We're about to embark on a weird NFL postseason. The top seed in the AFC, Denver, doesn't know -- or at least won't admit -- the identity of its starting quarterback. The scariest team in each conference might be the No. 6 seed, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Perennial contenders such as the Patriots and Packers seem to be limping into the postseason, although that probably doesn't matter much. It's entirely possible that the four road teams could all be favored to win this weekend. Things already are bizarre.
That should lead to a postseason in which there's no clear favorite. The Seahawks finished as the comfortable league leaders in DVOA, but they'll need to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. There are six teams clumped in the second tier behind them, all with DVOA ratings between 21.3 percent and 27.9 percent above average. There doesn't appear to be much separating the top contenders in this year's bracket.
With that in mind, matchups become more important than they would be in a bracket in which there are larger gaps in team quality. A truly dominant team might be able to just steamroll the competition without really worrying about what the opposition does well. In the 2015 playoffs, styles will make for very compelling fights. It could be as much about whom you miss as it is whom you draw.
So let's look at each team's weaknesses to identify the potential opponent each club would prefer to avoid in this year's postseason. There are still clear gaps between relative team quality, so you can argue that everybody would rather play the Texans and avoid the Cardinals. That's not worth discussing. This is about finding matchups that would present more frustrating problems for a given team than win-loss records might indicate.
Let's start in the NFC and with those Seahawks, who might be the most dominant team in football by the numbers, but still have what could be a glaring hole in their excellent defense:
Weakness: defending tight ends
The Seahawks are good at just about everything beyond kicking extra points (Steven Hauschka missed four this season), punting (they're ranked 24th in the league) and stopping opposing tight ends. Seattle ranks 26th in DVOA against tight ends. By more traditional statistics, they were the sixth-worst defense in the league in terms of allowing fantasy points to opposing tight ends.
Wouldn't you know it? Their worst day of the year was Week 6, when they allowed Carolina's tight ends to go for 155 yards and a touchdown, including a seven-catch, 131-yard day from Greg Olsen. Olsen took advantage of a blown coverage for the game-winning score, and Seahawks fans might rightly wonder whether Seattle is in better shape against tight ends as their defense has improved by the end of the year. Earl Thomas & Co. allowed tight ends to catch 45 passes for 565 yards and five scores before Seattle's Week 9 bye. Afterward, opposing tight ends caught just 30 passes for 308 yards and three scores. If Seattle shored that up for good, opposing offenses are in serious trouble.
Weakness: beating tight coverage
Kryptonite: Kansas City
The book on the Packers nowadays is that their wide receiver corps, short Jordy Nelson, can't beat tight man coverage. That would seem to bode poorly if they ended up playing in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs, who favor press man coverage. It seems weird to say, given that Aaron Rodgers threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns when the Packers played the Chiefs earlier this season, but that was a fundamentally different Chiefs secondary from the one which has dominated the league over the past two months.
There are other concerns for the Packers, too. Their offensive line would likely struggle against a dominant Chiefs front, which has been a problem for the Pack for most of the year. They're allowing Rodgers to be pressured on 33.4 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in football. The Chiefs pressure opposing passers on 29.7 percent of their dropbacks, which ranks sixth in the league, and post a 3.6 QBR allowed on plays in which the opposing passer is bothered. That's the second-best figure in the league.
Weakness: relying on fumble recoveries to fuel the defense
Kryptonite: New England
The Washington defense ranks just 21st in defensive DVOA, the lowest of any team remaining in this year's playoffs. Even worse, the Redskins made it to 21st only by forcing and recovering the league's highest rate of fumbles; 8.9 percent of Washington's defensive possessions ended with a fumble recovery, which was the highest rate in football by a relatively comfortable margin.
Washington would obviously love to make an unexpected run to the Super Bowl, but it wouldn't be happy to see the Patriots on the other side of the field when it gets there. You may remember from this offseason that the Patriots don't often fumble the football; in fact, they've posted the league's second-lowest fumble rate (on a per-possession basis) and the league's lowest interception rate. In all, they've turned over the ball on a league-low 6.0 percent of drives. Turns out their success in avoiding giveaways wasn't about deflating footballs after all.
Weakness: throwing downfield
Kryptonite: Kansas City
Teddy Bridgewater struggles to push the ball down the field. The Vikings ranked just 22nd in the league in QBR on deep throws (16-plus yards in the air) this season, with Bridgewater throwing more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (three) on deep passes. They also failed to throw deep regularly; the only team that threw downfield less frequently than Minnesota's 76 deep passes was the Chiefs, who did so just 60 times.
Coincidentally, that would make the Chiefs a particularly bad defensive matchup for these Vikings if the Super Bowl ended up as a battle of conservative offenses. The Chiefs have posted the league's best QBR against passes thrown within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, an impressive 45.9 figure. On throws that the league identified as deep attempts traveling 16 yards or more in the air, the Chiefs fell off to 17th in QBR (84.2). And that's also true for the Vikings' defense, which was 21st in QBR on deep passes (92.2) and 10th on shorter throws (61.8). If it's what you see in practice ...
Weakness: punt coverage
While the Seahawks were able to exploit fill-in cornerback Justin Bethel as he struggled to replace the injured Tyrann Mathieu on Sunday, there's another way they exploited one of Arizona's few weaknesses. Seattle star rookie Tyler Lockett fielded four punts and returned them for 139 yards, which is more punt return yardage than the Chargers generated all season (84).
