1. Seattle Seahawks -- The Seahawks are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, built to win in the playoffs with a strong, disciplined, consistent defense and an offense that rarely turns over the ball. This is largely the same cast of characters that won the whole thing last year -- Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, the Legion of Boom and the front-seven -- so that big-game experience could pay dividends. It doesn't hurt that Seattle appears to be peaking at just the right time and have outscored opponents over the last six weeks 134-39, a 95 point differential.
Moreover, the Seahawks locked up the No.1 seed and now have that ever-important home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. The Seahawks are 16-2 over the last two years at CenturyLink Field, including playoffs, and the road to the Super Bowl now goes through The CLink ... again.
2. Green Bay Packers -- This is a quarterback league, and the Packers have the advantage of being led by possibly the best signal caller in the NFL right now. Aaron Rodgers mixes incredible accuracy and touch with excellent velocity and a short, quick, and compact delivery. Moreover, he can move around and get out of the pocket to make plays, making it extremely difficult to defend Green Bay's offense. With a talented stable of weapons at his disposal, Aaron Rodgers has the ability to completely take over games.
Importantly, though, Green Bay has balance on offense, and can lean on the run game if weather conditions are unfavorable or if Rodgers has a rare off day. Simply put, this team can beat you in a number of ways, and they'll be hard to stop once the playoffs start.
3. Dallas Cowboys -- The Cowboys can score points in a hurry -- they finished fifth in the NFL in points per games this season -- but more importantly, they can control the clock, and they led the NFL in time of possession per game with 32:51 per matchup. This keeps opposing offenses off the field and off the scoreboard.
It starts up front with the offensive line, who have done an amazing job clearing running lanes and protecting Tony Romo and Tony Romo's back this year. With Romo's ability to strike deep down the field to Jason Witten and Terrance Williams, convert in the red zone with Dez Bryant, and maintain possession of the football with a demoralizingly effective run game led by DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys can jump out to leads and then hold them. Moreover, the Cowboys can play their game in any weather - rain or shine.
4. Carolina Panthers -- The Panthers are hot at the right time. The midseason slump Carolina went through isn't totally indicative of the talent level on this roster. The defense has the physicality to play with anyone and their style of ball fit the postseason well. They can play in any type of weather and have difference makers on the front seven.
Offensively, Cam Newton's dual run-pass threat presents issues for defensive coordinators, who have to dedicate an extra defender to the box to account for his legs. This opens up space in the intermediate and deep areas of the field, and Newton's done a good job of distributing the ball efficiently.
Bottom line, with the defense smothering opposing offenses and Cam Newton and his crew finally starting to come together, anything can happen.
5. Arizona Cardinals -- Defense, defense, defense. The Cardinals have the ability to completely shut down an opposing offense and showed the ability generate pressure and create turnovers on the side of the ball. Todd Bowles has talented difference makers in DE Calais Campbell, CBs Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, OLB Alex Okafor, ILB Larry Foote, and DT Dan Williams to work with, and has done a great job of getting wildcards in safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Buchannon involved in the action.
Bowles will bring pressure from the middle, from the corner, both, or neither, and he mixes it up enough that opposing quarterbacks rarely have much of an idea where, when, or even if pressure is coming. This has led to a lot of mistakes, and Arizona has capitalized in the form of 18 picks on the year. If the Cardinals are going to win it all, it will be because of their hounding, ball-hawking defense.
6. Detroit Lions -- They say that "defense wins championships," and by the most important metrics, Detroit was among the NFL's elite this season. They can pressure from the interior with Ndamukong Suh, bring heat from the edge with Ziggy Ansah, can tackle in the middle with DeAndre Levy, and create turnovers with Glover Quinn and James Ihedigbo. Detroit's ability to first make opponents one-dimensional by taking away their run game, then create turnovers once they've forced the enemy to pass -- well, that's the formula the Seahawks used last year in helping them win it all.
Detroit is balanced, too, and has the ability to put points on the board when they're clicking. Matt Stafford's arsenal includes a dangerous red-zone threat in Calvin Johnson, a run-after-the-catch home-run hitter in Golden Tate, and a stable of versatile running backs and tight ends to boot.
1. New England Patriots -- The Patriots win in all three phases, with a strong offense, a turnover creating defense, and a field-flipping, big play special teams group.
The defense has mastered the bend-but-don't break defense that tightens up in the red zone, and with Bill Belichick designing ever-changing game plans on both sides of the ball for specific opponents, they're a difficult team to prepare for.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that New England has Tom Brady throwing passes, and Brady's been playing at a high level going all the way back to Week 4. He's shown an ability to spread the ball around based on matchups and game-flow, and they can score points in a hurry if they're behind, while still putting together extended drives when they're ahead.
Having a guarantee of home-field advantage all the way through is another enormous advantage.
2. Denver Broncos -- The Broncos are a well-balanced team with talent on both sides of the ball. With Peyton Manning running the offensive show combined with the amount of weapons Denver can trot out onto the field, they can win in any given week running away. With a healthy Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and even Wes Welker and rookie Cody Latimer, it's a daunting proposition to defend this team for sixty minutes.
The Broncos' strong run defense can force opponents to become one dimensional, allowing Miller and Ware to pin their ears back, harass and affect the quarterback, and rush passes into the domain of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. This team can create turnovers in a hurry, and that's a big factor in the playoffs.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers leaky pass defense leaves them somewhat vulnerable, but the fact is, their offense can score points in bunches. Big Ben's crew is equipped to jump out to big leads or make comebacks when needed with the explosive passing element, and can control the game when that's the goal. With a strong run game and efficient mid-range passing game, Pittsburgh uses their space players in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell to move the chains and control the ball.
Ben Roethlisberger has been very strong late in games this year and has previous Playoff and Super Bowl experience under his belt. A youth movement on defense has that group playing stronger in the red zone late in the year and could be a big factor in the postseason.
4. Indianapolis Colts -- When Andrew luck catches fire, he's tough to stop. The same can be said for the Colts' offense. The connection between Luck and T.Y. Hilton creates a homerun threat on every snap, and Luck has a bevy of targets that have shown potential as big play threats, including Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen give Luck intermediate targets up the seam, and Reggie Wayne is a nice security blanket everywhere in between.
The defense, while inconsistent, showed they can play against some of the AFC's Playoff-caliber teams in Cincinnati and Baltimore. If this defense can recapture that toughness and killer instinct, the Colts could make some noise come the postseason.
5. Cincinnati Bengals -- The Bengals have a ball control, run-based offense that can eat up the clock with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. They can hit the home run with A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. They have a strong pass defense that creates turnovers. These elements give them a chance against anyone, and if they can continue to rush the passer on defense and avoid turnovers on offense, they have the change to give the AFC playoff teams a run for their money.
Andy Dalton is the wildcard for Cincy, and has shown the ability to take control of the offense in the past. If he can play well, the sky's the limit.
6. Baltimore Ravens -- This team still has a good amount of playoff experience among them. The shared memory of taking a 10-6 regular season and turning it into a Super Bowl victory should be fresh enough in their minds. This team knows that the 2012 Super Bowl champs got hot at the right time and rode that streak to a Lombardi Trophy, and the 2014 Ravens certainly hold that potential once again.
Balance is the key to Baltimore's postseason potential. They can run, pass deep, play defense, and have strong special teams units. If Joe Flacco can get into a rhythm with his receivers, make a few big plays down the field, and continue to feed Justin Forsett in the ground game, this Ravens team has proven they can put points on the board. Meanwhile, the defense has shown they can suffocate opposing offenses, and getting Haloti Ngata back for the postseason is a huge boon.