NFL Playoffs: Your team-by-team guide as the 12 remaining teams battle to reach Super Bowl LI

32 teams began the season. 12 remain. There can only be one Super Bowl champion in Houston next month

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The Independent Online

As the calendar ticks into January and the temperatures plunge below freezing, the NFL season hots up.

20 teams that began their campaign with hopes of a Super Bowl win are already licking their wounds and planning for next year, but for the 12 remaining there is still a chance that they could get their hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

Saturday sees the first round of the playoffs, Wildcard Weekend, and boasts some unfamiliar faces. 

Four teams have their feet up on the sofa, awaiting a battered and bruised opponents. 

Six teams will look at their schedules on Monday and realise they don't have another game until September.

It's going to be intense, it's going to be action-packed. It's going to be the NFL playoffs.

AFC Playoffs

The New England Patriots

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Brady helped clinch home advantage throughout the playoffs for the Patriots (Getty)

The best team in football this season, the Pats sealed a first-round bye in the playoffs after finishing with a 14-2 record. 

Even when deprived of Tom Brady, the victim of a contentious suspension over Deflategate, the genius of Bill Belichick shone through and the Patriots continued to win games. 

If you are looking for a reason that they might not win the Super Bowl - and there aren't many of those - then you could point to the absence of tight end (and the NFL's biggest mismatch) Rob Gronkowski as something which deprives their offense of its biggest receiving weapon.

The Kansas City Chiefs

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Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs hurdles over Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons (Getty)

A boring, methodical team has been spiced up over the last two seasons by the introduction of dynamic playmakers.

Marcus Peters could be the best cornerback in the NFL, shutting down elite wide receivers and often taking it back the other way, while Eric Berry's return from illness has provided security and defensive scoring over the middle. Chris Jones has been a monster on the defensive line and Tyreek Hill might be one of the most exciting players in the league when the ball is in his hands. 

Quarterback Alex Smith will never stand out but another quietly effective season saw 12 wins and a first-round bye. Don't do him down.

The Oakland Raiders 

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Derek Carr's injury has robbed Oakland of their Super Bowl dream

The Raiders have been the surprise package of the season, finishing with a stunning 12-4 record after so many years in the abyss. 

But all of those dominant displays, led by young buck Derek Carr, mean nothing after the promising quarterback broke his leg down the stretch. 

For a team who relied on their potent offense it was a hammer blow and one that it feels impossible for them to come back from. When you add in backup QB Matt McGloin getting concussed last week, it seems even harder.

Rookie signal-caller Connor Cook will instead become the first quarterback of the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in a playoff game after replacing the injured McGloin against Denver last week. 

There is promise on the defensive side of the ball where another rookie, first-round pick Karl Joseph, returns. Khalil Mack could ascend to stardom should he win this game for them, coming off the edge and sacking Houston QB Brock Osweiler. 

But it feels like a broken leg has ended their season. They'll be back though.

The Houston Texans

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The Texans season is running out of steam Getty)

Houston won the AFC South, the worst division in the NFL, to secure a playoff berth.

And with the raft of injuries under center up in Oakland, they now go into this game as favourites to beat the unfortunate Raiders. 

A strong defensive unit is missing superstar JJ Watt, whose season is over with a back injury, but they should be the decisive group in this match-up. 

Hapless quarterback Brock Osweiler, who regained his starting job only due to Tom Savage's concussion, is unlikely to win this game for Houston but he could lose it for them.

Whoever progresses from this wildcard clash remains unlikely to make an impact in the playoffs. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers

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Ben Roethlisberger seeks out receiver Antonio Brown (Getty Images)

Along with the Chiefs, the Steelers are the biggest threat to New England winning the AFC. 

With Le'Veon Bell, arguably the best running back in the league, and Antonio Brown, arguably the best receiver in the league, they can score bucketloads of points.

Their young, improving defensive unit has really shone since Sean Davis entered the lineup. 

