and even Carson Palmer can exploit those patchwork defenses, and all three QBs have top-10 defensive units supporting them.
The division-winners will obviously have home-field advantage in the opening round, but that's the only real edge they'll have going for them. A potential 11-5 wild card team is an imposing matchup, making the East and North hopefuls clear underdogs as playoff hosts.
Seattle and Carolina on the road are even tougher if any of the division-winners can pull off the upset. Unless they suddenly start playing lockdown defense, they're not set up for playoff success.
Anyone in the AFC
Someone has to represent the American Football Conference in the Super Bowl, but no one is stepping up to the task right now.
Of the nine teams that can still emerge from the AFC, only the San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers are playing their best football right now.
The Chargers have won four of their last five, including victories over the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, but they still need another win over KC and losses by the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens to even make the postseason. Even if that happens, the Chargers are also in the bottom-10 defensively, and they'll be guaranteed to play three road games to make the Super Bowl from the sixth seed.
As for the Steelers, they're 7-4 since their bye, but they need a win and three different losses in Week 17 to make the postseason, where they will be rendered harmless by any team that locks down Antonio Brown.
None of the other competitors for that last playoff spot are any more dangerous. The Miami Dolphins can't protect Ryan Tannehill, easily the most sacked QB in the league, and just got shut out by the Buffalo Bills. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens have scored 22 or fewer points in five of their last six games.
That leaves the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs, all of whom have major injury concerns that leave them vulnerable.
Denver and Kansas City both have issues with their pass rush. Von Miller is on IR for the Broncos, while Tamba Hali isn't practicing and Justin Houston is just returning for his first December action for KC.
New England is without Rob Gronkowski, adding him to a list of lost Pats that includes stalwarts Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, while the Colts are missing Reggie Wayne and the Bengals are down both Geno Atkins and Leon Hall.
Those aren't new injuries, but they left those teams in a weakened state that has lingered throughout the season. Because of those holes, every AFC team can be beat.
Denver will likely beat the Oakland Raiders in Week 17 to lock up home field throughout the playoffs. Between that and Peyton Manning being Peyton Manning, the Broncos have to be considered the favorites.
As for the others, they'll have to be on guard in the AFC playoffs. Unless KC's edge-rushers get healthy quickly, none of the legit contenders will approach peak form; with everyone hurting, the AFC will be decided by who covers their flaws and struggles the least.