No. 1 Atlanta: The Falcons post big numbers on offense. They have a zone-based defense that's predicated on making the occasional big play. And they have a reputation for owning the regular season and then falling flat in the postseason. Will this year be different?
No. 2 San Francisco: The 49ers are not razor sharp heading into the postseason, but they play a brand of football that allows them to easily shake off dullness. Defensively, they're a straightforward man-to-man, two-deep unit. Offensively, the Niners are a bruising run-first club. A week off shouldn't hurt them at all.
No. 3 Green Bay: The Packers' run offense has improved lately, but Aaron Rodgers' play at quarterback has been exceptional all year. Defensively, Green Bay benefits with the return of Charles Woodson, who can plug in anywhere in the defensive backfield.
No. 4 Washington: The Redskins have, in a way, revolutionized the read-option in the NFL with rookie QB Robert Griffin III. The Broncos and the Panthers ran it last year, but not with this kind of dimension or down-to-down effectiveness. Other teams have started to pick it up, including first-round opponent Seattle.
No. 5 Seattle: Rookie QB Russell Wilson never ran the read-option in college. As this season has gone on, it has become more integral in Seattle's offense. With a zone-blocking line and a powerful running back in Marshawn Lynch, all the pieces are in place for it to continue.
No. 6 Minnesota: Adrian Peterson is a given for the Vikings, but QB Christian Ponder can the be difference-maker both ways. He had two bad turnovers in a loss to the Packers, then turned it around in Sunday's victory. Four consecutive victories in a playoff push has the team peaking at the right time.
No. 1 Denver: The Broncos have won 11 straight. Their margin of victory has been either seven or eight in four of those games and double digits in all the others. Peyton Manning had an MVP-type season, yet Denver's defense is even better than its offense. This is the AFC favorite.
No. 2 New England: The Patriots finished with the No. 1-ranked offense even though they are thin at receiver and TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were healthy together for only five games. QB Tom Brady still made it work. An improved defense is key to playoff success.
No. 3 Houston: The Texans offense hasn't been sharp the past two weeks. QB Matt Schaub has been unsuccessful dropping back to throw on a lot of early downs, which has put the Texans in obvious passing situations, eliminating the all-important play-action element from their offense.
No. 4 Baltimore: The Ravens defense will be back together after hybrid edge man Terrell Suggs, linebacker Ray Lewis, lineman Pernell McPhee and D-backs Jimmy Smith and Bernard Pollard all missed time during the season. Success is riding on better defensive play.
No. 5 Indianapolis: Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who had a midseason battle with leukemia, will be in his seventh game on the sidelines in a game against the Ravens, for whom he was defensive coordinator last season. Rookie QB Andrew Luck, the No. 1 draft choice, has been the real deal.
No. 6 Cincinnati: The Bengals, led by defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, have one of the stingiest run defenses in football. Their first game is a rematch of last year's playoff game, when they lost to Houston and backup quarterback T.J. Yates.
NEW YORK TIMES