-- Every NFL team is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No team excels in every area. So a good way to examine the forthcoming matchups in the postseason is to look at which units are strongest and weakest.
I've ranked various units for all 12 playoff teams below, using Football Outsiders' advanced stats combined with scouting reports and consultation with the FO staff. Rather than worry about defining different parts of the front seven for teams with different schemes, I ranked each team's front seven twice: against the pass and against the run. Some teams, such as New England and Pittsburgh, are mostly solid across the board. Atlanta, on the other hand, is clearly stronger on one side of the ball.
1. Green Bay Packers
2. New England Patriots
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. Seattle Seahawks
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Detroit Lions
7. Dallas Cowboys
8. Kansas City Chiefs
9. New York Giants
10. Miami Dolphins
11. Houston Texans
12. Oakland Raiders
I'm a strong believer in Matt Ryan as the MVP and was the only writer to vote for Ryan every single week in ESPN's MVP poll. But given their longer track records of success, it's fair to rank Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady ahead of Ryan as the quarterbacks you most want in this year's playoffs. Nobody escapes pressure and makes ridiculous throws the way Rodgers does when he's on his game, and no quarterback is as consistently excellent as Brady.
The quarterbacks we rank fourth and fifth also have Super Bowl rings, but whereas Russell Wilson has recovered from a midseason injury that robbed him of mobility, Ben Roethlisberger has been inconsistent throughout the season. Dak Prescott was third in Total QBR, ahead of Rodgers, but it's hard to rank Prescott in the top half of playoff quarterbacks, given how much he depends on the talent around him. The hardest decision to make was between Alex Smith and Eli Manning. Manning has long been more impressive than the king of checkdowns, but Manning struggled mightily in 2016, ranking 27th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks in QBR and 20th in Football Outsiders' passing DVOA. Smith, meanwhile, was 11th and 12th, respectively. Miami backup Matt Moore had an 81.7 Total QBR this year, but you can't get overexcited about a three-game sample.
Then there's a big drop between the first 10 teams and the last two. Rodgers is king of the Cheeseheads, but the Oakland-Houston wild-card game is like being forced to choose between Velveeta or Easy Cheese.
5. New England
6. Kansas City
10. Green Bay
11. New York
It's very hard to choose between Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott, but it's easy to choose DeAngelo Williams over Darren McFadden if your starting running back needs a breather or gets injured. Atlanta's tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is good on the ground and even better in the passing game, where they ranked fifth and sixth in receiving DYAR this season. No team mixes complementary backs quite as well as New England: Dion Lewis to make agile cuts, James White to run great routes and LeGarrette Blount as the goal-line and clock-killing hammer.
Lamar Miller in Houston and Thomas Rawls in Seattle saw their numbers suffer because of insufficient run blocking, but Miller still has track speed and Rawls excels at breaking tackles and pushing piles. Three of Oakland's top-five players in yards from scrimmage were running backs, but starter Latavius Murray was mediocre on a play-by-play basis. The running back committees in New York and Detroit aren't particularly bad, but none of the players stand out, especially with Lions receiving back Theo Riddick out for the season with a wrist injury.
Receivers and tight ends
4. New England
6. Kansas City
7. New York
10. Green Bay
This is by far the most difficult category to rank, because we have to compare teams with a well-rounded group of complementary receivers (New England and Detroit) to teams with one spectacular No. 1 target but question marks afterward (New York and Pittsburgh). We also have to try to determine just how much quarterbacks are responsible for regarding their receivers' excellent numbers, or vice versa.
We ended up with Atlanta at No. 1. Julio Jones is one of the top three or four receivers in the game and led all wide receivers this year in Football Outsiders' DYAR. Mohamed Sanu is a quality possession receiver (73 percent catch rate), Taylor Gabriel mixes in explosive plays and rookie Austin Hooper ranked second in per-play value among tight ends with at least 25 targets.
Depth is lacking in Oakland, but Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are the perfect complementary pairing of a deep threat and a possession receiver. Seattle has the always-underrated Doug Baldwin and the resurgent Jimmy Graham (second among tight ends in DYAR). Don't sleep on Paul Richardson making some big plays in the playoffs, either. New England has the deepest, most well-rounded receiving group, especially with the addition of Michael Floyd. Kansas City has the league's best healthy tight end ( Travis Kelce) and the electrifying Tyreek Hill; Jeremy Maclin was disappointing this year, but the Chiefs might be better than this ranking if Maclin gets healthy over the bye week.
Then come the one-hit wonders. Odell Beckham Jr. is amazing, of course, but Victor Cruz is not the star he once was and the tight end position in New York is lacking. Antonio Brown has the best argument as the best receiver in the game, but then there's a long fall to the second option, second-year undrafted free agent Eli Rogers. It's always difficult to know where to rank the Green Bay receivers, but the general opinion at Football Outsiders is that Rodgers makes his receivers instead of the other way around, with the exception of Jordy Nelson.
4. Kansas City
6. Green Bay
7. New England
10. New York
There's a clear differentiation here between the top three and the rest of the playoff teams. Oakland is ahead of Pittsburgh on pass protection, although the Raiders are not as strong at run blocking and earn a lot of penalties. Kansas City's line is a little above average all the way around, though Smith takes more sacks than you might expect, given the team's No. 8 ranking in pressure rate allowed. Atlanta has a strong run-blocking line, but it's not as good at pass blocking. New England stabilized its line after a ton of upheaval in 2015 and got a career year from right tackle Marcus Cannon. Miami has dealt with a lot of injuries. Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil are now back on the left side, but center Mike Pouncey is done for the season.
