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Christmas Gifts for Playoff Contenders

In the spirit of the Christmas season, here are presents for the top eight teams in each conference vying for playoff spots, gift-wrapped and all:

AFC (with current seedings)

1. Denver Broncos (11-3): Warm weather

It’s no secret that Peyton Manning has a poor-win loss record in frigid, windy conditions. It looks like Denver will receive this gift in both of their remaining regular season games (at Houston, at Oakland) but things could get rough in the playoffs if they have to travel to New England.

2. New England Patriots (10-4): A healthy Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins

The Patriots’ passing attack is lacking spark without these two rookies in the lineup. Dobson (foot) offers breakaway speed and playmaking ability on the outside, while Thompkins (hip) is growing into a trusted target for Tom Brady.  With the other injuries the Patriots have suffered this year, they could use some health at the receiver position.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-5): Consistent play from Andy Dalton

During Weeks 8-11, Dalton threw nine interceptions. In three games since, he has been picked off only once. Cincinnati will need Dalton to avoid another uptick in turnovers if they are going to earn a desirable seed in the AFC.

4. Indianapolis Colts (9-5): An improved yards-per-carry average from Trent Richardson

Since being traded to Indianapolis from the Browns early in the season, Richardson has a measly yards-per-carry average of 2.9. To take the pressure off of young quarterback Andrew Luck in big games, the Colts will need the gift of a more productive Richardson.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3): A more explosive passing offense

While it is true that defense wins championships, a productive passing game surely doesn’t hurt. The Chiefs are ranked a pedestrian 23rd in total passing yards entering Week 16.

6. Baltimore Ravens (8-6): A touchdown

It’s hard to win a game in today’s NFL without scoring a touchdown, but the defending champs managed to pull it off against the Lions on Monday night. Don’t expect lightning to strike twice, however: to beat the Patriots in Week 16, Baltimore must score multiple times.

7. Miami Dolphins (8-6): An improved offensive line

The Dolphins have given up a league-leading 51 sacks this season. It’ll be hard to make much noise in the playoffs if Ryan Tannehill is getting sacked three, four times a game.

8. San Diego Chargers (7-7): A lot of luck

For San Diego to make the playoffs here is what must happen: (1) they must win out, (2) the Dolphins must lose out, and (3) the Ravens must lose out.

NFC (with current seedings)

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-2): Bubble wrap 

The Seahawks have clinched the top seed in the NFC, giving them home field advantage for the playoffs in one of the league’s most hostile environments for opponents. The only thing that can go badly for Seattle in these last two regular season games is an injury to a key contributor.

 2. New Orleans Saints (10-4): A bad memory

The Saints must forget their bad 27-16 loss to the Rams last week if they are going to have any chance against the Panthers in Week 16. The winner of the New Orleans-Carolina tilt will have the inside track on the NFC’s second seed.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-6): An improved secondary

If Matt Cassel can put up 382 yards on this 31st-ranked Philly pass defense, imagine what Jay Cutler and Tony Romo could do in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. Yes, the Eagles’ potent offense will keep them in any game, but their weak secondary could cost them in the playoffs.

4. Chicago Bears (8-6): An improved run defense

If you thought that the New England run defense was bad, look at the Bears. Chicago is ranked dead last in the NFL against the run, giving up an average of 5.2 yards per carry (substantially more than the Pats’ 4.4). To make matters worse, the Bears face top-flight rushers LeSean McCoy and Eddie Lacy in their final two regular season games.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4): A punt/kick return touchdown

After getting trounced by the Saints a few weeks ago, the Panthers will be looking to exact revenge in Week 16. A good way to jump out to an early lead would be a return touchdown from the special teams, which hasn’t produced a score yet this season.

6. San Francisco 49ers (10-4): A breakout game from Michael Crabtree

There is no doubt that Crabtree is San Francisco’s top receiver, but since returning to the field in Week 12, he has yet to rack up more than 68 yards receiving in a game. A big performance from the fifth-year man would help the ‘Niners secure a playoff spot.

 7. Arizona Cardinals (9-5): A speedy recovery for Larry Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was concussed in Arizona’s win over the Titans on Sunday, and his status for the Cardinals-Seahawks matchup this week is up in the air. The Cardinals will sorely need him the following week as well, against the 49ers.

 8. Green Bay Packers (7-6-1): A healthy (and sharp) Aaron Rodgers

Not only do the Packers need Rodgers back in the lineup for their final two games against Pittsburgh and Chicago, but they also need him to shake off the rust quickly. How frustrating would it be to see Rodgers finally wearing green and gold again, only to watch him throw a bunch of picks?


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