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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Playoff preview: No real upset if top seeds get planted

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The 12-team NFL playoff field is set. It is as good a field as we've had in a long time, with all four wild-card teams plenty capable of making Super Bowl runs.

The 12 teams are loaded with star quarterbacks, plenty of gaudy statistics and long lists of reasons why they are still playing in January.

That doesn't mean they don't have faults. Much like a centerfold girl with a pimple on her chin, they all have issues -- no matter how pretty they look.

So as we ready for the playoffs to begin, here's a look at each of the 12 teams, breaking them all down in a handful of categories.

Hope this helps you figure out your Super Bowl picks. My pick before the season was Falcons-Colts. I'll stick to it, but it wouldn't shock me to see a combination of any 11 teams. Seattle, you have no chance.

It's too easy to think it will be Falcons-Patriots, pairing the two top seeds. I can't see that happening in this crazy season filled with crazy games.

Here's your playoff breakdown:

New England Patriots

Team strength: It all starts with quarterback Tom Brady. He has been masterful this season, throwing to a bunch of rookies and players with little speed. His ability to feel the pressure in the pocket will be huge in the postseason. He's been here before. That matters.

Area of concern: Third-down defense. The Patriots were 30th in the league on third down. That isn't good enough. They have to be better in the playoffs, or they will be in a lot of shootouts. Or teams will control the football and keep it from Brady.

Player on the spot: OLB Rob Ninkovich. He had two sacks and three tackles for loss last week against Miami and is an effort player who goes hard all the time. The Patriots have to get pressure from somebody, and Ninkovich might be that guy.

Unsung hero to watch: WR Brandon Tate is the only real speed on the offense. He has to stretch the field for Brady. He's also a good kick-return man. He has to make some big plays to help the passing game.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... The defense plays better than it did most of the season. Brady will need to be even better if the Patriots play like the 25th-ranked unit they were during the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Team strength: The Steelers led the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and rushing yards per carry. They are stout against the run. Casey Hampton in the middle is a big reason.

Area of concern: The Steelers finished 30th in the league in sacks per pass play. Ben Roethlisberger has been pressured way too much. He's good moving away from it, but even for a player with his mobility the pressure has been too much.

Player on the spot: Left tackle Jonathan Scott doesn't have much experience and has struggled at times since taking over as the starter when Max Starks went down. He has to be better.

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Unsung hero to watch: Rookie Emmanuel Sanders, the team's third receiver, has made big strides the past month. You know about Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, but this is a player who will be key on third down in the passing game. He can also return kicks.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... The offensive line can piece together a decent postseason as it did in 2008. They have to be better than they have been this season.

Indianapolis Colts

Team strength: It's Peyton Manning and the passing game. He can carry this team to the Super Bowl if he gets hot. Manning, despite some midseason struggles, is still as good as any quarterback in the league.

Area of concern: The running game. What else is new? The Colts finished ranked 29th in the league in rushing. But they did go to the Super Bowl last season when they ranked last. They've run it better the past three games, but we'll see if that carries over.

Player on the spot: The Colts are clearly a better team when Joseph Addai is running with the football. He missed time with injuries and it really hurt the offense. He is also big in the passing game, both catching the ball and in protection.

Unsung hero to watch: Tight end Jacob Tamme took over when Dallas Clark went down. He has had a nice season -- even if he isn't as good as Clark. His ability to find soft spots in coverage will be key for Manning and the passing game.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Manning gets hot and the pass rushers can create havoc when the Colts have the lead. This is a team that can win shootouts.

Kansas City Chiefs

Team strength: They led the league in rushing and they make no bones about what they want to do on offense. It helps keep the pressure off the passing game. Jamaal Charles is a home-run threat every time he touches the football.

Area of concern: They were 30th in the league in passing. That means if the run game isn’t working, the Chiefs could have some problems moving the football.

Player on the spot: Quarterback Matt Cassel. He had an impressive season, but we know quarterbacks are defined by the postseason. This will be his first. How does he handle it?

Unsung hero to watch: NT Ron Edwards doesn't get a lot of attention, but he does the dirty work in the middle of the line. He was exceptional early in the season, tailed off some but is still a big part of their defense.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... they can consistently run it and Cassel doesn't morph into the guy we saw against the Raiders last week and becomes a playoff star.

Baltimore Ravens

Team strength: The Ravens finished fifth in the league in run defense. You don't just line up and run the ball on the Ravens. They are physical up front and they have speed at linebacker. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is the key to it all.

Area of concern: Hard to believe, but it's the running game. The Ravens did not run the ball this season as well as they have in recent years. That has to change come playoff time. It's Ray Rice time.

Player on the spot: Rice. He came up big in the playoffs last season, and they will need him again in this one.

Unsung hero to watch: Corner Josh Wilson came over from Seattle and has been their best cover player the second half of the season. He will have to come up big against passing teams like Indianapolis and New England if they are to play down the road. He did have a shoulder stinger in last week's game.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Joe Flacco can come up big in the passing game and the defense reverts to its old, nasty ways. The back end of the secondary has to be better.

New York Jets

Team strength: They were third in the league in yards per play allowed, which is a testament to how tough their defense is to move the football on. They are especially tough against the run.

Area of concern: Quarterback Mark Sanchez. Is he ready yet? He played OK in the playoffs last season, but the Jets didn't ask him to do too much. He will have to do more if the Jets are to make a strong Super push.

Player on the spot: Sanchez. Can he have a good postseason after a so-so regular season? They need him big time.

