Twelve contenders, all with issues that could make them pretenders.
To win the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city, each team in the NFL playoffs has a flaw it must conquer. A depleted defense in Denver. A sputtering offense in Seattle.
And plenty more elsewhere.
The Seahawks and Broncos both went 13-3 and earned the top seeds in their conferences. Along with the Panthers and Patriots, they get an extra week off to fix their imperfections.
Those four will do well to remember that six of the last eight Super Bowl champions played on wild-card weekend.
“Everybody is 0-0 now,” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said.
New England was the last team to parlay the best regular-season record into a title back in 2003, and the last No. 1 seed that got to say, “We’re No. 1!” was the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
Here’s a look at the main weakness of each of the 12 teams hoping to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in East Rutherford, N.J. on Feb. 2:
Denver: Behind Peyton Manning’s 55 TD passes, the Broncos are the NFL’s first 600-point team. But they lost Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe on defense. A great free agent class of Terrance Knighton, Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (plus Louis Vasquez and Wes Welker on offense) might make up for this injury epidemic.
“You may take a second to pause and reflect,” tight end Jacob Tamme said, “but everyone in here knows that what you do in the regular season is not what counts.”
New England: The Patriots’ tendency to let games go down to the wire could cost them. They’ve lost four times by a touchdown or less, including 13-6 to Cincinnati, their possible opponent in the divisional round. And they’ve lost three games in the final two minutes.
“We just all have to do a better job because our margin of error is very slim,” Tom Brady said after a 24-20 loss at Miami on Dec. 15. “We’re not winning by 30 points. Every game comes down to the end.”
Indianapolis: By mixing and matching six starting lineups over the last six games, the Colts have finally found a way to protect Andrew Luck. They could have their starting linemen back for the playoffs, and the trick is finding a combo that doesn’t mess up the mojo they’ve discovered on offense after losing Reggie Wayne at midseason.
“It’s probably like solving the Rubik’s Cube,” coach Chuck Pagano cracked when asked about choosing this week’s starters to fend off Kansas City’s front seven.
Cincinnati: Despite a club-record 33 TD passes, Andy Dalton has been streaky and has yet to come up big in the postseason. He’s had horrible playoff performances at Houston in his first two trips to the playoffs — six sacks, four interceptions, no TDs — and last year he overthrew wide-open A.J. Green in the end zone in the waning minutes of a 19-13 loss to the Texans.
“A great player is going to get those things and hit some of those,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said earlier this season about that overthrow. “That’s how you get to that status. If not, you’re never going to be looked at as that.”
Kansas City: There are only 25 players on the Chiefs’ 53-man roster who have played in a postseason game, and 12 of those have never won. Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since 1993, so the Chiefs, who have lost their last seven postseason games, will be leaning on those few who have had some success.
“Some of us have done this before,” said Alex Smith, who led the 49ers to the NFC title game two years ago. “It’s wiping the slate clean. It’s a brand new season. This game is such a week-to-week thing anyway.”
San Diego: Philip Rivers had a bounce-back season under coach Mike McCoy, but the Chargers’ defense nearly kept them out of the playoffs, allowing 332 yards to Kansas City’s backups in a game San Diego won 27-24 in overtime Sunday. Officials missed an infraction that should have given the Chiefs a 36-yard field goal try at the end of regulation.
“You’ve got to play our best every week or you’re going to get beat,” McCoy said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
Seattle: The Seahawks’ offense staggered down the stretch. Seattle was held under 300 yards in three of its final four games. The Seahawks’ biggest problem came on third downs, where they were a combined 5 of 26 in Weeks 15 and 16.
“I think that we have an offense that we can count on, we know where they’re coming from, they do a fantastic job taking care of the football and they’re tough, and we run the ball,” shrugged coach Pete Carroll.
Carolina: The Panthers’ passing game tends to stumble when 34-year-old receiver Steve Smith isn’t in the lineup. He was leading the team in catches and yards before he sprained his left knee in Week 16. Without him last week, Cam Newton struggled and Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon combined for 22 yards on four catches.
“He’s hard to replace,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “You need guys like that when you get to the postseason.”
Philadelphia: The Eagles’ defense has vastly improved, yet it has had trouble against elite passers such as wild-card opponent Drew Brees. The defense is ranked 29th in yards allowed, although the Eagles have been pretty good since Manning demolished them in Week 4 — except for when Matt Cassel looked like Joe Montana two weeks ago.
“This offense is so efficient, and it is run on Drew Brees and his decision making and quick release, and he really makes you defend the field both horizontally and vertically,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said.
Green Bay: The Packers are loaded with offensive playmakers. It’s another story on defense. Clay Matthews has 7½ sacks and a thumb injury and is out indefinitely. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have come up with a few timely turnovers but there’s no every-down, big-play threat like in years past.
“I love our defense. I love our football team. Throw the stats out the window,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “You can throw the bad ones at me and I’ll throw the good ones back at you. We’re a playoff football team.”
San Francisco: The reigning NFC champions have at times had trouble putting away teams, converting third downs and finishing strong in the red zone. They’ve relied heavily on kicker Phil Dawson. Unlike last year, they’ll start the playoffs on the road and in the cold.
“Keeping it simple, we’ll take our best players, go to Green Bay and try to beat their best players,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
New Orleans: After starting 9-2, the Saints appeared primed to seize one of the NFC’s top two seeds. Then they dropped their final three road games, relegating them to a wild card, which will force them to go back on the road for the playoffs, where they’re 0-5 in the franchise’s 47-year history.
“We’re in the postseason. That’s all that matters,” said linebacker Junior Galette. “It gives us a chance to go get a ring.”
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Howard Ulman, Michael Marot, Joe Kay, Dave Skretta, Bernie Wilson, Tim Booth, Steve Reed, Genaro Armas, Janie McCauley and Brett Martel contributed.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.