We're down to the last three games of the NFL season.
This weekend will feature the NFC and AFC conference championships, and it's not hyperbole to say that the four best teams to make the playoffs are still in it.
Of course, that doesn't mean they're without flaws. In fact, with this group, even a minor crack in the armor can be exploited by the opponent.
The New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers are all talented teams, but they can all be beaten. All of them have met before at least once this season and have already shown how to apply pressure to those flaws until their opponent breaks.
Let's take a look at where each of these four teams could be hurt on Sunday.
The Denver Broncos continue to fight a war of attrition on the defensive side of the ball, emerging from their win over the San Diego Chargers minus cornerback Chris Harris.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Harris tore the ACL in his left knee on Sunday and is done for the playoffs.
That leaves a huge hole in the secondary—one which is going to be hard to fill.
As Klis points out, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers went on a roll after Harris went down, as his replacement, Quentin Jammer, was overmatched—mostly by rookie receiver Keenan Allen.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jammer was thrown at five times by the Chargers. He allowed three receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown—including receptions of 30 yards to Eddie Royal and 49 yards to Allen.
The Broncos could move Jammer around against the Patriots, but throwing an aging Champ Bailey or Kayvon Webster into the mix still leaves the position a bit vulnerable.
New England doesn't have world-beaters at receiver this year. The Patriots' best receiver is Julian Edelman, but this is where the weakness lies for Denver and the Patriots would do well to exploit it.
Whether it’s Edelman in the slot replicating what Allen did last weekend or Danny Amendola going vertical and testing the outside, the Denver secondary is on its heels and could be the Achilles heel in the Broncos defense.
The best way to beat the New England Patriots is by hitting Tom Brady early and often.
Pressuring Brady has worked in the past, with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets doing so the most frequently. When the Jets have been able to penetrate the line of scrimmage and hit Brady, his accuracy and effectiveness have dropped.
Brady is exceptional with a clean pocket and time to drop back, but less so when his timing is knocked off by either getting hit or by his receivers getting banged at the line and being late on their routes.
That means the Denver Broncos will probably want to put a body on the Patriots receivers to hit them at the line as often as possible and not allow them to get a clean release.
On top of that, if you can force him from the pocket, Brady really struggles. While he’s not quite a statue, Brady isn’t exactly nimble and has a much harder time of hitting his targets.
To get at Brady, however, the Broncos will need their front seven to step up like they did last weekend against the Chargers.
Defensive end Shaun Phillips will have to lead the way again after notching a pair of sacks last week, bringing his season total to 12 (10 regular season, two playoffs). Along with Phillips, Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson will be looked upon for more pressure.
It won’t be easy, as the Patriots turned their protection issues around towards the end of the season. But if you’re going to beat the Patriots, you’d better be able to lay hands on Brady.
One thing was definitely made clear in the Seattle Seahawks' victory over the New Orleans Saints: If you want to beat the Seahawks, you’d better win the time of possession.
To do that, you’d better keep the ball moving.
While the San Francisco 49ers have some excellent choices for quarterback Colin Kaepernick to throw to, Frank Gore should be the key to victory against Seattle.
As I pointed out last week, you can run on the Seahawks.
It didn’t work out for the Saints, partially because Mark Ingram coughed the ball up early and because the Saints fell behind.
When did that strategy work? Well, among other times, it worked when these two teams met in Week 14.
Gore gashed the defensive front of the Seahawks for a whopping 6.5 yards per carry, totaling 110 yards. The Niners won the time of possession battle at 32:28, compared to Seattle’s 27:32.
It was not a huge difference, but it was enough, especially with several key runs coming at the end of the game to salt away the clock while getting San Francisco into field goal range for the win.
Part of the reason that Gore was so effective in that game was a tendency the Seahawks have to become too aggressive and over-pursue. Sometimes they lack gap discipline as well, which is to say that the defender will chase the play instead of stay at home and protect against a cutback or shift by the running back.
The Seahawks were very disciplined against the New Orleans Saints, but can they do it again? Not only do they have Gore to worry about but Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Kaepernick himself.
That's a lot of weapons which will make it hard to focus on Gore.
If the defensive front gets fooled by Kaepernick, or starts cheating to get a body on Davis, Crabtree and Boldin, Gore could find open lanes into the secondary and drop some big yards on Seattle.
Last week, I broke down how the Carolina Panthers might beat the San Francisco 49ers. The Panthers just didn’t pull it off and replicate what they accomplished in their Week 10 meeting between the two teams.
That doesn’t mean the idea wasn’t sound.
The problem, of course, was that the Panthers couldn’t hold up coverage on Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin all at once.
They focused on Crabtree, and the result was a huge game by Boldin.
Niners Nation at SBNation did an excellent All-22 breakdown of Boldin’s game and how the focus on everyone else led to his breakout.
As pointed out in the article, part of the problem was that the Panthers did not have enough bodies to contain all of the moving parts of the 49ers. The other breakdown was a staggering lack of hits on quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Panthers notched just one sack on Kaepernick, though they did get six quarterback hits—most of them coming on Kaepernick scrambles. They never broke Kaepernick’s rhythm, as they had in Week 10, and allowed him too much time to make choices, as well as too much room to hit his primary reads.
If the Seahawks are going to shut this offense down, they need to do better than that.
They have to hit the receivers coming off the line to disrupt the timing between Kaepernick and his receivers while getting into the backfield to hit the quarterback as often as possible.
It’s then a matter of containing Kaepernick when he runs, which means Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas will be pulling a lot of duty in run support.
It’s also going to require that the Seattle safeties make quick decisions. Do they move to help cover a receiver or spy Kaepernick? When do they release from coverage to step up and contain Kaepernick when he looks to run?
If the front seven can hit Kaepernick while cornerback Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner do their usual job of hand-checking and hacking receivers, the Seahawks should be able to contain the Niners' potent passing offense and avoid having to have Chancellor and Thomas make those choices too often.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.