NFL Playoff Picture: Every team has a flaw but also reasons for hope


By Arnie Stapleton - AP Sports Writer



FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates on the sidelines late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in Charlotte, N.C. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)


FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians smiles during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, in Glendale, Ariz. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)


FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers drops back during the first half an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay Packers have at least one distinct advantage in their wild-card matchup this weekend against Washington. They are postseason mainstays, compared to the upstart Redskins. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke, File)


Carolina didn’t make it to the playoffs perfect, and maybe that’s a good thing as they rest and recalibrate for the playoffs.

Arizona fended off Seattle, which came storming back from a stumbling start.

The Vikings overtook the Packers in the North but Green Bay reached the playoffs once again, and the Redskins capitalized on a bad division and a good quarterback decision to return to the postseason party.

Each of the half-dozen NFC teams still standing have reason to believe they’ll put their fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy next month. But each also has a major flaw that could derail those dreams.

The NFC gets going Sunday when the Seahawks (10-6) visit the Vikings (11-5). Then, the Redskins (9-7) host the Packers (10-6).

The Panthers (15-1) and Cardinals (13-3) each earned a bye.

Here’s a look at the biggest strength and weakness of each of the six NFC playoff teams:

1. PANTHERS:

—Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Cam Newton. The Panthers scored more points than any team in the league this season behind the versatile Newton, a leading MVP candidate. He became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 scores in the best season of his five-year career.

—Why they won’t: Health. The Panthers are struggling in recent weeks with their pass rush and lost starting cornerback Charles Tillman for the season in Week 17 to a torn ACL. Tillman is the second cornerback to suffer a season-ending injury in the last week.

—”We find our edge in playing in front of our home crowd. Everything feels just right. We don’t have to travel to a hostile environment.” — Newton on having home-field advantage, and playing in a stadium where they have won 11 in a row.

2. CARDINALS:

—Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: NFL’s best offense. Carson Palmer set franchise records for yards (4,671) and TDs (35). Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown surpassed 1,000-yards receiving and Fitzgerald’s 109 catches broke the franchise mark he set a decade ago. Rookie David Johnson has a team-high 13 TDs and is a big-play threat as both a runner and receiver.

—Why they won’t: Protecting their passer and pressuring the other QB. If Arizona can’t run, the O-line could be overwhelmed by the pass rush. Pressuring the opposing quarterback, especially without a blitz, has been a problem. The mid-season addition of Dwight Freeney helps, but he’s not an every-down disruptive force.

—”It brings some guys down to earth and get back to work.” Palmer on the Cardinals’ 36-6 loss to Seattle last week.

3. VIKINGS:

—Why they’ll host the Lombardi: Defense. With 14 sacks, seven takeaways and two touchdowns over a three-game winning streak to close the regular season and win the NFC North, this group is in a groove. It’ll be even better if nose tackle Linval Joseph, who missed four of the last five games with a toe injury, returns to the lineup.

—Why they won’t: Iffy offense. Teddy Bridgewater is 17-11 as a starter but he passed for 250 yards just four times this season. If they fall behind quickly, their run-first formula featuring Adrian Peterson implodes and protecting Bridgewater behind a so-so O-line gets harder. Exhibit A: their 38-7 home loss to Seattle a month ago.

—”We’re excited about the opportunity to play those guys again in our house. They embarrassed us the last time we played them.” — wide receiver Mike Wallace, on facing the Seahawks again.

4. REDSKINS:

—Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Believe it or not, Kirk Cousins. The fourth-year QB is playing the best football of his career at the most opportune time — heading into the playoffs and heading into free agency. He led the NFL in completion percentage at 69.8, ranked fifth in passer rating at 101.6, set a franchise mark with 4,166 passing yards, and threw for 23 TDs and only 3 INTs over the last 10 games.

—Why they won’t: This team is flawed in a number of ways, including a suspect running game and a shaky defense. And if Washington beats Green Bay in the wild-card round, it would be the first victory all season for the Redskins against a team that finished above .500.

—”He’s been a great leader for us on offense. He’s exactly what we need right now. We’re going to keep fighting behind him.” — tight end Jordan Reed, speaking about Cousins.

5. PACKERS:

—Why they’ll host the Lombardi: No one wants to face Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. When healthy, the offensive line is capable of opening holes for bullish running back Eddie Lacy. The defense and special teams have been strengths for most of the year.

—Why they won’t: The offense has been searching for consistency all season, especially since they were exposed by the Denver Broncos on Nov. 1, sending them tumbling through a 4-6 finish after a 6-0 start. The chances of finding a fix for their big-play woes after 17 weeks are slim and injuries have ravaged their O-line.

—”We’re 16 games in, so you kind of are who you are, but we’ve got to find a way to put it all together for four quarters.” — Rodgers.

6: SEAHAWKS:

—Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Russell Wilson is hot and Marshawn Lynch is back from abdominal surgery. The two-time defending NFC champs know what it takes to win in the playoffs even if they have to hit the road to do it. They’ve won six of seven, including all three road games. Wilson has 24 TD passes and one interception in that streak.

—Why they won’t: St. Louis showed the blueprint for stopping the Seahawks with its Week 16 win in Seattle. The Rams hounded him, dominated the line of scrimmage and disrupted the entire Seahawks offense. Seattle faces a difficult road at Minnesota in frigid conditions and, if it wins, at Carolina, both for early West Coast starts.

—”These guys are confident that we can go wherever we got to go,” coach Pete Carroll.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Howard Fendrich and AP Sports Writers Steve Reed, Bob Baum, Genaro Armas and Tim Booth contributed.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates on the sidelines late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in Charlotte, N.C. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_107994598-d12fb9b41a96481b8fe7c36fd772d120.jpgFILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates on the sidelines late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in Charlotte, N.C. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians smiles during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, in Glendale, Ariz. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_107994598-ece68d05f7b54317b1ff65048843d3e6.jpgFILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians smiles during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, in Glendale, Ariz. Nearly every coach and every player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. Its all about the bye in January. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers drops back during the first half an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay Packers have at least one distinct advantage in their wild-card matchup this weekend against Washington. They are postseason mainstays, compared to the upstart Redskins. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke, File)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_107994598-e47afe0c5c5a4d68ae0a5fa25aa96dd7.jpgFILE – In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers drops back during the first half an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay Packers have at least one distinct advantage in their wild-card matchup this weekend against Washington. They are postseason mainstays, compared to the upstart Redskins. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke, File)

By Arnie Stapleton

AP Sports Writer

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