Fatal flaws of NFL playoff teams

Jason Cole

For every explosive offense, there is a defense seemingly ready to implode. For every tough quarterback who can take punishment, there is an offensive line that allows him to be knocked around.

This year's NFL playoffs are as much about weaknesses as they are about strengths, even among the league's seemingly elite teams. Drastic, almost ugly weaknesses that sometimes make top seeds look more like teams lining up at the top of the draft.

[ Playoffs: AFC/NFC seeds and matchups ]

"Yeah, it's kind of weird," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said Sunday after his team was the final one to qualify for the postseason. "You look at some teams and they're giving up like 500 yards in the air and still winning. You look at some of the games out there and it's, 'How did that happen?' "

To put it another way, every postseason qualifier has some fatal flaw that it will have to get around in order to find success. Here's a breakdown of each team's glaring weakness:


No. 1 seed New England Patriots (13-3)
Leaky D

You could pretty much repeat the Green Bay analysis when discussing the Patriots, although there is something even a little more disturbing about the way New England's unit plays. Over the past four games, there have been extended periods in the first half when its pass defense has made quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, Rex Grossman and even Tim Tebow look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway. It is downright scary how inept the Patriots sometimes look on defense. Then Tom Brady puts up four touchdown passes, the defense gets straightened out and the Patriots end up with a runaway win. It's all a little unnerving and out of character for a Bill Belichick-coached team. The good news is that the quarterback group in the AFC this year isn't exactly scary. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is the only accomplished one in the lot outside of Brady (Baltimore's Joe Flacco has had some moments). The potentially great news for the Patriots is that if Cincinnati can pull a realistic upset over hobbled Houston, the Patriots will probably only have to face one of those two.

No. 2 Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Bad travelers

The Ravens have a host of impressive victories this season, including going 6-0 against playoff teams (Pittsburgh twice, Cincinnati twice, San Francisco and an early-season win against a pretty healthy Houston squad). But they also have a quartet of confounding losses on the road against Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego. These losses have been hard to explain, although in the backdrop of all of this is some growing tension between quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. There have been growing hints about the malfunction, including some half-joking comments by Flacco last week about the play-calling. Fortunately for the Ravens, they will be home for at least one game.

No. 3 Houston Texans (10-6)
Injured beyond belief

The Texans finally got into the postseason party for the first time in franchise history and this season had the makings of something truly special … if not for one too many ailments. The Texans survived the loss of linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams just fine and got through without Arian Foster and Andre Johnson for extended periods. However, the loss of quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart have been killers. Over the past six games, the Texans have been held to 20 or fewer points five times and topped out with 22 on Sunday against Tennessee. Over the first 10 games, they were held to 20 or less only three times. While the defense has been a revelation this season, going from worst in the league in 2010 to No. 2 this season, it's hard to carry a team that just can't score.

No. 4 Denver Broncos (8-8)
Pass-deficient QB

For six glorious weeks, Tim Tebow fans were living the dream as he and the Broncos posted one improbable win after another and got the Broncos into contention. Supporters were all in a tizzy, largely ignoring the fact that the Denver defense was really saving the day. Sure, Tebow had his moments, but this was really more about the Von Miller show. All of that feel-good stuff has unraveled in an ugly three-game losing streak in which Tebow has been downright awful (30-of-73, 439 yards, one touchdown pass, four interceptions and three lost fumbles). It's still reasonable to say that Tebow should be the starter next season, but his flaws have been fully uncovered right now and there's a lot of work to be done if he's going to make it.

No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Upfront ugliness

By the best statistical measure (yards per play differential), the Steelers are by far the best team going into the playoffs. They average 1.4 yards more per play (5.9 yards gained and 4.5 yards allowed) than their opponents. That's a staggering difference. However, it's no secret that the Pittsburgh offensive line is tragically flawed and, for whatever reason, consistently banged up. Things are so bad that tight end Heath Miller has again disappeared as a viable threat in the passing game because he has to stay in to block. He has 13 catches in the past six games after having 38 in the first 10. The overriding issue is that Pittsburgh has to travel and it's much harder for offensive linemen on the road because they can't hear as well with the crowd noise. That's a key reason why the Steelers have allowed 25 sacks on the road and only 15 at home this season. Worse, they have been held to 13 or few points in five road games, including each of the past three. They combine for just 20 points on the road against Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco – all playoff teams. Add in the fact that running back Rashard Mendenhall is now out with a knee injury and you can expect teams to tee off against Roethlisberger. It probably won't matter against Denver, but somewhere along the line it's going to hurt the Steelers, who otherwise are the most complete team in the playoffs.

[ Related: Rashard Mendenhall tears ACL in finale ]

No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Too darn young

The Bengals are one of the great stories this season as rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have come in to replace Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, respectively, and lead the Bengals to the playoffs. For that reason, there is optimism in Cincy, although owner Mike Brown will find a way to dash it soon enough. However, much like Detroit, Cincinnati's flaw is obvious: The Bengals struggled against their best competition. The nine wins were against non-playoff teams. The seven losses were against playoff teams. Of course, they have a good shot against damaged Houston, but it's hard to see much more than a one-and-done.