Unsung hero to watch: Nose tackle Sione Pouha stepped in when Kris Jenkins went down and he's played well. His ability to control the nose is key to the run defense.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Sanchez can make plays in the passing game and the defense doesn't get beat inside in pass coverage as it did in bad losses to Chicago and New England.

NFC

Atlanta Falcons

Team strength: It's the physical running game with Michael Turner. When they get Turner going, it sets up the rest of the offense. It also helps that they don't turn the ball over. They were a plus-14 in turnover ratio with just 17 all season.

Area of concern: Even though they have John Abraham rushing off the edge, they don't get enough pressure on the quarterback from elsewhere. That could lead to a lot of blitzing come playoff time, which could expose the secondary.

Player on the spot: Quarterback Matt Ryan. He went to the playoffs in his first season, but now in his third he's asked to do so much more. It's his time to show he's an elite quarterback.

Unsung hero to watch: Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a speed player who missed time with injuries this season, but is healthy again and ready to play a big role. He has the speed to match up with backs and tight ends and he can blitz. The Falcons were much better on third down this season when he was on the field.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... The defense can play the way it did in the final two games. The offense will score. Ryan and that running game should be able to put up points. But the defense has to show it can be a Super Bowl-caliber unit.

Chicago Bears

Team strength: They are third in the NFL in rushing defense. It's hard to sustain drives against them because of that. It also helps the pass rush by putting teams in third-and-long situations.

Area of concern: The offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL for much of the season. The Bears were last in sacks per pass play. The line did seem to come together late in the season, but it is still a big worry.

Player on the spot: Cutler. This is his chance to show all his skeptics that he can be a big-time quarterback. If he throws picks in the playoffs, the hecklers will come at him again. He needs to play big if the Bears are to have any chance.

Unsung hero to watch: Cornerback Tim Jennings was signed as a free agent with the idea he might be a nickel corner. He's become their best cover player this season. He has to continue to play at a high level in an NFC field known for passing teams.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Cutler doesn't make mistakes. The defense is good enough to win a Super Bowl, but the offense has struggled at times. Cutler can't give the opposition point-blank chances.

Philadelphia Eagles

Team strength: Eagles finished with the top-ranked offense in the NFL. It features Mike Vick and an explosive passing game, but running back LeSean McCoy is a big part of the success as well. It is a fast unit.

Area of concern: The pass defense has struggled at times. They are solid with corner Asante Samuel and safety Quintin Mikell, but the other two spots are shaky. They finished in the middle of the league rankings in pass defense.

Player on the spot: Vick. He's had a great season, but he bombed in his last game against Minnesota. He has to show he can be a playoff performer or none of his regular-season magic will matter.

Unsung hero to watch: Rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney took over as the starter when Stewart Bradley was lost for the season. Cheney has played well, but the playoffs are a big step up for a seventh-round pick.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... They shore up the back end of their defense and Vick continues to play at an explosive level. The offensive line has to be ready to handle the blitzing as well.

Seattle Seahawks

Team strength: There's not much. So I'll go with special teams. That means Leon Washington and the return game. He has to come up with some big plays in the return game to give them a chance.

Area of concern: They have the 27th-ranked offense, but the biggest problem area is the running game. The Seahawks were 30th in the league.

Player on the spot: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has played in big playoff games and a Super Bowl. But he hasn't been very good this season. He was good against New Orleans when they met, but he is bothered by a hip injury. He might lose some snaps to Charlie Whitehurst, but it looks like he will play.

Unsung hero to watch: Free safety Earl Thomas was a first-round pick, but he's still a rookie so he fits here. He is a rangy player who can run, which you need in the back end when you face the Saints. He will be key against that New Orleans passing game.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Hell freezes over. No chance. They just don't do enough on defense to stop anybody and the quarterback situation isn't good.

New Orleans Saints

Team strength: It has to be that passing game. With Drew Brees running it and Sean Payton calling it, it's one of the best in the NFL. The Saints finished second in the league in passing yards per game. When Brees is on, he's tough to stop.

Area of concern: They just haven't run the ball that well this season. The return of Reggie Bush from injury should help, but losing Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory certainly won't. They ranked 27th in the league in rushing.

Player on the spot: Bush. He missed a lot of time and just now seems to be rounding into shape. His speed is vital to the Saints passing game. He can also break open games as a return man.

Unsung hero to watch: Free safety Malcolm Jenkins has been fantastic in his first as a starter. His range and ability to match up in coverage is important for the Saints defense. The concern now is his health. He had a knee injury last week against Tampa Bay.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... The defense plays the way it did against Atlanta two weeks ago. They were aggressive and fast. If they can play that way, coupled with Brees and that offense, the Saints just might repeat.

Green Bay Packers

Team strength: You would think the choice would be quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but I'll go with the defense. They were the top-scoring defense in the NFC. Dom Capers can scheme up a defense as well as anybody and Clay Matthews is a force off the edge.

Area of concern: They don't run the ball well on offense. It's been a problem since Ryan Grant went down early in the season. That has to be better to take some of the pressure off Rodgers.

Player on the spot: Running back Brandon Jackson. When Grant went down, the running game was hurt badly. Jackson has had his moments, but he needs to have a good playoff run if this team is to have a Super Bowl chance. He had 99 yards against New England three weeks ago, so he has the ability.

Unsung hero to watch: Cornerback Sam Shields is the other corner on the Packers. He is the third guy behind Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, who form the best starting tandem in the league. Because the other guys are so good, Shields should see plenty of action come his way against the Eagles and if the Packers move along. He is also a good return man.

Will go to the Super Bowl if ... Rodgers can put up 25 points a game and the defense plays to the same level it has all season. It won't be easy, though, since they would have to win three road games.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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