It's difficult to square scouting and stats when it comes to the Giants' offensive line. New York allowed pressure on only 20.7 percent of dropbacks, which ranked fourth in the NFL, but that could be a product of Manning getting rid of the ball quickly. The Giants built their line like the Panthers' line: strong in the center and weak at tackle, especially where Ereck Flowers gets beaten by top pass-rushers easily. That structure didn't work out well for Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
Detroit ranked 31st in adjusted line yards and 29th in getting running backs stuffed at the line. Seattle allowed pass pressure on 36.8 percent of dropbacks, dead last in the NFL.
Front seven vs. pass
1. New York
5. Green Bay
6. Kansas City
10. New England
An interesting trend in 2016 was teams that had a significant difference between their rankings in pass pressure rate (according to ESPN Stats & Info charting) and adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent). The Giants ranked fourth in pressure rate, but 23rd in ASR. Miami ranked seventh in pressure rate, but 31st in ASR. The Seahawks' ranks were closer: sixth in pressure rate and 10th in ASR. They also have the best cover linebackers in the playoffs, particularly in
Green Bay was sixth in adjusted sack rate, and the Packers and Seahawks are the only teams in the top 10 to make the playoffs. The late-season return of Mario Edwards from injured reserve will help Oakland get pressure across from the great Khalil Mack. Kansas City's pass rush is also much improved since Justin Houston's return from offseason knee surgery, though the Chiefs will miss Derrick Johnson in pass coverage. Atlanta's Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks, but he's mostly a one-man pass rush.
No. 1 seeds New England and Dallas both improved their pass rush in the second half of the year. The Patriots ranked 21st in pressure rate through Week 9, but are 14th since Week 10. The Cowboys were 31st in pressure rate through Week 12, but rank 15th in the past five weeks.
Front seven vs. run
2. Green Bay
3. New England
5. New York
11. Kansas City
Seattle's DVOA ranked it among the 12 best against the run ever in Football Outsiders numbers, dating back to 1989. Green Bay was also stellar against the run, but with a weakness: The Packers allowed conversions on 72 percent of short-yardage runs, 30th in the NFL. New England and Dallas were both much better against the run than the pass, and not just because lots of leads led to opponents giving up on the run late. The Patriots were fourth in run defense DVOA, and the Cowboys were eighth.
The bottom five teams here all ranked 18th or lower in both adjusted line yards and run defense DVOA. Detroit was particularly poor at forcing losses on running plays, and Kansas City and Atlanta were more weak overall, giving up successful gains on a regular basis.
1. Kansas City
2. New York
4. New England
10. Green Bay
Kansas City and New York both shined in the secondary this season, at cornerback and at safety with Eric Berry and Landon Collins, respectively. But we ranked Kansas City over New York because the Chiefs got less help from the pass rush until Justin Houston's return. Both teams were strong at tackling in the secondary to prevent long running plays.
There isn't much talk about Houston's secondary, but it was very good and very balanced: Only Denver was better covering No. 2 receivers, and only Philadelphia was better covering tight ends. It's difficult to know how far to drop Seattle because of the injury to Earl Thomas. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are still healthy and playing well, but the Seahawks' pass defense on the whole has crumbled since Thomas' injury. They're 30th out of 32 teams in pass defense DVOA since Week 12.
Oakland's secondary has been a disappointment. Our charting ranks Sean Smith 46th out of 84 cornerbacks in coverage success rate, and David Amerson is 56th. The Packers' secondary is riddled with injuries, though Damarious Randall has been the best cornerback this year, and he's healthy now. At the bottom, we moved Detroit ahead of Atlanta because the Lions' best corner, Darius Slay, is back from injury, whereas Atlanta's top corner, Desmond Trufant, is out for the season.
1. Kansas City
2. New England
9. New York
11. Green Bay
For the most part, these rankings are based on Football Outsiders' special teams ratings from 2016. Tyreek Hill in Kansas City is the postseason's most dangerous weapon on special teams. The Patriots gain a significant field-position advantage with kickoffs and punts, and we moved them up a bit because they are unlikely to put Cyrus Jones back on the field to muff some more punt returns.
Stephen Gostkowski has gotten over his early-season yips, hitting 16 of 17 field goal attempts and 22 of 23 extra point attempts since the Patriots' Week 9 bye. Detroit's Sam Martin was one of the league's top punters. Atlanta and Pittsburgh don't stand out in most areas of special teams, but they got good placekicking results from Matt Bryant and Chris Boswell, respectively. Seattle moves down because of the injury to return man Tyler Lockett. Houston has finished dead last in special teams DVOA for two straight seasons.
We added up all our ratings to get an idea of who might have the best talent heading into the postseason. We gave each team 12 points for being ranked first, 11 points for being ranked second and so forth, down to 1 point for being ranked last. We also gave double value to the quarterback position.
Of course, this total doesn't account for gradations in the rankings -- honestly, the Houston and Oakland quarterback situations should probably be worth negative points -- and it doesn't account for home-field advantage or coaching. But it is a good guide to the most dangerous teams in this year's playoffs.