With the NFC playoff field set, here is a look at the biggest hurdle for all six teams on the road to the Super Bowl:
1. Carolina Panthers: Secondary Depth
The Panthers are beat up in the secondary, with Charles Tillman dealing with a partially torn ACL and Bene Benwikere out for the season with a broken leg. Carolina signed veteran Cortland Finnegan, but can he hold up against some of the powerful passing offenses in the NFC field? Safety Roman Harper is 33 years old and a potential liability in pass coverage at the backend of the defense.
Also, the Panthers probably want no part of the Seahawks in the Divisional Round. While home field advantage is huge, having to potentially beat Seattle and Arizona in back-to-back weeks would be a seriously tough road to the Super Bowl for the NFL’s only 15-1 team.
2. Arizona Cardinals: Giveaways
The Cardinals look like one of the most complete teams in the playoff field, with a top-10 scoring offense and defense and playmakers all over the field. Sunday’s 30-point loss to Seattle is a little concerning, but the bigger issue for Arizona moving forward might be the offense’s tendency to give the football away.
The Cardinals had 24 turnovers in 2015, which ranked 17th in the NFL. Arizona gave away the football nine times over the team’s three losses, including three on Sunday. If Bruce Arians’ team can avoid costly turnovers, Arizona could go all the way. If not, turnovers might be the one thing capable of keeping Carson Palmer from his first playoff win.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Pass Protection
Can the Vikings protect second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater well enough to advance in the NFC? Bridgewater was sacked 41 times in 2015, including 25 times over Minnesota’s five losses.
The Seahawks—who will travel back to TCF Bank Stadium for the first round—beat up on Bridgewater back in Week 13, when Seattle sacked him four times and hit him on several other drop backs. The Vikings can make plays in the passing game when the protection holds up in front of Bridgewater. It can get ugly quick for the Minnesota offense when the front five consistently lose their matchups on passing downs.
4. Washington Redskins: Unfamiliar Test
You can only play who is on your schedule, but facts are facts: The Redskins played only two playoff teams in 2015, and they lost both games. Washington went to New England and lost by 17, before traveling to Carolina and losing by 28. In fact, Jay Gruden’s club didn’t beat a team with a winning record in 2015.
Can Washington rise to the challenge and beat a Packers team that has been to the postseason seven straight seasons? There is good news. The game will played at FedEx Field, where the Redskins won six of eight games in 2015. Also, Kirk Cousins threw 23 touchdowns against just three interceptions over his final 10 games. He’s a more dangerous quarterback than Aaron Rodgers right now.
5. Green Bay Packers: Offense
Despite having a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers aren’t good enough on offense to make a deep playoff run. Defenses have figured out how to stop this version of the Green Bay attack, and it’s relatively simple: Stop the run, force the Packers to throw and play smothering man-to-man coverage down the field.
Green Bay’s offensive line hasn’t held up, both injury-wise and performance-wise, and Rodgers—a two-time MVP—hasn’t been good enough or consistent enough to make up the difference. There’s now more than enough evidence to confidently say the Packers aren’t waking up from this nightmare on offense.
6. Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line
Russell Wilson has been the best quarterback in football over the second half of the season, and Seattle once again finished as the top ranked scoring defense. There is so much to like about the defending NFC champions, but if any one thing could derail another deep run, it’s probably the Seattle offensive line. Teams that have beat the Seahawks this season have exploited some of the mismatches up front.
That said, this team was without Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy last week in Arizona, and it didn’t matter. There’s also good chance they’ll both be back for this weekend. Having to go on the road for the entirety of the playoff is another hurdle.