No. 1 seed Green Bay Packers (15-1)
Unreliable D

It doesn't take a genius to recognize that the Packers' defense has taken a drastic step backward from last season, when it led the NFC in interceptions (24) and had 47 sacks. While the Packers have actually upped their interception total to a league-best 31 this year, they are giving up yards (a league-worst 411.6 per game) as fast as the government spends money and not getting sacks (down to 29 this season). Some of that is understandable. Teams that score a lot and play at a fast pace on offense often have statistical problems on defense. But the dip is troubling and is shared by New England. The Packers are allowing 7.8 yards per pass. The Patriots are giving up 8.0 yards. Of the other five teams in the NFL allowing 7.8 yards or more – 2-14 Indianapolis Colts, 3-13 Minnesota Vikings, 4-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-10 Carolina Panthers and 8-8 San Diego Chargers – none made the playoffs and none had a winning record. The situation is confounding to one NFC general manager. "I get why New England is bad on pass defense, their personnel is terrible … Green Bay, I don't get why they're this bad. The only logical thing is the run defense is so bad, they constantly have to load up and it leaves them open to the pass, but even that doesn't account for this," the GM said. "They have good players in the secondary. They have [defensive tackle B.J.] Raji. They have Clay Matthews. They have Charles Woodson. You shouldn't get getting gashed like that with those guys and when you usually have the lead."

No. 2 San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Little ball in a big ball game

If the 49ers were a baseball team, they'd be the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, a team that defined baseball's "little ball" era. The Cardinals won more games (101) than they hit home runs (87) and were one famous bad call from a World Series title. San Francisco won 13 games on the strength of its great defense. That covered up an offense that is getting by with numbers that simply don't hold up. The 49ers are one of only two teams in the playoffs that were outgained on a per-play basis. San Francisco averaged 5.0 yards per play and gave up 5.1. Only Denver (5.0 on offense, 5.4 on defense) shares that dubious statistical title. In the Super Bowl era, only one team (New England in 2001) has ever won the title after being outgained on a per play basis. Worse, the 49ers are also one of only two playoff teams that finished with more field goals (44) than offensive touchdowns (32). Cincinnati is the other with 31 touchdowns and 33 field goals. While 49ers fans will contend that defense wins championships, the lack of offensive execution means that one mistake has the potential to be incredibly costly. Or as St. Louis baseball fans will tell, Don Denkinger is out there.

No. 3 New Orleans Saints
The road beckons

The common perception around the NFL is that the Saints are the most dangerous team in the NFL right now. Given that they won a Super Bowl two seasons ago and boast one of the three best offenses in the playoffs (Green Bay and New England are the only others that compare), it's a fair perception. However, it's also a perception built on a favorable schedule. The Saints, who have won eight in a row, have played nine of their past 10 games in domes, where both their offense and defense are significantly better. In five games played outdoors this season, the Saints averaged a very respectable 25.8 points. However, in 11 games under a roof, they averaged 38. That's nearly two touchdowns difference. Furthermore, the New Orleans defense has forced only two turnovers in those five games outdoors. They have forced 14 indoors. Given that the Saints will likely have to go through San Francisco and Green Bay to get to the Super Bowl, this could be tough.

No. 4 New York Giants
Nowhere to run

It seems like only a couple of years ago that the lasting image of the Giants was the downhill running game led by behemoth back Brandon Jacobs. Now, the only thing loud about the Giants' running game is literally Jacobs' mouth (gotta love him, but he doesn't exactly hit the hole anymore). The Giants have the league's worst running game, ranking dead last in yards per game (89.2) and per carry (a paltry 3.5 at a time when 25 of the league's 32 teams are above 4.0 and three are above 5.0). Some of that is attributable to injuries (Ahmad Bradshaw missed four games and was limited to 171 carries), but a lot is because the offensive line just isn't the same. As a result, the Giants have had to depend on the passing of quarterback Eli Manning.

No. 5 Atlanta Falcons
Learning to attack

Atlanta made a huge splash in the offseason when it traded up in the draft to get big-play wide receiver Julio Jones. With the exception of a nagging hamstring injury, Jones has been everything the Falcons expected, catching 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. However, the Falcons are still largely stuck in their high-percentage, low-risk offensive philosophy and they know it. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey keeps too tight a grip on the play-calling, resulting in an offense that often looks to grind away in a league built on big plays. The Falcons were held to 23 points or fewer in their five games against playoff teams (1-4). They'll likely need to get that offense clicking at a much more productive level in order for coach Mike&Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan to get their first playoff win.

No. 6 Detroit Lions
Not ready for prime time

There are a lot of reasons for rejoicing in the Motor City. The Lions have the makings of a great team with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh (if he can get his head on straight). They finished fourth in the league in scoring with 29.6 points a game and Stafford was sensational with 41 touchdown passes and 5,038 yards despite almost zero running game. However, before Lions fans get too carried away, think of the 1991 Dallas Cowboys. You should know them well. They went 11-5, won a wild-card playoff game at Chicago and then came to Detroit, where the Lions slapped them around for a 38-6 win. That was the last time the Lions won a playoff game. But it also started a run of three titles over the next four seasons for Dallas. This season, the Lions have come up woefully short in big games. They are 1-5 against playoff teams and 0-5 against teams with winning records. That includes home losses to San Francisco, Atlanta and Green Bay. Beyond that, the Lions couldn't even beat the Packers on Sunday with Matt Flynn starting over Aaron Rodgers. The only win the Lions have over a playoff team is a 45-10 drubbing of 8-8 Denver. With a trip to New Orleans on tap, don't overreact if the end of the season looks ugly. Things are still looking up.

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