The rookie safety could be their X factor on that side of the ball, which they will need if they end up heading to New England for the AFC Championship game. 

The Miami Dolphins

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The Dolphins have come from nowhere to sneak into the playoffs (Getty)

For the first half of the season, the Dolphins never appeared likely to make the playoffs under rookie head coach Adam Gase.

But the form of London-born running-back Jay Ajayi and some improved defensive play saw them sneak into the wildcard picture.

As in Houston and Oakland, injury to their first-choice quarterback means that they go into the playoffs with a backup and seemingly overmatched by their hosts, Pittsburgh.

But they beat the Steelers earlier in the season and have surprised many people already this year. Don't rule out another.

NFC Playoffs

The Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott helped the Dallas Cowboys to a first-round playoff bye in his rookie season (Getty)

Nobody predicted such a bounceback season in Dallas, recovering from 4-12 last year to post a 13-3 record.

Even fewer would have predicted it when quarterback Tony Romo went down in pre-season and his backup, Kellen Moore, broke his ankle. Fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott stepped up and they never looked back.

Helped by first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott, also in his rookie season, the two made hay behind the best offensive line in the league and dragged the Cowboys to the top of the NFC. 

Now the temperament of these young stars will be tested on the biggest stage.

The Atlanta Falcons

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The Falcons' improved defensive performances have helped support their high-powered passing game (Getty Images)

The Falcons began last season 5-0 before flaming out and missing the playoffs but this year there was no looking back as Matt Ryan lead the league's best offensive team to a first-round bye. 

After being let down by their defense in 2015, Dan Quinn drafted safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones to shore things up and, coupled with the development of last-year's first-round pick Vic Beasley, they've improved enough to not only save Quinn's job but become one of the most-feared teams in the NFL.

This high-powered offense could outscore almost anyone. Keep the turnovers to a minimum and Atlanta are candidates to win the NFC.

The Seattle Seahawks

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has led them to Super Bowl glory before (GETTY IMAGES)

The best team in football over the past four or five seasons, Seattle have been here and done it, so are respected by their rivals. 

Earl Thomas' season-ending injury has hit their chances severely as they are undoubtedly far weaker defending the pass when he isn't on the field.

But the coaching on that side of the ball is exceptional and if Russell Wilson hits top form then a Super Bowl appearance is always a possibility. They should dispose of the Lions on Saturday night.

The Detroit Lions

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The Detroit Lions could be about to get hit hard... and out of the playoffs (Getty)

It was only in 2008 that Detroit became the first (and still only) team to go 0-16 in an NFL season. 

That off-season they drafted Matthew Stafford first overall and, with an improving supporting cast, they have managed to make the playoffs this year for the second time in three seasons.

Stafford is a prototypical quarterback who has taken plenty of flak in his time but his performances this season have been outstanding and he's dragged his team to this point. They won't go much further though, meeting a tough match-up in the Seahawks and short on luck and talent. 

 

The Green Bay Packers

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Aaron Rodgers faces Eli Manning in the playoffs this weekend (Getty)

You can never rule out the team with the best quarterback in football, and the spellbinding form in which Aaron Rodgers ended the season only makes us more aware of that.

If Rodgers plays at his best, like he did in the week 17 destruction of Minnesota, then the Packers can do anything and best anyone.

If they have to rely on their patchy defense then things aren't going to go well for the Packers.

The New York Giants

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Odell Beckham Jr is a superstar and the Giants will need him to shine (Getty)

An underrated defense, freshly tooled in an expensive free agency splurge last spring, has helped disguise quarterback Eli Manning's flaws this season.

And where they haven't done it, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has stepped up to win them games with huge plays.

Beckham could well be the biggest star in the NFL these days and he's certainly its most marketable face.

If he wins them a playoff game with his blistering speed and route-running then all will be forgiven after he was snapped partying with Justin Bieber in Miami this week - days before the playoff showdown in Green Bay.

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