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Every playoff team has its strengths and weaknesses

If everything goes according to form, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will meet in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium. But don't bet on it.

Since 1975, when the best regular-season record determined home-field advantage, only nine of the last 35 Super Bowls have featured the top seed from each conference. Last year's game between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts marked the first time the No. 1 seed in the AFC and NFC met for the NFL title since the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII following the 1993 regular season.

So the road to Super Bowl XLV may go through New England and Atlanta, but don't be surprised if there's at least one detour along the way.

Here's a look at the NFL's playoff field:

>AMERICAN CONFERENCE

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

Reason for optimism: Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. Need we go on? The offense has been frighteningly efficient, leading the league in scoring and posting the fewest turnovers ever in a 16-game season (10). Defensively, the Patriots lead the NFL with 25 interceptions, which contributed to an NFL-best plus-28 turnover margin.

Reason for concern: Teams that have either beaten or given the Patriots trouble were able to run the ball and pressure Brady. Their young secondary, despite the interceptions, is vulnerable.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

Optimism: The Steelers finished second in the NFL in yards allowed, allowed the fewest points per game and had one of the best run defenses in history. QB Ben Roethlisberger has a track record of clutch postseason play.

Concern: The Steelers' offensive line doesn't protect Roethlisberger well. He's also playing on a bad foot. SS Troy Polamalu has a sore Achilles. Without him, the defense isn't as dynamic.

3. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

Optimism: QB Peyton Manning has struggled because of injuries at receiver, but any team with him has a chance. Falling behind against the Colts means dealing with pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Concern: The lack of a running game has put a heavy burden on Manning and a largely untested receiving corps. The run defense has improved but will be severely tested in the postseason.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Optimism: RBs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones spearhead the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack. QB Matt Cassel and WR Dwayne Bowe became a nice tandem.

Concern: Cassel is the only quarterback in the AFC field with no playoff experience. If the running game gets bottled up, can he carry the offense? The defense is fairly average besides OLB Tamba Hali (AFC-high 14.5 sacks).

5. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Optimism: A solid running game and a bruising defense has been the Ravens' trademark for years. QB Joe Flacco, who has won three playoff games in his previous two years, can throw it more effectively with better receivers.

Concern: LT Michael Oher's sprained knee could limit his effectiveness. FS Ed Reed and CB Josh Wilson also are banged up, not a good sign for a shaky secondary.

6. New York Jets (11-5):

Optimism: Run and stop the run. The Jets have relied on that formula all season, and it helped them make a surprising run to the AFC title game last year.

Concern: QB Mark Sanchez is a lot like the offense. He shows flashes at times, but is just erratic enough to make Jets fans nervous. Even with the presence of CB Darrelle Revis, the Jim Leonhard-less secondary is suspect.

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>NATIONAL CONFERENCE

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

Reason for optimism: QB Matt Ryan is 20-2 at home as a starter. They are one of the NFL's least-penalized teams, a sign of good coaching.

Reason for concern: If you stop RB Michael Turner, you short-circuit the offense. The defense is vulnerable when teams don't turn the ball over.

2. Chicago Bears (11-5)

Optimism: The defense is stout and stingy. Return ace Devin Hester is a big play waiting to happen. RB Matt Forte can take some of the load off QB Jay Cutler.

Concern: As good as the defense is, it can be exploited over the middle if the quarterback has time to throw. Cutler is still prone to throwing interceptions at inopportune times.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Optimism: QB Michael Vick transformed the Eagles' offense into one of the NFL's most explosive attacks. He's surrounded by game-breaking talent in WR DeSean Jackson and RB LeSean McCoy. The defense has been opportunistic behind CB Asante Samuel.

Concern: Coach Andy Reid has an old habit of abandoning the run. The defense has allowed less than 24 points just once since Week Seven. Given Vick's mobility, he gets sacked too much, an indictment of his offensive line.

4. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

0ptimism: Five of their seven wins came at Qwest Field, one of the NFL's most difficult environments for opponents. KR/PR Leon Washington creates points and field position.

Concern: The Seahawks can't run (31st) and they can't stop the run (21st). They are 27th in pass defense, allowing the second most 20-plus-yard completions (60) and the third most TDs (31). Their minus-9 turnover differential is the worst among playoff qualifiers.

5. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

Optimism: QB Drew Brees leads a high-powered passing attack. The defense isn't generating turnovers as it did last season, but has allowed the fewest TD passes in the league and is fourth in yards. The Saints are 6-2 on the road.

Concern: The Saints are 28th in rushing and abandoning the run has put Brees in turnover situations (his 22 interceptions are second-highest in the NFL). Key injured players (WR Marques Colston, S Malcolm Jenkins and TE Jimmy Graham) must come back on a short week.

6. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

Optimism: QB Aaron Rodgers can light up the scoreboard and an aggressive, turnover-inducing defense keeps points off it.

Concern: This is another team with no confidence in its running game. It is 3-5 on the road and can't close out games (six losses by a combined 20 points).

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com