With quarterback Cam Newton as the catalyst, the CAROLINA PANTHERS have scored at least 27 points 13 times. Their stern defense—led by the triumvirate of defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman—pummels the opposition and allows an average of around 20 points per game.
Having home field advantage makes the Carolina Panthers even more dangerous, and any team wondering into Bank of America Stadium in January better be ready for four quarters of smashmouth football.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Like a fine wine, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has become better with age. Since taking over in 2013, Arizona has improved on its win total each year, but one major accomplishment has evaded the squad: a playoff win.
With 12-year veteran Carson Palmer having arguably the best season of his career, the Cardinals are prime position to collect their first postseason win since 2009. Along with Palmer, an impressive collection of receivers, headlined by Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, a strong running game and a gritty offensive line make the offense a force to be reckoned with.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are in the house, the Pats will always be a threat come playoff time. On the heels of tremendous off-season controversy, the 38-year-old Brady has had one of the finest seasons of his career, notching 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns.
While Brady deserves acclaim, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit deserves its fair shake as well. Despite injuries to important players like Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins and Dominique Easley, the defense has persevered and overachieved once again.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Just a few months ago, it looked like going to a third consecutive Super Bowl was a far-fetched dream when the Seahawks stumbled to a 2-4 start. Quarterback Russell Wilson looked off-kilter, Marshawn Lynch struggled through injuries, the offensive line was a sieve and the famed “Legion of Boom” secondary showed cracks.
Despite all the issues, Pete Carroll’s squad rebounded when it mattered, putting together an impressive second half of the season that featured Wilson carrying the team like never before – highlighted by a stretch of games with 19 touchdown passes and zero turnovers.
Seattle knows how this works by now, and it holds a distinct experience advantage over top seeds Carolina and Arizona. Playing away from their distinct home field advantage makes the Seahawks more vulnerable, but hardly a long shot.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: After starting 1-5 and losing one of the best playmakers in the league in Jamaal Charles for the season due to injury, many pundits wrote the Chiefs off. Instead, Kansas City went on 10-game tear that saw them rise from the ashes and clinch a spot in the playoffs.
Quarterback Alex Smith has played very well, running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have stepped up in Charles’ absence, big-money free agent Jeremy Maclin is a reliable outside target and tight end Travis Kelce has blossomed. The defense has stuffed opponent after opponent and rookie cornerback Marcus Peters is already one of the best at his position.
In a wide open AFC, the Chiefs making a championship run might not be so outlandish.