By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) As the season heads down the home stretch, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos appear to be on a collision course to play in the Super Bowl Feb. 2 at (snow-covered) MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
However, with three regular-season games left and a month of playoff activity to go before the Vince Lombardi Trophy is handed out, there are a lot of things that could go wrong for the teams that have the best chance to claim the championship.
In addition to the Seahawks and Broncos, there are seven other teams that can make a reasonable case for winning the title. In this piece, we look at the biggest weakness for each of the prime contenders and try to identify what could go wrong.
Seattle Seahawks – It’s hard to see anything knocking the Seahawks off stride because the NFC championship will go through Seattle barring an epic collapse in the final three games of the season.
The biggest problem area could be the play of the offensive line from this point forward. This appeared to be a strength for this team throughout much of the year, but the San Francisco 49ers defensive front worked the Seattle offensive line and scored a decisive victory in their Week 13 meeting.
In addition to health problems of center Max Unger (chest), the play of right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Breno Giacomini could become issues for Pete Carroll.
This unit has the ability to bounce back, but the 49ers may have provided a road map for victory against Seattle.
Denver Broncos – This team has been explosive on offense and has lit up the scoreboard all season. However, the Denver secondary has not stood tall this year. The Broncos give up 274.3 passing yards per game and rank 28th in that category.
Von Miller’s ability to harass opposing quarterbacks can mitigate this weakness, but opponents who get time can slice and dice the Denver secondary.
San Francisco 49ers – The Niners were favored in many corners to get back to the Super Bowl and win it after falling just short of the Baltimore Ravens last year. However, the 49ers have rarely gotten the dynamic play from quarterback Colin Kaepernick that they got last year.
The good news is that Kaepernick has led the Niners to three straight victories after indifferent play for much of the season. But if the Niners are going to find a way to get back to the title game, Kaepernick must raise his game quite a bit. He ranks 18th in passer rating and that’s simply not good enough.
Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals have won three straight games and have scored 40 points or more in two of those games. Andy Dalton is coming off his best game of the year as he completed 24-of-35 passes for 275 yards with three TDs and no interceptions.
Dalton was sharp, calm, confident and accurate. Don’t be fooled by one great game against the Indianapolis Colts. Dalton usually struggles to find his receivers and his accuracy is the big question. That could be fatal for the Bengals.
New Orleans Saints – After an awful 2012 season, the Saints have bounced back in a big way. They are a dominant team at home, but they are nowhere near as capable when they go on the road.
That’s going to be an issue if they face the Seahawks in Seattle in the divisional playoffs or the NFC Championship game. The Saints’ defense lacks some of the strength at the point of attack that you want to see from a championship team.
While New Orleans is much better on defense than it was a year ago, it ranks 17th against the run and there are times when defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebackers Junior Gallette and Parys Haralson will get pushed backwards. That’s going to cause problems in the postseason against quality opponents that can get the lead and then control the clock.
Carolina Panthers – The Saints punched the Panthers in the nose Sunday night and there is little doubt that Ron Rivera’s team has the wherewithal to bounce back.
The Panthers’ greatest strength may also be their biggest weakness. Cam Newton is a difference maker at quarterback and he appears to have the same kind of dynamic ability that Kaepernick showed last year. However, the spotlight is going to be on him and he is going to have come through with great plays consistently.
Newton’s accuracy on short- and medium-range passes does not compare with the best quarterbacks in the game and that could sink the Panthers as they attempt to mount a championship run.
New England Patriots – The Patriots have a superb record at 10-3 and they have mounted some superb comebacks over the Broncos, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns in recent week. They have the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
However, their defense is vulnerable because they can’t stop the run and the season-ending injury suffered by TE Rob Gronkowski (ACL and MCL) will eviscerate the offense.
Yes, they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but they will not survive a trip to Denver if they get to the AFC Championship game.
Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs will be a tough out, but they are not going to be able to trade points with teams like the Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals. Alex Smith is a solid quarterback who lacks star quality, while top wideout Dwayne Bowe will not pay the price when the game is on the line.
Bowe shies away from big hits, and that’s going to prove fatal to Andy Reid’s Chiefs.
Philadelphia Eagles – While the Eagles have found their quarterback in Nick Foles and they have won five games in a row, the Eagles can’t stop quality opponents. It’s difficult to see the Eagles matching up with the Seahawks, Saints or Panthers and surviving a hard-fought 60-minute game.
They rank 30th overall on defense and 30th against the pass. The defense will be easy pickings in the playoffs.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.