Each of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs are capable of winning the Super Bowl, but no squad is perfect. The weaknesses on each squad could end up costing them a chance at a title.
The conference championships feature a great rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, as well as an elite quarterback battle as the New England Patriots take on the Denver Broncos. If the teams all play at their best, fans will be in line for a great set of games.
However, every squad has something that could hold it back either on Sunday or in the Super Bowl. Here is a look at one weakness for each team heading into the weekend.
Denver Broncos: Turnovers
At first glance, you would think the pass defense is the biggest problem for the Broncos. However, the secondary has been playing much better as of late, mainly thanks to an improved pass rush.
On the other hand, the team has been fortunate enough to get away with a lot of turnovers throughout the season. The Broncos led the NFL with 16 fumbles, leading to an even turnover ratio. Only the San Diego Chargers were worse among AFC playoff teams.
Denver lost the turnover battle in each of the three losses during the year, totaling eight giveaways in these matchups. This includes three fumbles and an interception against the Patriots earlier in the year.
Last week, the Broncos escaped with a win over the Chargers despite two more turnovers, one of which came in the end zone.
The teams remaining are too good to not take advantage of these mistakes. Denver has to learn how to hold onto the ball and win these turnover battles or else they will be sent home early.
New England Patriots: Run Defense
Thanks to the losses of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and more, the Patriots ended the season ranked 30th against the run.
This did not end up being a problem against the Indianapolis Colts, who have an inconsistent rushing attack to begin with. However, you only have to look as far as Week 17 to see the Buffalo Bills rush for 169 yards in a game that was close until the end.
The Broncos are certainly aware that you can move the ball on the ground against New England. Knowshon Moreno only had a single 100-yard game this season, and that came against the Patriots when he exploded for 224 rushing yards on 37 carries.
Doug Kyed of NESN points out that the defense has improved since then thanks to the emergence of defensive tackle Sealver Siliga:
Siliga now is starting at the nose next to Jones, and the Patriots’ run defense has been transformed...Siliga is able to take on double teams, which Jones and Vellano could not, and he’s actually been a playmaker in the middle of the defense, recording three sacks and many run stops.
Still, the Patriots have to prove that this new unit is capable of stopping some of the better rushing attacks in the league. If Moreno does not provide a tough test, Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore certainly will.
Both NFC teams are physical up front and could cause problems for the Patriots if they are not careful.
San Francisco 49ers: Red-Zone Scoring
Two weeks in a row, the 49ers were dominant in the early going but could only manage a 6-0 lead after the first quarter thanks to stalled drives. In both cases, they ended up trailing 7-6 in the second quarter because the opponent was able to get into the end zone.
Obviously, San Francisco was able to figure things out enough to come away with victories, but red-zone field goals might not be enough against the Seahawks or either team from the AFC.
During the year, the 49ers ranked 14th in the NFL (and fourth among remaining teams) with a 53.97 percent success rate at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In the last three games, that number has dropped to 38.46 percent, according to TeamRankings.com.
With a big offensive line, a strong running back, an elite tight end and a mobile quarterback, the 49ers have all the ingredients necessary to have success in this area. However, things simply are not clicking.
If there are no improvements, the defense might not be able to save them.
Seattle Seahawks: Penalties
It is hard to believe that a team this good can suffer from such simple errors, but mental mistakes are what could end up killing the Seahawks this season.
Seattle was last in the NFL in both penalties and penalty yards per game in 2013, according to NFLPenalties.com.
There are many calls that are understandable, but the squad totaled 46 pre-snap penalties and 12 flags for unnecessary roughness. The first part is lack of focus, while the last part is lack of composure.
According to Terry Blount of ESPN, head coach Pete Carroll acknowledged that this was a problem in the Week 14 loss to the 49ers:
The penalties were a big factor in the game. We got backed up three different times. I'm not saying it was the story of the game. I don’t think it was. We need to stay out of those situations. It shows how the littlest things can determine the outcome of a game like that one.
Seattle might have the most complete roster in the NFL. However, poor mistakes at this point of the year could be enough to cost the team a championship.
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