The NFL’s dandy dozen is set — and truth be told, a little scared.
Nobody’s perfect, and all the teams that made the playoffs face potential pitfalls that could derail their dreams of partying down Bourbon Street in February.
The Denver Broncos are riding a league-best 11-game winning streak as Peyton Manning seeks to cap his incredible comeback with another championship.
Manning insists the Broncos remain a work in progress, lacking enough time together to suit the perfectionist in him, “but I think we’ve done the best job of being the best we can possibly be in a short period of time.”
Like the rest of the field, the Broncos could end up being the NFL’s best without being at their best.
The Broncos, Patriots, Falcons and 49ers all get a little more time to fix their flaws after earning first-round byes, although they’ll also have to make sure all that R&R they get this weekend doesn’t turn into rust and ruin when they suit up again.
Here’s a look at the Achilles’ heel of each of the 12 teams still hoping to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on Feb. 3:
—Denver: Odd as it sounds, the ball just hasn’t bounced the Broncos’ way this season. They’re minus-1 in turnover differential. Trindon Holliday has two return TDs but five fumbles. Knowshon Moreno was deactivated for two months after coughing up the ball before replacing an injured Willis McGahee in November. And rookie Ronnie Hillman didn’t see the field after his fumble Sunday led to the scary sight of Manning chasing down a cornerback to save a TD.
“Me, I’m telling him to get out of the way,” Champ Bailey said. “But the competitive nature of him is telling him to make the tackle. He stuck his neck out there.” His four-time surgically repaired neck, by the way.
—New England: The Pats are as close to perfect as there is, but they, too, have blemishes, including RB Stevan Ridley’s fumbles. Despite rushing for a career-high 1,263 yards and 12 TDs in his second season, Ridley fumbled four times, putting him in line for one of coach Bill Belichick’s notorious rants.
“We’re trying to play perfect football. That’s impossible, of course,” Ridley said. “But when you make a mistake, you best believe that this is one place it’s not going to slide.”
—Houston: The Texans lost three of their last four and the main culprit is third down travails. They’ve converted just 15 of 49 third-down attempts in their last four games and their defense has been unable to make stops. Andrew Luck threw a 70-yard touchdown pass on third-and-23 in the fourth quarter Sunday to put the game out of reach.
“Hopefully, being at home, the noise, all those things, we can do a better job,” said coach Gary Kubiak.
—Baltimore: Surprisingly, the Ravens’ weakness is their defense. Baltimore has long relied upon this unit to win, but this season they’ve battled injuries (Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and Bernard Pollard), and Ed Reed is having an average year. And Lewis will pull off his No. 52 jersey for the last time after the Ravens lose or claim their second title.
“Everything that starts has an end,” Lewis said Wednesday in announcing his retirement.
—Indianapolis: Youth. The Colts hit the road with the worst turnover margin of any team in the playoffs (minus 12), the fewest takeaways (15) and the least experienced team. More than two dozen players, including Luck, will get their first taste of the playoffs Sunday at Baltimore. They’ve also been much better at home than on the road.
“We’ll play in the parking lot,” linebacker Dwight Freeney said. “We just want to go out there and play football and be in this dance.”
—Cincinnati: Andy Dalton. The young QB has made it in Cincinnati. Now, can he make it in his hometown? As a rookie last season, he took the Bengals to the playoffs and faced the Texans back in Houston — he grew up in suburban Katy. He had one of his worst games with three interceptions, including one that J.J. Watt returned 29 yards for a TD.
“He’s a guy that’s grown,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said of Dalton. “He’s matured. I think he’s ready for his opportunity.”
—Atlanta: Ground(ed) game. The Falcons earned the top seed in the NFC despite ranking 29th running the ball. They made up for that lack of success and a 23rd-ranked defense thanks to QB Matt Ryan, who threw for 4,719 yards and 34 TDs even with spotty protection. Their loss to Tampa on Sunday, though, snapped an 11-game home winning streak.
“We really thought we were going to pull it off,” cornerback Asante Samuel said. “But we have bigger fish to fry.”
—San Francisco: The 49ers’ kicking game is suddenly a big question mark for the two-time defending NFC West champions after David Akers’ prolonged funk a year after his near-perfect season. Akers was just 29 for 42 this season and found himself in a competition with Billy Cundiff this week to see who will be kicking in the playoffs.
“Kickers go through, at times, slumps. You see a guy go through it and sometimes he’ll come out of it quickly and sometimes it lingers a little bit,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
—Green Bay: The Packers also have problems putting the ball through the uprights, but coach Mike McCarthy has steadfastly stuck with Mason Crosby, who was a less-than-impressive 21 for 33 this season. During one stretch he missed 12 of 24, including all seven tries from 50 yards or longer. But he has made his last four, including two from 50-plus.
"These last two weeks I've been putting them through the uprights and that's what I've got to keep doing," Crosby said.
—Washington: The Redskins' bend-but-don't-break defense has been bowing so much it's bound to snap, right? Opponents converted third downs an NFL-high 44.2 percent of the time against the Redskins, who finished 28th in total defense and 30th in pass defense and had to rely on Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris to make up for all these defensive doldrums.
"We're good enough, right?" defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “Good enough to get to the playoffs. Good enough to win seven games in a row."
—Seattle: The Seahawks were the only team in the league to go 8-0 at home. The problem is they're hitting the road in the playoffs, where they were 3-5. They won't have their ear-piercing crowd nor will they have history on their side Sunday at Washington. The Seahawks haven't won a road playoff game since upsetting Dan Marino in Miami after the '83 season.
"If you want to be a good team you definitely got to be able to win on the road," pass-rusher Red Bryant said.
—Minnesota: Yes, the Vikings have Adrian Peterson, but their passing game is putrid. They were next-to-last in the league in total yards passing and in yards per pass attempt, and until Christian Ponder completed a 65-yard pass on Sunday, they had just one completion longer than 45 yards all season, a 54-yarder on Nov. 11 against Detroit.
"He's definitely playing more consistent," Peterson said of Ponder. “He's playing faster football, not thinking as much as much."
When it's all said and done, one team will be left standing and celebrating, warts and all.
The NFL’s dandy dozen is set — and truth be told, a little scared.
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