With eight of the 12 postseason berths already occupied, it’s time to look at who the other four might be. And what all of them need to go deep into January — and into February.
WHERE THEY ARE: Sitting atop the NFC West and in potential shape to get the overall top seed in the conference. But the Seahawks went 7-1 on the road, so journeying anywhere is no issue for Pete Carroll’s crew.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Running the ball with power back Chris Carson. Letting Russell Wilson, having the best season of what now must be considered a Hall of Fame-caliber career, do his thing. The guy figures out how to win.
Seattle’s defense isn’t as formidable as the Legion of Boom, but opponents come out of games sore and not wanting any more.
WHAT THEY NEED: Avoiding some of the penalties that seem to come at critical times. No one is saying Seattle must tone down its aggressiveness, but smart play is key.
KEY PLAYERS: Wilson and Carson, naturally. Tight end Jacob Hollister could get plenty of targets. On defense, the pass rush must step up and Jadeveon Clowney needs to be healthy.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: This team isn’t loaded, but plays so hard and is so well coached it could win it all.
SAN FRANCISCO (11-3)
WHERE THEY ARE: Tied atop the NFC West with the Seahawks, but with a tough final two intradivision matchups against the Rams and Seattle. The Niners were the NFL’s last unbeaten team, but could slip to the sixth seed by losing the final two.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: When they are on, everything. Tight end George Kittleis a major force, and WR Emmanuel Sanders added spark to the passing game. The defensive line is deep and there is solid leadership here. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could be headed for a head coaching job somewhere.
WHAT THEY NEED: Fewer dropped passes? Maybe some maturity?
KEY PLAYERS: Cornerback Richard Sherman and all the DLs will need to step up against some top offenses. QB Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to start a playoff contest.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: The Niners have enough talent to go all the way, but several questions have cropped up recently.
NEW ORLEANS (11-3)
WHERE THEY ARE: Winners of the NFC South and in contention for home-field edge throughout the conference playoffs. This is a very experienced group when it comes to playing in January.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Start with Drew Brees, who at 40 looks like he’s 30 and keeps setting league passing marks. In Michael Thomas, he has the best receiver in football — hands down. Alvin Kamara is a do-everything back. There are some strong playmaker on defense, and the kicking game is outstanding.
WHAT THEY NEED: More production from the defensive line, which lost two starters to injury. A cornerback to replace Eli Apple; Janoris Jenkins was claimed Tuesday. Better luck in the postseason; remember the Minnesota Miracle and the officiating gaffe the last two years.
KEY PLAYERS: Versatile Taysom Hill, who does it all on offense, could be very handy in January. Opponents will scheme to slow Thomas, if that is possible, which means other WRs must step up. The secondary needs to excel even in the face of the drop in pass rush.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: The Saints have everything you need to win a Super Bowl.
GREEN BAY (11-3)
WHERE THEY ARE: One game in front of Minnesota in the NFC North and heading to Minneapolis on Monday night. A win not only earns the Packers the division crown, it puts them in line for NFC home-field advantage.
WHAT THE EXCEL AT: It’s been a while, but the Packers have a balanced offense with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Davante Adams at wideout, and the emergence of running back Aaron Jones. The rebuilt defense is inconsistent, but has a bunch of playmakers, especially at linebacker.
WHAT THEY NEED: Frigid weather for all playoff games, which pretty means staying home given the other contenders. Upgraded rushing defense and more reliable work in the secondary, too.
KEY PLAYERS: A-Rod, of course, and his helpers on offense. The O-line needs to give him time to create. LBs Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: Green Bay doesn’t seem as set as the other top NFC teams to go all the way — but Rodgers could change that, as he has done before.
WHERE THEY ARE: One game in back of the Packers and, with a victory next Monday night, in position to take the NFC North. Home-field advantage for the entire NFC playoffs is a long shot. And losses to the Packers and Bears could spiral the Vikings out of the postseason altogether, though it’s unlikely.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Led byDanielle Hunter, the pass rush is dynamic. If RB Dalvin Cook is healthy, the offense has real balance. Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph have been terrific targets for Kirk Cousins.
WHAT THEY NEED: Despite the strong pass rush, the Vikings are vulnerable in coverage. The allegedly talented secondary has come up small too often. Coach Mike Zimmer makes some strange decisions and has a checkered postseason record.
KEY PLAYERS: Cousins must show he can win the big games to conclude his best season. WR Adam Thielen has battled a hamstring injury for weeks. DBs Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes need to find their form.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: Don’t expect much if the Vikings are wild card. Otherwise, they are a threat to reach Miami if Cousins can carry them.
WHERE THEY ARE: Out of the abyss, for now. A win at Philadelphia on Sunday clinches the NFC East, in which the loser stays home.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Confounding everyone. The Cowboys are the biggest underachievers in the league this season, but if they find their stride — as they did Sunday in routing the no-show Rams — they can spring a postseason upset.
WHAT THEY NEED: Some peace and less talk about living up to the America’s Team tag. More steadiness everywhere.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, along with veteran TE Jason Witten and WR Amari Cooper, should score a lot more TDs than they manage. The O-line hasn’t come close to living up to its billing. On defense, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have not measured up.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: If they get in, they go out quickly despite a wild-card home game.
WHERE THEY ARE: As banged-up and gutsy a team as there is, the Eagles win the division by sweeping their final two opponents, Dallas and the Giants.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Hanging in. All through 2019, Philly has been ravaged by injuries everywhere, tearing apart the secondary and receiving corps most notably. The Eagles don’t give up, as their last two rallies to victory showed.