This isn't a momentary lapse for the Cardinals. Their punting unit has cost Arizona 12.7 points of field position this year. Only the Texans and Jets have been worse. Lockett, meanwhile, has been the point man on the league's best punt return grouping. You have to figure Arizona will boot the ball out of bounds to avoid Lockett if the teams meet for a third time this season, but then again, why didn't Bruce Arians order the Cardinals to do that in Week 17?
Weakness: Robert McClain
The Panthers have managed to make contributors out of quite a few castoffs this year, but it will be difficult to get the most out of their new starting cornerback. With both Bene Benwikere and now Charles Tillman done for the year, the Panthers will likely move McClain into the lineup to start across from superstar corner Josh Norman, who frequently covers the opposing team's No. 1 wideout.
If Carolina does draw the sixth seed from the AFC in the Super Bowl, it would be stuck with a major mismatch on virtually every play. If you assume that Norman would lock onto Antonio Brown, that would leave McClain matched up against Martavis Bryant, who is a handful for good cornerbacks. McClain doesn't have the athleticism or consistency to match up well against Bryant over 50 or 60 snaps, and when Bryant breaks one, it usually isn't for a short completion.
The Steelers also represent a stylistic problem for Carolina. The Panthers have a great pass defense, but one area in which they do struggle is when teams go way downfield. On throws 25 yards or more in the air, Carolina's QBR allowed is 13th in the league, at 79.0. They're the second-best defense in the league per QBR on passes any closer to the line of scrimmage. Do you know who throws those 25-plus-yard bombs more than anybody else in the league? The Pittsburgh Steelers, of course. (Seattle and Arizona also like to air it out, so there's a bit of kryptonite before the Super Bowl, too.)
Weakness: turnover-shy offenses
Kryptonite: New England, Kansas City
I've written about this a bit over the past few weeks, but the Steelers' defense needs takeaways to live. They force takeaways on 14.8 percent of drives, the seventh-best rate in the league, but they're 26th in the league in forcing both punts and three-and-outs. If you don't make a crucial mistake against the Steelers, you can usually matriculate the ball down the field for points. That's a problem, given that the Patriots and Chiefs rank 1-2 with the league's lowest giveaway rates on offense this season. And the downside of all that, of course, is that those long drives prevent the real strength of this Pittsburgh team -- its offense -- from getting onto the field.
Weakness: throwing downfield
Uh-oh. I noted that the Vikings were a team that played much better when teams kept the ball near the line of scrimmage, but do you know who else looks really good against the exact sort of passes Alex Smith and the Chiefs throw over and over again? It's their first-round opponent. Houston posted a 54.5 QBR against throws within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, the fourth-best figure in football this year. Granted, they're also good against deeper passes, ranking fifth on throws 16 yards or more in the air, but the Chiefs don't often make those sorts of passes, anyway. A better solution for the Chiefs might be screens; they threw a league-high 89 screen passes this year, while J.J. Watt & Co. were just 11th in QBR allowed against those throws.
Weakness: play-action offenses
Kryptonite: Arizona, Cincinnati
Houston's other major malfunction on defense is when teams trick it with run action. The Texans are generally a very good pass defense, but when teams have gone to the play-action this season, Houston's QBR allowed is 87, the third-worst rate in football. Teams are 62-of-92 on those throws for 887 yards with six touchdowns and zero picks. The good news is that only the Broncos and Jets faced fewer play-action pass attempts than the Texans, likely because teams were terrified that Watt would eat their quarterback.
A number of teams could slow the Texans that way. The Panthers ran 132 play-action passes this year, tied with Houston for the second most in the league, but posted a relatively middling QBR of 49.3 on those throws. The more efficient parties were the Cardinals (a 91.9 QBR on play-action passes, second best in the league) and Bengals (79.4, fifth).
Weakness: short passing offenses
Kryptonite: Kansas City
Unlike the defense in Kansas City, the Bengals are designed to take away the deep passing game and work backward. They've been very good at keeping out the big plays this year, posting the league's best DVOA on deep passes 16 or more yards downfield. On shorter throws, though? The Bengals are a lowly 26th in DVOA on throws within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, which should augur hope for Alex Smith and the Chiefs. Smith's average pass travels just 6.3 yards in the air, the lowest figure in the league by a comfortable margin.
Weakness: punt returns
New England's real kryptonite is injuries, but that's not really something one opposing team is going to deliberately exploit any better than another. On the field this year, the Patriots' one notable concern has been punt returns, in which they've dropped 6.7 points of field position, the 26th-ranked rate in the league, and allowed opposing return men to average 8.9 yards per punt return. That would open up things nicely for Lockett to do his thing on a much larger stage, although I can't imagine Bill Belichick actually punting the ball his way.
Kryptonite: Carolina, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Arizona
And we finish with the Broncos, who have an obvious concern, especially if Peyton Manning is back in the lineup. They turn over the ball far too frequently. The Broncos have given up the ball on 15.6 percent of their offensive drives, the fifth-highest rate in the league, and have the league's second-highest rate of drives ending in a pick. With Gary Kubiak seemingly returning to Manning after benching Brock Osweiler in Week 17, interceptions could again be a serious problem for the Broncos.
That's really a bad sign for the Broncos, given how many ball-hawking secondaries there are in this year's postseason gallery. Four teams ended more than 10 percent of their opponents' possessions with a pick this year, and they're all teams Denver could face along the way to a Super Bowl victory. The Panthers (12.4 percent of drives ending in an interception), Chiefs (12.3 percent), Bengals (11.9 percent) and Cardinals (10.4 percent) could all take advantage of the limited arm strength of Manning.