WHAT THEY NEED: Healthy bodies, which won’t be coming until 2020. The secondary can be beaten deep (and elsewhere). The offensive line is unpredictable and commits too many penalties.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Carson Wentz and his tight ends , Zach Ertzand Dallas Goedert. They have been superb getting the team in position to make a playoff run. Whoever lines up in the secondary must improve the product now.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: Not even as bright as the Cowboys, which isn’t bright at all.
WHERE THEY ARE: The best team in the league right now. The Ravens have manhandled some top opponents, have the most explosive offense led by second-year QB Lamar Jacksonand the best set of tight ends in the league.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Jackson throwing and running behind a solid line. Game-breaking plays. The NFL’s best placekicker, Justin Tucker. A stingy enough defense with a terrific secondary. An aggressive coaching staff headed by John Harbaugh.
WHAT THEY NEED: Health, maybe home-field advantage (or maybe not) in the AFC, which they can clinch this weekend.
KEY PLAYERS: Jackson, of course, has become almost indefensible at times. DBs Marcus Peters and Earl Thomas. Pass rusher Matthew Judon. Tucker. RB Mark Ingram.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: The third Super Bowl trophy in franchise history.
NEW ENGLAND (11-3)
WHERE THEY ARE: Where the Patriots always are, atop the AFC East. The Patriots host Buffalo on Saturday and a win clinches their 11th division title in a row. But the Bills are more dangerous than they’ve ever been in the Tom Brady era.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Defense, particularly in the secondary. New England has a phenomenal plus-24 in turnover margin, by far the NFL leader. It’s 25 interceptions are six more than any other team. They also have unmatched experience in the postseason cauldron.
WHAT THEY NEED: More offense. Say what? Brady has had trouble getting accustomed to his collection of receivers, other than Julian Edelman; where are you, Gronk? The line has not blocked nearly as well as in the past, either.
KEY PLAYERS: Brady, naturally. Stud DBs Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty. Most of the O-line. Any wideout other than Edelman coming through.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: A seventh championship, but the Patriots are not the favorite right now.
KANSAS CITY (10-4)
WHERE THEY ARE: Owners of the AFC West crown, not a big deal considering the other three teams are sub-.500. The Chiefs have wins over Baltimore and New England.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: The passing game with a now-healed Patrick Mahomes throwing to TE Travis Kelce and WRsTyreek Hilland Sammy Watkins. KC has an impressive 39 sacks and also have surrendered a mere four INTs.
WHAT THEY NEED: A vastly upgraded running game, particularly against the staunch AFC defenses in New England, Buffalo and Baltimore. Coach Andy Reid to find the formula to win the biggest game of the season.
KEY PLAYERS: The offensive players mentioned above, pass rushers Chris Jones and Frank Clark, and all the cornerbacks.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: The offensive talent is there to go all the way. Not sure about the defense and coaching.
WHERE THEY ARE: One game in back of New England, and a victory on Saturday could lift the Bills to their first division title since — get this — 1995. Heady territory for the 21st century Bills.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: A feisty attitude. Desire. Coaching acumen. A bang-you-around defense most effective against the pass.
WHAT THEY NEED: QB Josh Allen really has come on in his second season, but he’s too mercurial. He needs to let things come to him on offense, and has improved in that area. Better pass protection would help. The kicking game has not excelled.
KEY PLAYERS: Allen and both RBs, Devin Singletary and Frank Gore; the Bills need to control the clock. DL Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips, standout CBTre’Davius White. Coach Sean McDermott.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: If they somehow win the AFC East, the Bills will be a tough postseason out.
WHERE THEY ARE: Last Sunday’s victory at Tennessee put the Texans in charge of the AFC South. One more win and they are in the postseason.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Being unpredictable. When Deshaun Watson to DeAndre Hopkins is working, they are dynamic. When it is not, they are vulnerable. Carlos Hyde is a 1,000-yard rusher and has been a saving grace.
WHAT THEY NEED: Much less charity in pass defense; the secondary is suspect. More of a pass rush. And, absolutely, improved pass protection for Watson; Houston has yielded 40 sacks.
KEY PLAYERS: Anyone who can block to help Watson, Hopkins and Hyde do their thing — especially Larimy Tunsil. Whitney Mercilus and Justin Reid on D.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: Early exit in playoffs is likely, one win possible.
WHERE THEY ARE: Ahead of Tennessee on a tiebreaker for the final wild-card spot, which is amazing considering the injuries and upheaval.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: Intimidating defense that forces takeaways (35, one behind New England). Experience in big spots.
WHAT THEY NEED: Big Ben, Le’Veon and AB back. Just kidding. With untested and undrafted quarterback Duck Hodges behind center, the Steelers need to pump up the running game. A return to health for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster would help immensely.
KEY PLAYERS: RBs James Conner and Benny Snell, defensive standouts (and potential All-Pros) Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Joe Haden.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: This is not looking like a long winter run for Pittsburgh
WHERE THEY ARE: On the fringes of contention after a home loss to the Texans for the AFC South lead. The Titans need to win out and get help.
WHAT THEY EXCEL AT: QB Ryan Tannehill has had the best stretch of his career and will earn a hefty contract. Power running with Derrick Henry, who also has a burst and finds the end zone.
WHAT THEY NEED: More consistency in the passing game, though rookie A.J. Brown has been a revelation catching passes. Much tighter coverage in the secondary. Better special teams.
KEY PLAYERS: Henry is the main main on offense. The O-linemen need to measure up — they allow too many sacks. Teams also can pass on the secondary, so Harold Landry must remain a force as a pass rusher
POTENTIAL OUTCOME: Staying home in January. If they sneak into the playoffs, a quick exit.
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